We always had hope for local cheftestant George Pagonis on Top Chef season 12. The toque already does more than an elimination challenge’s worth of work on a daily basis, heading up three of Mike Isabella’s current and upcoming Greek restaurants: the highly rated Kapnos, Kapnos Taverna opening next week, and the upcoming Kapnos Kouzina in Bethesda. Still, after getting kicked off the first episode, fighting his way back on the show, and landing among the final four, the battle seems to be over. Pagonis was told to pack his knives and go last night, leaving Mei Lin, Melissa King, and Gregory Gourdet to head off to the finale in Mexico.
The final contest in Boston required the chefs to create a dish that was innovative and pushed boundaries, whether in technique, flavor, or a personal challenge. Pagonis’s first disappointment came at Whole Foods, when the butcher counter lacked pork belly to spice up a surf ’n’ turf with octopus. The chef was left with a plain old cephalopod—he’s Greek, after all—but attempted to push the envelope with a plate that combined grilled octopus legs, a crispy croquette made out of the ground head, green apple harissa, lentils, pickled mustard seeds, and a bacon chip.
Sound like one component too many? The judges thought so, as well.
Fellow contender King, who already secured her place in the finale by winning the elimination challenge two episodes prior, won yet again for her seared duck breast over a rich walnut-miso sauce and scored a $10,000 prize in addition to her pre-determined seat. Lin came in a close second with another duck dish, this time with curry and aerated yuzu yoghurt. Gourdet was on the chopping block along with Pagonis for a salmon with Thai tom kha broth and crispy chicken skin. Ultimately Pagonis was sent packing for his unharmonious plate and a too-hard char on the octo that head judge Tom Colicchio found bitter.
So there we have it. Or do we? Colicchio reminds us that Pagonis could come back yet again on Last Chance Kitchen, the side-cooking competition that allowed him back on the show in the first place. Perhaps we’ll see him in Mexico.
Local cheftestant George Pagonis remains in the Top Chef game after a tough battle last night, and has reached an impressive point in the series: the final four.
While there’s no telling who’ll take the winning title, the Kapnos toque definitely earns the status of “most improved player." Pagonis was the first to pack his knives and go on the inaugural episode over some unfortunate clam shucking. He then returned in a Top Chef-ian twist where ousted competitors are given the chance to cook their way back onto the show. Last night’s challenge was a tribute to Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, for which Pagnois prepared a decent-but-not-winning braised veal. More triumphant: slipping in a “that’s what she said” at the judges table to Padma’s declaration of loving "a hint of hot dog.”
The next new episode on Wednesday, January 21 will be a big one for Pagonis, as it determines who’ll go on to the finals. The Elimination Challenge involves family members joining the remaining cheftestants as sous chefs. Given the Pagonis’s culinary background—his brother Nicholas is a general manager/partner at Kapnos, and his family owns a diner in Alexandria—we have our fingers crossed.
We had a feeling that talented Kapnos chef George Pagonis didn’t see the last of Top Chef season 12 when he was harshly eliminated in the first episode. Pagonis cooked his way back into the competition last night, thanks to a favorite Top Chef-ian twist: the episode where cheftestants who were previously told to pack their knives and go are brought back to the game.
Pagonis was able to beat out the cut competitors with a roasted rabbit dish. Tune in next Wednesday to see the DC toque back in action, and check out our Q&A with Pagonis for this thoughts on the season.
See also: Photos—3 Days With Mike Isabella
It’s telling that George Pagonis, Washington’s only Top Chef season 12 competitor, was dubious about group competitions. In an interview with us before the Boston premier Wednesday evening, Pagonis said that he was, “nervous about the group competitions where you get placed with certain people and maybe you don’t get along with that person, and it could lead to something bad.”
Unfortunately the Kapnos toque wasn’t in the game long enough to make enemies, but a similar situation to what he described lead to Padma sending him packing.
The first Quickfire Challenge tested the cheftestants knife skills on tricky seafoods like shucking oysters and deboning mackerel. Pagonis wanted the latter protein, but when teammate Gregory Gourdet insisted on the oily fish, he was stuck with clams. Things went downhill from there. His team struggled with each protein, and Pagonis proved the slowest of the slow team. It was surprising, given cheftestant Katsuji Tanabe’s comparative—and loud—struggle, as he stabbed at the bivalves (he went on to have one of the worst dishes in the main challenge, involving “petroleum” squid ink sauce, cheese, and couscous, among many other ingredients).
Pagonis was offered a chance for redemption in a one-on-one competition, where the Mike Isabella protégé could earn the chance to stay on the show if he out-cooked a cheftestant of his choice. Choosing Gourdet, the mackerel thief, Pagonis lost again when Gourdet’s seafood trio outshone his pan-seared fish with fennel salad. The victor then went on to have one of the best dishes on the final Judge’s Table, a funky Haitian chicken that won comparisons to the “Fast and Furious.”
"It’s over before it even started. I blew it," said Pagonis while exiting the show.
So there we go—unless Pagonis returns in one of those surprise competitions where cheftestants past live to cook again. (Fingers crossed; we know those tend to happen.) Locavores can still root for the promising Joy Crump, chef/owner of Fredericksburg’s Foode. Tune in next Wednesday at 10.
If you haven't spent time at Kapnos, you may not know chef George Pagonis—but the nation is about to meet the man behind Mike Isabella when Top Chef season 12 debuts on Wednesday next week.
While Isabella's empire expands and his television appearances become more frequent, Pagonis has been the guy cooking in the trenches. The Greek-American chef worked his way up with Isabella as a line cook at Zaytinya, then as a chef de cuisine at Graffiato, and now he's Kapnos's lead toque and a partner in the business. The upcoming Boston-set season will be his first solo media debut, though he admits not loving the camera as much as the kitchen.
We caught up with Washington's one and only cheftestant this season to talk Top Chef training, his fellow contenders, and what to expect in the upcoming season. Tune in to Bravo next Wednesday at 10 to catch his debut.
What made you apply for Top Chef?
Top Chef seeks out the former contestants on the show to ask if they have any suggestions, and my name got thrown in the mix. We had to go through the whole interview process, so it was up to me to get on the show. The hardest part was making a video of myself. No one really likes that, and you kind of feel uncomfortable doing it.
How did you train in the weeks prior to filming?
My main focus preparing for the show was to brush up on my cooking abilities. I have a Greek restaurant and surround myself with Greek products, so I went to my friends' restaurants, like Scott Drewno's [The Source], and staged. Also Aureole in New York where I used to be sous chef, to get French cooking back in my system.
What's the best piece of advice you received about the competition?
Mike said something really important, which was, "Just do your thing. Do what got you as far as you are now. You know how to cook; just believe in yourself and be you. You have to have confidence in yourself."
Which recurring Top Chef challenges were you most looking forward to? Excited about?
I was nervous about the group competitions where you get placed with certain people and maybe you don't get along with that person, and it could lead to something bad. I was really looking forward to meeting the cool judges they bring in, the big chefs and celebrities.
How is it coming into the spotlight after Mike has been Mr. Top Chef for so long?
It's starting to feel a little surreal. We had to keep it a secret for a while, and it hasn't really sunk in yet. I've also been around the spotlight for a while with Mike. I'm always the guy who's behind him and making sure the restaurants are running well. Now I'm making a name for myself.
What are your thoughts on the fame and media exposure Top Chef can bring?
Being with Mike, I know it's an opportunity you can't pass up. I would probably regret that for the rest of my life. I saw what it does for people like Mike and Spike [Mendelsohn] and Bryan [Voltaggio]. It brings great attention to you and your restaurant, and you can't pass that up.
What were you most nervous about going into the competition? Most excited?
My biggest fear, hands down, was the camera, the lights, and all the people watching you. I've been on live news and it was a lot for me, and that's a small local network. I was most excited about going on the show and cooking and showing who I am and what kind of food I can do, what I'm all about.
A lot of chefs compete hoping to start their own restaurant. Is that a goal for you?
No, actually. I'm invested in this restaurant, my brother [Nicholas Pagonis] is a general manager, and we're both partners with Mike Isabella. We're doing it to build the brand of Kapnos. There are expansions going on, and he has the right people lined up in the right places. I'm going to be focusing on the Kapnos line, where other people will be focusing on Graffiato.
What should fans be most excited about this season?
This season has a lot of great talent—not that others don't. There are a lot of chefs de cuisine, executive chefs, people who run their own restaurants, people with phenomenal experience. As Top Chef progresses, you find higher-caliber cooks applying to the show. In seasons past you'd get people fresh out of culinary school and line cooks, but this group makes it super intense and challenging.
Did Top Chef spark your interest in doing more television?
I'm not opposed to it. I had a pretty good time on the show. I don't mind doing certain things, but I still want to maintain focus on my restaurants. I don't want to get caught up in the whole TV spotlight and forget what got me here in the first place.
So all in all, would you rather be in the kitchen or in front of the camera?
Kitchen, any day of the week.
Mike Isabella's right-hand man is following in his footsteps. George Pagonis, Kapnos's executive chef and a partner in the Greek eatery, will compete on Top Chef season 12. The Boston-based season's episodes begin airing October 15.
Pagonis previously served as chef de cuisine at Graffiato, and will open Kapnos Taverna in Ballston this fall (here's his full bio). Though he's the only Washington cheftestant this season, Joy Crump of Foode in nearby Fredericksburg is also packing her knives for Beantown.
Don't want to wait until autumn for your Top Chef fix? Tonight you can catch the spinoff, Top Chef Duels, in which Isabella will fight it out with former rival Antonia Lofaso in an Italian-style battle. If you're a Top Chef superfan, head to Kapnos for a viewing party starting at 9 (the show airs at 10). Happy hour runs in the restaurant's bar and at G, and Isabella will be there to cheer on his television alter ego.
To borrow a quaint expression from one super-stressed-out sous chef seen cantering through the Top Chef Masters kitchen: “Holy mackerel!”
Season five of Masters, which debuted Wednesday on Bravo, was a cornucopia of twists and reveals—smart move for a show that has historically struggled in the who-cares department. This time around, producers have packed the program with built-in drama by incorporating chefs’ employees into the games. Each master was told to bring along a sous chef, presumably to assist him or her during the culinary challenges. What the Masters weren’t told: Basically the entire outcome of the show rests on the hunched shoulders of their overworked underlings. For instance, when a sous chef wins a Quickfire, his boss gets immunity in the elimination challenge. And when sous chefs perform poorly, their employers pay the price with various “obstacles” during the challenges.
As this information sinks in throughout the season premiere, the Masters make a LOT of jokes about how they are totally going to fire their sous chefs if they mess up. Cut to a huddle of saucer-eyed, tattooed toque assistants pretending to laugh. “Hahaha, not like I need my job or anything! Thanks, Bravo!”
Let’s explore episode one.
If you learn one new word on episode six of LATC, it should be this one: millwork. Spike and the fam drop that bit of restaurant-opening jargon approximately 700 times during this landmark hour of reality television, which centers—in part—on the opening of Good Stuff Eatery’s second location in Crystal City.
We also watch a mock service at the Spence—Richard Blais pacing to and fro, steam issuing from his adorable leprechaun ears as his line cooks bumble about applying salt to oysters and assembling salads so lifeless he can barely contain his sobs. Meanwhile in LA, Fabio contemplates “strangulating” one of his staffers, and Jen shows up to flirt with Jacopo and do some day drinking. It’s all about high-stress circumstances this week, so borrow an opiate from the nearest Bravo producer and let’s get to it.
“Wherever you hear a lot of roosters crowing, dawn never comes.”
Spike and his partner Brad head to the about-to-open Crystal City Good Stuff only to discover that the delivery truck has dropped off but a small fraction of the wood needed for the restaurant. And uh-oh, everybody: Here comes Mrs. Mendelsohn—her barely contained fury blazing as brightly as her crimson hair—spewing venom about the lumber provider. He is apparently a Dutch lawyer with many PhDs, but advanced degrees notwithstanding, the timber tradesman is not all he is cracked up to be.
It all leads to the matriarch’s millwork meltdown, but fear not, oh ye eight people reading this right now, for if one thing that can cool the flames of Mama M.’s raw-material-related ire, it’s box seats at a Caps game. There, she has the chance to watch proudly as her celebrity chef son and her husband wave to the masses while riding an ice-resurfacing apparatus about the rink. An thus is order restored in Mendelsohn land.
Top Chef: Seattle, the tenth season of the extremely popular Bravo show, debuted last night, and it was a tough one for the hopeful cheftestants. In order to win an official competitor’s coat, the potential Bravo stars had to prove themselves by performing fundamental kitchen tasks for the judges: Work the line with Tom Colicchio, prepare a salad for greens-loving Hugh Acheson, make soup that pleased Emeril Lagasse’s palate, and whip up a perfect—colorless, soft-in-the-middle—omelet for Wolfgang Puck.
Two of the Washington competitors have moved on to the next round. Onetime Blackbyrd/the Brixton chef Jeffrey Jew earned an early pick from Emeril for his chilled watermelon gazpacho, while Belga Café chef-owner Bart Vandaele received a close pass for his lobster salad. Unfortunately, one of the first chefs to depart was Dan O’Brien of Seasonal Pantry, who was eliminated from the omelet challenge for what Puck ultimately deemed poor plating. We caught up with O’Brien to talk about cooking for Puck, what’s next, and how it feels to be among the first to pack your knives and go.
Pop quiz: What ordinarily delicious food is the worst thing ever after a night of drinking? Raw oysters, you say? That is correct.
Nevertheless, this week found Jen and Spike—so strung out on moonshine that Spike has to pull his car over on the side of the highway so Jen can regain her sea legs—climbing aboard an oyster boat to shuck and suck down jiggly bivalves from the Rappahannock oyster beds along with frequent LATC guest stars Travis Croxton and Craig Rogers. Let’s get this out of the way: Jen does not throw up over the side of the vessel—but it looked pretty touch and go there for a minute. Vomit scares aside, this episode is really all about relationships: the one between Spike and his family, Jen and hers, Richard Blais and his bottom line-minded investors, and Fabio and his (imaginary?) friend Jacopo. We’ll be getting into all of it, so pour yourself a tall glass of unaged whiskey—it’s going to be a bumpy boat ride.
“Are you just copying Thomas Keller?”
Spike and sister Micheline—who makes the above ball-busting comment while Spike is creating a Cochon-style salad—are hard at work turning the defunct, stucco-walled Thai Roma restaurant into steak-frites (remember “frites” sounds like “knits”) restaurant, Bearnaise. It’s their first restaurant without their parents, and for the Mendelsohn offspring, Bearnaise is like one of those forts kids build out of couch cushions and afghans, with a sign taped to one pillow that reads: “No adults allowed!” Only Mama Mendelsohn keeps ignoring that sign and crawling on in. The kids want to keep the bar at Thai Roma; she says it must go. Spike’s vinaigrette is too acidic. And so on and so on.
It all works out in the end, though: Spike and his partner Brad cook up a preview of the Bearnaise menu, and the family responds in a remarkably positive manner, for once forgoing the opportunity to take their famously arrogant son down a notch or two. He may not be able to pronounce the word “frites” properly, but if the family is to be believed, Spike can make a steak dinner like nobody’s business. We look forward to testing that out ourselves.