Will D.C. be represented on 'Top Chef' again?
Gaze at that photo to the right: See the cassis-flavored marshmallow, a tiny Linzer torte, a litchi gelee. Do these look like the creations of a top pastry chef? Scot Harlan sure hopes so. The man in charge of such delicious meal-enders at Inox in Tysons Corner was among the would-be cheftestants who showed up at a casting call at the Occidental today to meet with the production company behind “Top Chef” and the forthcoming spinoff show, “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”
Harlan, 29, would seem to be a contender for the latter. With stints at the Inn at Little Washington, 2941 and New York City’s Daniel, Bouley, Danube and Gordon Ramsay at the London, he certainly has the resume. But what does he bring to the table, so to speak? “They’ve got to bring in the whole range of pastry chefs, I’d imagine, and I could certainly represent the avant-garde side,” Harlan told me as he waited, application in hand, to be called in to the casting, the first time the show has officially scouted in the District. (Why are they here? Something about Carla Hall, Bryan Voltaggio and Mike Isabella, I’d say.)
Harlan is ruddy-complexioned, cheerful, extroverted and witty: all things that would seem to make him stand out on television. He was dressed the part, too, wearing a T-shirt that said “Make Cheese Not War.”
Of course, he wasn’t the only one waiting in the wings. I talked to a dozen other chefs interested in being considered for one show or the other, and each displayed the kind of confidence, misplaced or not, that is a hallmark of reality TV. Some also displayed tattoos galore (including the requisite pig diagram), a piercing or two and facial hair designs of all stripes: goatees, muttonchops, at least one mohawk.
Also in the house was a colleague of Harlan’s: Inox sous-chef Scott Muns, 28, who would have to be characterized as the strong, silent type. In fact, he reminds me of Voltaggio, who with his more volatile brother, Michael, is one of the "Top Chef: Las Vegas" breakouts and a decent bet for the finale. In fact, the similarity might be because Muns used to work for the East Coast Voltaggio. “I’d vote for Bryan,” Muns said when I asked about the applicants' current favorites. “I’d like to see him win.”
I talked to Muns in a group of five applicants. When I asked each of them to tell me what they wrote for one of the application’s surely most time-consuming questions – “create a culinary interpretation based on Eleven Pipers Piping from the song ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’” – he was the only one who flat out demurred. “Not a big sharer,” he said. “Thanks, though.”
That was one of the things that made me all the more curious about him. (The fact that he’s as telegenic as assistant White House chef Sam Kass was the other.) If he were cast on the show, would he be a natural for the requisite “quietly intense” persona? “Maybe,” he answered. “Depends on how much alcohol’s involved.”
Muns’s application answers remain safely between him and the production team. Another applicant, Stefano Frigerio of Copper Pot Food Co., couldn't tell me how he answered that 11-pipers-piping question, either, as he was just starting to fill out his application by 11 a.m., and hadn't gotten to that section just yet. But here’s how some of the other applicants told me they responded:
Matthew Milani, 33, owner of the Rumor Mill in Ellicott City: 11 potatoes in a row, with steak, diced scallions and tomatoes and vaporized rosemary.
Jonathan Boroughs, 41, private chef: homemade rosemary pasta stuffed with partridge and goose forcemeat with a wild cranberry jus.
Corey Alexander, 34, executive chef at Rock Creek restaurants and catering company: lamb noisettes stuffed with fennel, braised artichokes, nicoise olives and garlic puree, with pureed chestnuts and a red wine sauce.
Janae Aiken, 23, assistant pastry chef at Linwoods in Owings Mills: “From pipers, I think Scotland, so something with shortbread. I have one that melts in your mouth.”
Lawrence DiJoseph, 40, chef at 8 1/2 in Richmond: razor clam ceviche with chili peppers and 11 herbs.
Melissa Fordham, 25, sous-chef at The Grill at Harryman House in Reisterstown, Md.: Goose leg confit with wild mushrooms and a beurre rouge sauce, “and I listed 11 total ingredients that come together beautifully.”
Scot Harlan: roasted and smoked white chocolate parfaits: “11 logs stacked on top of each other. It would be tricky.”
The in-person interviews, said casting producer Donna Lee, are really just a “meet and greet” to give her company, Magical Elves, a chance to connect names to faces and ask questions. The most important part of the process, though, is that application and, perhaps above all, the video that the applicants also submit.
When the day was done, how many people had showed up? During the period I was interviewing people, I saw maybe 20 filing in and out of the room – three-quarters of them men. But the casting went until 2 p.m. Afterward, I checked back in with Lee by phone to see how the tally shaped up, and she said she wasn’t allowed to say. “But it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality, anyway,” she said. “And we saw some very interesting people today.”
-- Joe Yonan
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