THE BAY AREA always has had affectionate ties to Bravo TV's top-rated foodie show, "Top Chef." The first season was shot in San Francisco. Some of the Bay Area's most famous names, including Hubert Keller and Cindy Pawlcyn, have done guest judge gigs, and eight of the show's most memorable "cheftestants" hail from here.
Among them, Jamie Lauren, a favorite to win this season until she was felled by the infamous braised celery incident.
Absinthe Brasserie & Bar's executive chef may not have swept top toque honors on the reality show, but she won legions of fans during season five of the Emmy and James Beard award winning show. Now, she's back in the Bay Area and ready to dish on a show she never planned to include on her resume.
But when the "Top Chef" casting call opportunity came, who could resist the chance to showcase her talents on a national stage?
"The magic elves actually contacted me," she says, "when they were doing casting here a year ago."
Bravo's producers weren't just looking for culinary skills. They wanted personalities, she said, who would make good television. Lauren's audition materials included video footage of cooking and hang time with friends, head shots and interviews. Not, she marvels, any actual Quick Fires, the show's rapid paced challenges that bestow equal parts panic and immunity, at least in the early weeks.
Lauren, with her colorful tattoos, broad grin and assured, almost cocky air of confidence, was a natural.
"I liked all of it, actually," she says. "The worst part was living with all of these people. That was really hard. I live alone and to go back to the college dormitory thing, cameras in your face — aside from that, it was fun. Totally stressful and nerve-racking, but I'm lucky I had the opportunity."
New York-born Lauren was trained in classic French technique, but the flavors she favors at Absinthe — and on "Top Chef" — showcase new American cuisine and local, seasonal ingredients. The "Top Chef" judges loved her clean flavor combinations — a baby BLT amuse bouche, for example, that combined heirloom tomatoes, quail eggs, basil and smoked bacon drizzled with balsamic syrup — and her dry wit and cool demeanor under pressure.
Faced with the show's usual trademark twists, Lauren simply rolled up the sleeves of her white chef's jacket and got to work. Ten minutes into a Quick Fire Challenge that involved infusing a little personal style into a "Top Chef: The Cookbook" recipe, for example, host Padma Lakshmi told the harried cheftestants that the judges had changed their minds. Take that recipe, she said, and make it soup.
Lauren responded with a puréed chickpea soup topped with cilantro yogurt and pickled chilies, and flavored with her secret ingredient, the trendy, curry-inspired vadouvan she'd brought from the Bay Area.
And so it went, for six weeks of filming. Cameras followed Lauren and her fellow chefs as they cooked for such varied judges as the Foo Fighters, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Eric Ripert. They butchered, filleted and julienned. They duked it out on the line at Craft Restaurant, dissected recipes at Le Bernardin, and made something old, new, borrowed and blue for Food & Wine editor and longtime "Top Chef" judge Gail Simmons' bridal shower.
Meanwhile, industry insiders, bloggers and foodies lapped up their every move. Season four Top Chef Stephanie Izard picked Lauren as a favorite early on, predicting that the big prize would go to either Lauren, Italian charmer Fabio Viviani or fellow European Stefan Richter, whose culinary creations consistently wowed the judges — and whose confessions of a dreamboat-style crush on Lauren provided a little added entertainment for viewers.
Lauren, a member of the self-proclaimed Team Rainbow, just laughs when the flirty topic comes up. They're close friends, Lauren says, who still hang out. The pair will cook together for a special event at Absinthe next month, and again at the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival April 16-19.
"I'm close to a lot of them," she says, "Ariane, Carla, Leah, Stefan and Fabio, Jeff."
Spend that much time battling bizarre challenges with a small group of people, she says, and you're bound to bond.
So what about the judges: Tom Colicchio; Lakshmi, a former fashion model; and new and acerbic Toby Young?
"Tom's honest. He's a good guy," says Lauren. "I've now seen two sides of Toby. He's awesome. It's funny to see him going from judge to human. They edit out his quips, but he's quite funny. And Padma's just pretty to look at."
And the challenges?
"The most difficult was the Thanksgiving challenge," she says. "That was really tough — three hours to cook outside in toaster ovens? Who does that?"
What about the show's signature challenge? The episode in which chefs vie to open a restaurant in a single day is both the most eagerly anticipated and most frustrating challenge.
"Restaurant Wars?" says Lauren. "I was like, whatever. That's what we do every day. Six hours to open a restaurant is completely ridiculous. The team I was on, we were all really creative, but no one was leading us. I ended up running the kitchen, when it wasn't my kitchen to run."
Lauren herself was done in by black bass and braised celery — her least favorite vegetable and one the judges hated — in an episode filmed at Le Bernardin with the final six contestants.
In the end, Colorado chef Hosea Rosenberg took the top toque. None of that mattered to the Lauren fans who continued to blog about her and fill the discussion forums at TelevisionWithoutPity.com, comparing the Absinthe chef to Battlestar Galactica's brash Starbuck, Scarlett Johansson and other pop culture icons.
The newfound notoriety has been a kick, says Lauren. And it's helping to fill the Absinthe reservation book as well.
"People are definitely peeking into the kitchen," she says. "They don't want to make a reservation unless they're sure I'm going to be there. It was interesting coming back. I was really, really inspired."
Now it's back to business as usual, turning out saffron- and cinnamon-braised lamb shanks, wild mushroom farro risotto and other seasonal fare. And no braised celery.
Reach Jackie Burrell at email@example.com.
It will be awhile before season six of Bravo's popular reality show goes live -- there's a casting call Sunday for new cheftestants in Los Angeles, and a final audition in Chicago later this month. If you need a Top Chef fix in the meantime, here are a few quick (fire) possibilities.