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Interview: Dale Levitski, "Top Chef" Finalist

By Karl Klockars in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 2, 2007 5:00PM

09_28_dalefront.jpgAt this moment, Chicago is Top Chef Central. Taping has commenced for Season 4 (shooting has already been sighted), and the Season 3 finale is being broadcast live from here tomorrow. Thankfully, the one and only Chicagoan Top Chef competitor has fought his way to the top of the heap, and made it past the first cut in the finale.

We've been following Dale from the beginning and really started rooting for him about halfway through — up until then, we weren't sure if he was the real deal or not. Dale gave us a few minutes last week to explain his take on whether or not he's a stereotype, who the best guest judges are, and dish on some Chicago faves — oh, and just what the hell was up with those instant mashed potatoes?

Chicagoist: Before I knew that the finale was being shown live from here in Chicago, I had assumed that the cast knew the winner. I knew you were working front of the house at Sola, and I thought to myself, "You know, if I had won $100k and was biding my time waiting for the finale to run, I'd probably do the same thing."

Dale Levitski: Yeah, I started at Sola after we finished [taping] in Miami and New York. So I've been there since ... since May. Then I flew [to Aspen] to cook in the finale, and I didn't cook in between New York and Aspen at all.

C: When it comes to how you're portrayed on the show, it seems like in past seasons they have the clear favorites, as well as "the villain" laid out in the first few episodes whereas with you, you didn't seem to come on until maybe halfway through the season.

DL: With so many dynamic chefs, it's really hard to spotlight anyone. I will say I started off slow. I don't think I really made much of an impression at the beginning.

C: I think it was the win at the Coldstone Quickfire Challenge where people really started taking notice of you.

DL: Among the contestants, what really kinda threw me into the game with them was the "Family Favorites" episode — the instant mashed potatoes one. That's the one when all the other chefs were like, "oh, wait." I think that was the 3rd or 4th episode. I mean, we all knew [each other's] histories. Tre probably had the best resume, but mine was probably the second best resume on the cast.

C: Knowing what's on your bio now, it seems odd that Bravo didn't play you up more from the start. I mean, you took over for Grant Achatz at Trio ....

DL: Yeah, I think once that came out among the cast they were like, "What? You're who?" And I was like, "Yeah, I took over after Grant." I think that was ... I wouldn't want to say "intimidating," but it really ... no matter how I cooked, a lot of people definitely had one eye over their shoulder, looking to see what I was going to do.

C: Well, not only that but you had been in the running for a 10 Best Chefs award from Food & Wine, so you were already on their radar.

DL: Yeah, I was on a great roll in landing Trio, and even in the way Trio was progressing while I was there — when Trio closed, I was cooking the best I ever had in my life.

C: We talked about the mashed potatoes incident a bit earlier — there was also an incident at Le Cirque when you asked Hung how to make the Quickfire dish ... people online seem to love tearing you apart over that.

DL: There's always the magic of editing, I guess. When you put 2 or 3 days into one hour, things are going to be perceived a little different.

C: Well then, how did those really play out?

DL: The instant mashed potatoes, for that challenge, which was probably one of my strongest dishes — I mean now, after hearing the reactions of [cheftestants] ... I didn't get those reactions when I was in the challenge. When we did the one hour of prep, almost everyone just looked at me and said, "what the hell did you just do?"

Because I just turned into a monster. They didn't even show me prepping once, but I made filling, dough, made the dumplings, made the sauce, cooked chicken, all in one hour. And they really kinda came down on me hard for using deli chicken to make filling with. At the judges' table, I think the judges were a little misinformed and thought that I had used all precooked chicken the entire dish, but I did not. And I had to remind them that I didn't.

I think the fact that the instant mashed potatoes had a brand name, you know, Potato Buds ... if I just said I used potato starch to make the dough, all of a sudden I would have been like, a molecular gastronomic genius. But the fact that actually it came out of a box ... you know, it's kinda funny. The whole molecular gastronomy fad, or trend ... most of those ingredients and techniques are coming out of how commercial products are made.

A lot of the chemicals are just stablilizers, [which is] how candy stays on the shelf forever. Or how things get a certain consistency. And toying around with those with fresh food instead of packaged food ... it's pretty interesting that people haven't commented that. These are the chemicals that people are putting in their body in junk food every day. And now we're making gourmet food with junk-food chemicals.

C: And what about the deal with Hung at Le Cirque? You asked him how he made the dish you were competing over.

DL: One concept or philosophy that I have is I don't care if it's a cooking competition, I'm still a chef. And most of the chefs and people that I cook with, we collaborate. You see a dish, and you say, "How do you do that?" And we'll talk about technique. We'll talk about ingredients. And that was pretty much the context.

09_28_dalefinale.jpgYou know, if anything else I was more interested in the experience. They could have played it up more that we were cooking at Le Cirque during service on a Friday night. And like, walking into that environment — that was by far the hardest challenge for me. I mean, you feel like a big dumbass, and you're on someone else's line at a legendary restaurant. And it's very intimidating, because they all know how to make the dish exactly.

The challenge was structured where it was impossible to make that dish correctly. After Sirio had told us how exactly the dish was made, it was impossible to make that dish in 20 minutes. Even how they make it.

C: How important is it to you to be portrayed as a gay chef, rather than just a chef?

DL: I definitely have been very, very open about it. Probably due more to a little bit of an insecurity at the beginning of my career, and being younger. Now I'm in my mid-thirties, and I have no problem admitting it, talking about it, because it is a big part of my personality. I'm not some big ol' screaming snapping queen, but I'm a gay guy. It does make some people uncomfortable.

C: In another interview you said "I think being a gay man in the kitchen can actually raise the level of the kitchen, because some of the strong egos in the kitchen do not want to be out-cooked by a fag."

DL: Oh, absolutely. Especially when I was flipping burgers in Iowa City, Iowa. I was a college athlete, I was built like a brick shithouse. I was like, 200 pounds and 6% body fat. That was intimidating to the other guys in the kitchen first and foremost, but then I was a big gay guy, they were like, "wait, what?" [laughs] They didn't know what hit them, and I had a very intense personality in the kitchen. I think it was very disarming to a lot of the guys that I worked with.

C: Did you see any of that intimidation factor in the taping?

DL: No, no. I'm not really like that anymore. If anything I'm more of the class clown. I need to laugh and joke around and listen to music in the kitchen, and that's when I cook my best. It looks like I'm not doing anything, but that's when I really am in my element. A lot of those high-pressure environments, where your head's down, cooking balls-to-the-wall, [are] not when I'm necessarily going to do my best.

C: Did you see what Gawker said about you?

DL: Yeah, they called me "the villain of Top Chef!"

C: They said, "Dale embodies the most offensively bland stereotype of homosexuality on television. And as opposed to offensively bland stereotypes embodied by characters like Will from Will and Grace, he actually exists."

[note: A half hour after this interview concluded, Gawker posted "Dale Is An Stupid Useless Idiot Genius." They've really got it in for the guy.]

DL: Which is so bizarre to me! Have you seen these queeny people on TV? I get emails every day from people around the country thanking me for not being the stereotype.

C: Well, it's just so hard to actually imagine you as that stereotype when you seem to be anything but.

DL: I'll definitely have my little quips here and there, but I'd definitely not say I'm a stereotypical gay guy at all.

C: Do you read any of the Top Chef blogs?

DL: A little bit. I read all the judges' blogs, yes.

C: Tell me what you think about what Tom Collichio wrote: "Dale has made it to the finale without yet making a strong impression of who he is, and what his food is all about, but I found it moving to learn his story .... It really showed how hard this profession can be — success can have more to do with financial backing than culinary skill."

DL: Not only is being a chef an artistic or creative thing to do, it's a job. When you get to the level of executive chef, you're managing, you're doing financials, it's not only about the food. The food is probably 50% of your day when you hit the executive chef level, and I think I had more experience in that compared to most of the people on the cast.

I mean, if you take Hung, Hung's a great cook. But that's pretty much what he does — he's a cook. He's a sous chef. But he has his hands in food more than some of us who are executive chefs do. So I think that's kinda what Tom was addressing — is how overwhelming how the job of chef can be. I don't think everyone understands how much there is in that job.

C: What was it like going up against Tony Bourdain?

DL: I love Anthony Bourdain. From Episode 1, where I was at the bottom, he was still complimentary to me. I mean, knowing that he's a very eloquent writer and a strong personality — I think working for Henry Adaniya at Trio oddly enough prepared me for [the] judges' table. Because when you're working for Henry at Trio, you're at [the] judges' table.

C: Do you think he knew backgrounds of any of the chefs at the judges' table? Did he know where you were coming from?

DL: I have no idea, but my assumption would be that when I went through my interview process, Lee Anne Wong was one of the people that helped interview me, and she knew exactly who I was. I'm assuming all the judges were aware of who we were — I don't know if the guest judges necessarily were, but I think the head judges ... they would never say anything about it, but I'd say my gut instinct would be that Tom, and Gail, and Padma definitely knew who we were.

When I ate with Ted Allen at the Season 1-Season 2 Smackdown, when we were all sitting at the table saying who we were, Ted didn't put 2 and 2 together, but he's a Chicago food writer — when I said [I] was executive chef at Trio his first response was "Thank God that restaurant closed!" [laughs] But he definitely did not show any favoritism.

C: Wait — why would he say that?

DL: No, no, he loved us, he was being sarcastic, if anything that restaurant was such a creative monster and pumped out such amazing people — I think more so than any other restaurant in Chicago history, Trio was a factory of producing amazing amazing people.

C: Was there a guest chef you liked the best?

DL: Of the guest judges, I really liked Rocco DiSpirito. He is someone who has definitely has had his career hit, and I think he's in a way, coming back and coming to renaissance with [his career]. Alfred Portale, Daniel Bolud was amazing, Eric Ripert — obviously he gave me the win, so I'm all over that! A few of the judges I really did not like, and I won't say who, but for the most part just every single challenge, you're like "What judge now?" And you're like, Jesus Christ, you have all of their cookbooks, and you envy them, and you'd do anything to meet them or cook for them, and it's like all of a sudden now you're doing ridiculous things in front of them ....

C: And in front of the entire country.

DL: Yeah. That really doesn't sink in when you're actually filming, but now seeing the episodes, I don't think any of us really had any concept of how big Top Chef is. We had no idea.

C: That plays into something you said on the show — it was something like, "People sit at home and watch the show and say 'oh, I can do that.' You can't."

DL: Oh, exactly. I was one of those people. I was sitting at home, and I was like "I've never seen Top Chef before," and they were doing a marathon, and I watched one episode ... and six hours later and a bottle and a half of wine in, [I was] yelling at the TV thinking these people are jackasses. But then I was like, "I can totally do this." Looking at what the challenges are, it just seemed like something that was totally tailor made for me. Being a former competitive athlete of judged sports, I was a diver and a gymnast, so I'm used to being judged. And in cooking, it just seemed like such a unique thing that was kinda tailor made for what I wanted to do.

C: Do you remember the first episode of Top Chef you saw?

DL: I think the episode I saw in Season 2 might have been the one that got nominated for an Emmy — it was the Seven Deadly Sins episode. That was the first episode of Top Chef I ever saw. And I was very intrigued by the challenge, and seeing what happens, you don't see really the people cooking. You just see dishes come out and you're like, "What's going on here? I think I need to try this."

C: Your speech, about why you're there and why you think you should be in the final three, was probably one of the most heartfelt moments of the season — of any season, actually.

DL: In being at [the] judges' table, it's very emotional. And being in the finale, and getting that far, it's very raw. You get very emotionally raw. No matter how thick-skinned or strong you are ... I mean, in the kitchen I'm very thick skinned. I never fold. When you're in this environment and you're standing there in front of these amazing chefs and you're quote-unquote competing with people ... you really dig deep, and the experience really teaches who you are as a chef.

I mean, I went through a rough year. And Top Chef was pretty much a Hail Mary to see if I really wanted to keep going. Because I wasn't sure. And making the finale? After going through all the stuff in Miami and New York, going into the finale I really feel like I was much more the person I was than when I was at Trio. And I think that definitely showed in my elk dish, and that's what I tried to emulate in the finale.

C: How important was it to be on Top Chef as a Chicago chef?

DL: I think from day one, in going to Top Chef, I'm the first Chicagoan ever on that show. And that's one of the reasons I went for it. I went, "They've never had someone from Chicago, and Chicago right now is the best food city in the country." And I wanted to go in and represent.

I think, being the last chef at Trio, I was definitely on the move to be a notable person in the city in food, and I'm very proud of being a Chicagoan — I'm a Chicago suburbanite! We're very proud of anything and everything Chicago, no matter good or bad. Having that midwestern mind frame going into Top Chef, I wanted to represent Chicago.

I think I definitely give it a good sensibility of how laid back and easygoing we are. We have amazing, amazing things to offer but we don't take ourselves too seriously. We've got the best of New York, we've got the best of L.A. without all the attitude here, and that's why I love it.

C: Give me a short list of the places you love to eat in the city.

DL: Avec and Blackbird, always. Naha I love, obviously I work at Sola, I love Carol [Wallack]'s food. But all the little mom-and-pop, little hole in the wall, little Asian places or burger joints ... I live near Huey's Hot Dogs in Andersonville, and I love it.

C: How does it feel, going into the finale and knowing it's going to be live?

DL: I feel ... fantastic. I'm counting down the days. You know, [Wednesday] is going to be the biggest day of my life. I'm going to be so stressed out all week, but I can't wait for the finale. I think it's going to be one of the most unique and amazing experiences of my entire life, and I can't imagine that anything would get any better than that.

C: Well, aside from winning.

DL: Yeah, I mean, that would help! Honestly, if I could win Top Chef in my home town, I would probably have a heart attack on the spot.

C: How has the Chicago support been for you recently?

DL: I'm getting recognized everywhere. I was just getting lunch an hour ago, and I signed an autograph. [laughs] It's been insanity. The support of the city has been building and building, it's been so humbling and amazing — I've talked to other contestants, and they're not getting it in their cities as much as I am here. It's like everywhere I go, people are just rooting for me, because I'm the Chicago guy!

It feels amazing to have them be proud of me, and that makes us unique because I know the other contestants aren't getting that in their cities.

C: How is the progress on your restaurant going?

DL: It's going well. We're going to sign a lease pretty soon, and we're going to start building. I'm so patient, I don't want to get it open just to get it open, and if it takes six months, a year, two years, that's how long it's going to take.

C: I'd imagine winning $100,000 would help.

DL: Ummm ... probably. [laughs] It might buy some plates. [laughs]

Images via Bravo.

See Dale in the Top Chef finale on Wednesday, October 3, at 9 p.m. on Bravo, live from Chicago.