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Chicago Gourmet: Life Inside the Celebrity Chef Fishbowl

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Sep 29, 2008 7:00PM

It's been said numerous times that chefs are the new rock stars. Chicago, then, could be considered one of the epicenters for the rock star chef. And they come in all forms: the arena gods (Bayless, Trotter, Achatz, McClain, Kahan); adult contemporary and classical (Smith, Gand, Arun, Tramonto, Nahabedian, Christophe David at NoMI); indie and experimental darlings (Segal, Carlson, Cantu, Bowles, Tschilds and Hammel of Lula) and world beat (Bahena, Nieto, Takashi, Gras, Garces, Shen). Using the rock star parallel, one can assume that the winners of cheffing competitions such as "Top Chef" and "Hell's Kitchen" fall into the "American Idol" realm of pop confection.

But we all know the adage about assumptions and a certain part of the anatomy.

Among the cooking demonstrations held at Chicago Gourmet over the weekend the most anticipated was easily the pairing of "Top Chef Chicago" winner Stephanie Izard and "Top Chef Miami" runner-up Dale Levitski. The two are longtime friends from when they worked the kitchen at La Tache in Andersonville; Levitski told the audience he encouraged Izard to try out for the show "because I knew she'd win." Izard was as self-deprecating as she was on "TC 4" as she and Levitski did a "mystery basket" cooking demo using ingredients each purchased for the other from Whole Foods. the back-and-forth between the two was such that it made the demonstration feel like they were cooking in a home kitchen. Within moments we imagined what they might have said if a few bottles of wine were involved.

Looking at the audience, however, we wondered who was looking at two talented chefs in front of them and who was looking at reality television stars.

Both Izard and Levitski were gracious and generous, doling out behind-the-scenes details of their time on "Top Chef" and how manufactured some of the "reality" really is. Izard had the audience rolling with an account of how her luggage tipped over after removing it from the airline conveyor, only to have Bravo film crews make her put the luggage back on the conveyor over and over. Levitski probably stunned some in the audience with the acknowledgment that he's waiting tables at sola while putting the finishing touches on Town and Country in the Financial District. Asked why he was working front of house, Levitski said, "because I didn't win $100,000." Meanwhile moderator Vince Gerasole of CBS2, whose own daughters are cooking celebrities, kept the demo moving at a lively pace.

This is the cocoon of the celebrity chef, reality television edition. Chefs like Izard, Levitski and Rahman "Rock" Harper of "Hell's Kitchen" fame bust their asses, hone their skills and build up their resumes only to have everything distilled down to how they performed in a 30-minute quickfire challenge. The shows are good for exposure, but don't give viewers the true measure of their talents.

A year ago Izard ran one of the best restaurants in Bucktown. Now she's doing secret ingredient cook-offs with Harper and others while trying to open a new space. Levitski has one of the strongest resumes we've ever seen. He's praying that the buildout for Town and Country doesn't go over projections given the current state of our economy.

Meanwhile we ask the same questions they've by now have heard scores of times before. They oblige, answer with grace under pressure, knowing the terms of the deal, refusing to let a few weeks in front of a film crew re-write their pasts, but using it as a minor footnote to make their futures.