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.
Gail Simmons—special projects director for Food & Wine magazine, Top Chef Judge, and host of spinoff Top Chef Just Desserts (more on that in a minute)—will be in town this weekend for the Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show at the Convention Center. While there, she’ll do a cooking demonstration with fellow TC judge Tom Colicchio and host a reception and signing of her book, Talking With My Mouth Full.
We recently chatted with Simmons about the upcoming Seattle show, the future of Just Desserts, and how she feels about scoop-hungry bloggers.
Tell us about what you’re doing at Metro Cooking this weekend.
Tom and I do a lot of cooking demonstrations together, so we have a little pattern that we like to follow. What we do is we like to take a few specific ingredients, and he does a very cheffy restaurant version of a savory dish, and I take the same ingredients and do a dessert version that’s a totally different dish—more approachable for the home cook. At this demonstration, we’re going to use pistachios and basil.
Will you demonstrate a cocktail? There was that very funny clip on Life After Top Chef when you were demo-ing a drink and the shaker lid flew off.
Of course that was the clip they chose! I will be doing a cocktail, as well, using basil but not pistachios.
Do you have any go-to restaurants in Washington? Any new spots you’ll be hitting?
There’s a lot of restaurants I’m excited about in Washington. I don’t think I’ll be able to get to them this trip. I’m really excited for Johnny Monis and his new Thai restaurant, Little Serow. I’ve heard great things about Toki Underground.
Having spent quite a bit of time there, I still have never been to Spike Mendelsohn’s pizzeria—it was just being built when I was out there [shooting the Washington season of Top Chef]. I’ve never been to Volt, so I hope to get there one day. I hear Ris is really excellent. Birch & Barley. Mike Isabella is doing a great job at Graffiato; I’m so proud of him.
You seem to be close with a lot of the former contestants. Is it hard to stay neutral while you’re shooting the show?
I don’t get attached to them during the season mostly because we have almost no contact with them compared with how it may appear and how much contact they have with each other. We eat a lot of their food, we get to know a little bit about them at judges’ table, but that’s in front of cameras.
All that stuff that you see when the show is put together—the interviews, the reality that’s happening in their house, the cooking—we’re not there for any of that. We see it at the exact same time you do as a viewer. Only then do we say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that person did that,” or, “I had no idea that person had a child.” The show is designed that way purposely, so we are only judging on the food. You as a viewer can’t taste the food, so all you have to judge by are the relationships and the personalities, but we are the opposite.
That said, once we’re finished shooting the show, we often get to spend much more time with [contestants] at the reunion episode and doing press and promo and events. So I have come to know many of the contestants afterward, and yes, I am quite attached to some of the former contestants. They’ve become good friends, and I’m really proud of them and their successes.
Ten seasons and two spinoffs later, we’ve spawned dozens of successful restaurants around the country and given these chefs opportunities otherwise they wouldn’t have had. I can say with confidence that Top Chef has made a real contribution to the culinary world, not just people on their couches watching TV but to the way we’re all eating—going out to their restaurants and tasting their food.
That’s certainly true here in Washington.
The four of them [former TC contestants Spike Mendelsohn, Mike Isabella, Carla Hall, and Bryan Voltaggio] have done incredibly different things with their success from the show, and interestingly all four of them weren’t winners. I would argue that often it’s the runners up who do the best, and those are four perfect examples, maybe because there’s a little less scrutiny. Spike wasn’t even a finalist. Mike was a finalist, Carla and Bryan were finalists, but none of them won. One is doing pizza and burgers, one is doing modern rustic Italian, one has a massive daytime talk show and a very successful catering business, and one is doing fine dining at a very high level. They’re also four of my favorite contestants. I have a really great personal friendship with all four.
You shot the upcoming Top Chef season in Seattle, and there was a lot of early press. Has it become more difficult to keep the show’s secrets?
Every season it gets more intense. Certainly the press and bloggers have taken a much bigger role, mostly because when we first started shooting there was no such thing as bloggers, or they were in their infancy anyway. We need to take a lot more care with our locations, with protection of the chefs.
What I can’t understand is—I guess I understand why lots of press are trying to get our secrets so they can break [the story] and expose them, but the truth is we shoot the show so many months out that it doesn’t really do any good. Even if they did find out who was on it, I don’t know really how that benefits them because ten months later or six months later, who is really remembering? Our goal is to make the best show we can make, so I’m always amazed people want to ruin that for the audience that really watches us to be surprised and to enjoy it.
Is it difficult for you to remain incognito?
It’s hard to be totally anonymous because we need to eat our dinner at the end of the day. We’re in a strange city for many weeks at a time, so obviously we’re going to hang out together: Tom and I are going to have dinner, and Padma [Lakshmi] and I are going to go shopping or out for a run along the waterfront in Seattle, and we can’t be invisible. We can’t be locked in a hotel room 24 hours a day—although the contestants can.
Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s really positive when people approach us, and that’s the biggest reward. That’s the reason we do it in the first place.
We’re four episodes in, and still precious little is taking place on the Ambien-esque Life After Top Chef, in which the plot wanders aimlessly like a lost sheep on a winding road in rural Virginia.
If you’re wondering who set that sheep loose, it might well have been Jen Carroll. She spends her segment with Spike Mendelsohn at Border Springs Farm, where she reveals a serious lack of sheep-sorting skills. Yes, we actually watched Jennifer Carroll count sheep. Oh, but it wasn’t all that bad—at least Fabio’s life coach didn’t show up. Grab a shot of espresso and let’s get to it.
“In my head I’m like, ‘Wow, I really suck.’”
Richard is invited by Food & Wine magazine to cook at the Best New Chefs event. Quite an honor, and one most people might enjoy. This being Richard, however, he spends the whole time fretting that his dish—braised oxtail and bone marrow, looks like a bone luge—isn’t good enough. We’ve always been big Richie Blais fans, but the stressed-out, self-effacing business is wearing a little thin. “It’s the worst feeling in the world, you know: not thinking you’re going to make it,” he says of his pre-event anxiety. “It’s every day of my life, and I need to change that.” Hopefully he’ll change it by the next episode, because enough already.
In New York, Richie meets up with Fabio—there for a Good Morning America segment—who accompanies him to the sharp-object wonderland that is the Korin knife shop. Why are they there, you’re probably (not) wondering? Because Richie plans to present a blade to his wife on their sixth anniversary. Yes, that wife. Jazmin. The same one who confessed an urge to stab him every time she wrapped her fingers around a butter knife. For their sixth wedding anniversary, he is going to offer her the sharpest knife money can buy. Is anyone else, like, really worried about this guy?
Next up, Richie and Fabio head to Dale Talde’s Talde in Brooklyn, where they are joined by Carla Hall and Angelo Sosa. And surprise, surprise, the success of Richard’s cohorts makes him feel bad about himself. When Hall tells him how good his Food & Wine dish is, does he say thank you and take her at her word? He does not. Why? Because Richard Blais is the worst-ever person to win Top Chef All-Stars and be invited to cook at Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs and open a hotly anticipated fine-dining restaurant and have a beautiful wife and kids and generally be regarded as a massive culinary talent. The worst.
“When Good Morning America asks you to be on the show, you have to say yes.”
Fabio demos a chicken dish at Good Morning America, and we learn a little bit more about the impoverished past that drives him to say yes to television appearances even when he’s sleepy and occasionally gorge on Animal-Style fries in the darkest part of the In-N-Out parking lot while rain drops patter poetically on his dashboard. Fortunately, though, this episode does offer some relief from Oliver Twist Fabio. Instead we see him making fun of Blais, using his signature a-idiomatic expressions like “Sloppy Suzie,” and just generally having a good time. More of this Fabio please, Bravo.
“I just always leave you wanting more.”
What else? Jen Carroll and Spike road-trip it out to Border Springs Farm, where they spend the day doing sheep stuff, wrestling turkeys, and performing other farm tasks in a slapsticky manner. Later, a bunch of local farmers come by for a potluck dinner. Throughout the segment—in which sexual innuendo abounds—we’re supposed to wonder whether there is any romance between the two friends. “Not going to happen,” says Jen. That doesn’t prevent her from engaging in some flirtatious repartee with Spike, particularly after she begins to get “well lubed” (Spike’s words) on wine and hard lemonade* at the potluck. When Spike complains that the stew Jen serves him only contains one clam, she retorts, “I just always leave you wanting more.” Later they return to their roadside motel, where—sorry, guys—nothing happens.
“It’s all about the initial sear.”
On the farm, Spike is asked to give everyone a little burger-flipping lesson, leading him to ponder his culinary status as a greasy patty guru. After all those years of hard work, how did he get here—barbecue smoke billowing in his eyes, hands flecked with dark bits of burning grease? Ah, but all this will change, Spike predicts, with the opening of his “steak frites spot” (when he says it, “frites” rhymes with “knits”), Bearnaise. Everything, dear viewers, will be different. Cut to lonesome sheep zigzagging down the road as the sun sets over the Virginia hills . . . and scene**.
*If Jen were an alcoholic beverage, she’d totally be hard lemonade.
**Some of the stuff described in this paragraph didn’t actually happen on the show.
It’s all about family in episode three of Life After Top Chef. Fabio gets a visit from his mom; Richard celebrates his wife’s birthday—attempting to win her over with a backpack and a visit to the shooting range; Jen heads to the track with her dad; and Spike travels to Montreal with his kind-of girlfriend Julia and the rest of the fam for a wedding and a little steak-frites research. Oh, but there’s so much more. Let’s get to it.
“At every turn, I have to make sure I’m still qualified to be her husband.”
Yikes, Richie. This show is preoccupied with Fabio’s dangerous stress levels, but the code red situation is really in the house of Blais. It’s Jazmin’s birthday, and Richie has bought her some kind of purse/backpack thing in honor of the occasion. Does she like it? Does she not? Blais explains how astute he’s become at examining the nonverbal queues. After nail-biting through the gift offering, we head out with the Blaises to shoot some (gulp) guns, and although artillery isn’t his thing, Richie must prove his manhood by firing away. Meanwhile, the sight of his wife packing heat causes our hero even more consternation, since “every time she picks up a butter knife in our house she tells me she’s worried she’s going to stab me.” Frankly, we’re a little worried, too. Hope she likes that backpack.