Chicagoist Re-Grills: Top Chef Finalist Dale Levitski

By Karl Klockars in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 18, 2008 4:00PM

dalecooks111808.jpgIt's been a little over a year since we last heard from Dale Levitski, the first Chicagoan on Bravo's Top Chef and who just barely got edged out by Hung Huynh as the victor. Last time we spoke with Dale, we were still waiting to see who'd emerge victorious, as well as whether or not a live broadcast of the finale would be a good idea or not. (It wasn't.)

So, first things first: What's up with Dale's restaurant? Progress is being made, he says. "We’re probably looking at 6-9 months. I don’t think we’re going to start major construction until after the 1st of the year, just because it is that time of year. We’re just going to hit the pavement to get a little more cash in the bank, and then get started. I’m super excited about the whole concept – it’s pretty awesome." More on the new joint shortly.

With the new season of Top Chef underway, we thought we'd go back and check in with Chicago's most well-known Top Chef alums (Chuck spoke with Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard last week) Dale to get his thoughts on how his season compared to the Chicago season, what makes him paranoid, what Bravo producers should have done in our fair city, and who he really thinks won his season. All this after le saute.

Chicagoist: The first question is obviously, Where are you at with your place?

Dale Levitski: Basically, everything with Town & Country is going well. Everything is in place except for, like everyone in the universe, we need more investment money. That’s it. We have permits, our lease, we have a great, great space, and just looking for a little more cash to get started, and that’s it.

C: Going back to the very end of your season - at the Judge’s Table after your cooking in the finale, Collichio said something to the effect of “take that dish with you wherever you go.” I’m talking about your lamb, poached in duck fat, that dish…are we going to see that on the menu at T&C?

DL: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Definitely the technique, some of the preparations will be seasonal. Like, I [also] did a ratatouille, so that’s kinda late summer – I could still get away with doing it year ‘round, but I’ll still toy around with different preparations. But the dish as a whole, you’re definitely going to see.

Yeah, I don’t know where that dish came from, but –

C: Well, please go back there, because it just looked phenomenal.

DL: That was the best thing about that challenge – you have a buffet of stuff, and you just go for it. I wish we had more time to cook, ‘cause essentially the way my dishes are successful, I need more time to coddle my sauces…I wish it wasn’t at altitude – that really sucked.

C: I understand that you were pretty integral in getting Stephanie Izard onto Top Chef Chicago.

daletopchef111808.jpgDL: Yeah. What happened was in between filming the prelims and the finals, I touched base with Stephanie because she’s a good friend of mine. She was my sous chef at La Tache before she opened Scylla. She had told me that she was going to be closing Scylla, and Bravo asked for referrals.

And I looked at Steph, and I was like, “It’s perfect timing, you’re closing your restaurant, you’re going to have time off…” It was really just serendipity for her and I was like, “You’ve got to do it.” So yeah, she was my recommendation, and she’s a better cook than me, and I went so far, so I knew she would win.

C: As a finalist in your season, do you think you could have beaten her in a head to head challenge?

DL: I think depending on…it would be really close. Depending on what the challenge was, or what the dishes are, we definitely have our own styles…I think when you get to a certain level, it’s really a toss-up. And I love her food.

C: How much of the Chicago season did you watch?

DL: I saw most of it. I missed a couple episodes.

C: Was there anything you wanted to see from the Chicago that didn’t make it into the season? I felt that Chicago itself was really underutilized during the show.

daledrinks111808.jpgDL: I completely agree. I don’t think they used enough Chicago chefs. Even though I have a lot of respect for and I really like Rocco DiSpirito, but to open Chicago with Rocco DiSpirito seemed like…there’s so many amazing chefs here, why couldn’t we really get more of an identity with the city than just a “celebrity chef?”

I think some of the challenges…I got bored with so many team challenges. Some of the challenges I was definitely very jealous of. Like the fact that they got to cook for 24 hours during Wedding Wars. I think anyone in our season would be…when we had Restaurant Wars, we begged to be able to do that. [On our] Restaurant Wars, we only got 4 hours to cook.

C: As the first Chicago contestant, I expected to a lot of you in the Chicago season, but I think you only had a couple blogs, and that was it. What happened with that?

DL: With that season, they tried to get me on the show 4 times, but because Stephanie was my recommendation, due to conflict of interest, they couldn’t bring me on. They were actually going to have me – because I don’t live too far from where the house where they were at – they were going to have me walk up with my dog. [laughs]

At first, I started to blog a little bit, but then I just got really, really crazy busy. And it’s hard enough for me just to watch the show…it’s kinda difficult when you go from being on it and watching it, to watching the next season, it’s very odd. You get just as stressed out watching it because you know exactly what they’re going through, and it kinda brings you back there. It gets to be a little difficult to watch.

C: You mean, as far as knowing what’s going on behind the scenes?

DL: Absolutely. Like when you hear what they have to do for a Quickfire or a Challenge, you can see the frustration, see the wheels turning, and you know what they’re in for with the types of ingredients they use…I don’t think it really comes across how limited you are as a chef in these challenges. I think so many people watch and say “why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do this?”

Well, there’s 8 million reasons that you make decisions, or you don’t use certain ingredients, and you can’t do certain things. There’s not enough time to communicate that to the audience, and it’s very frustrating. Because on the show it makes you look like you made a horrible decision, when in reality you probably made a good one.

C: And, just being honest, I found your cast and your season to be much more compelling than the Chicago cast.

DL: I’ve met everyone from the Chicago season, and they’re all really, really sweet – but I’d kinda have to agree. There was something extremely special about our season. Just in the way that we all got along, the way we worked together, I think the talent pool was really, really awesome. Even Tom Collichio told my mom at the finals, “You’ll never beat the cast from Season 3.”

They didn’t show it, but we were very adamant about really keeping and establishing our integrity as chefs in a way that I don’t think they had seen on the show. We didn’t really fight or bicker –

C: Or get wasted all the time?

DL: Oh, we were wasted all the time! [laughs] But I think it really kinda stunned the production and the judges as to how adamant we were about not throwing each other under the bus, quote-unquote, and really sticking together as a cast.

C: In the runup to Top Chef New York, they’ve been replaying your season on Bravo - ever turn on the TV and see yourself?

sarahtopchef111808.jpgDL: Yeah. [Top Chef contestant and Dale's future sous chef] Sarah [Nguyen] and I were coming back from New York, and we’re flying on Jet Blue, and we’re flipping through the channels and all of a sudden, it’s a marathon of our season. And I’m in the back row. So I’m like, “I haven’t seen these in a while,”so I’m watching the show, and anyone that would walk by to go to the bathroom would just kinda look – ‘cause I can see how many people are watching Bravo on the plane – and they’d come back and double take, and I’d be like, “yeah.” [laughs] That’s pretty funny. And when the season was airing last week, Sarah and I got tons and tons of text messages. We don’t even have cable at home. But we’ve got tons of text messages about, “You’re on TV, you should watch…”

C: And I’ve seen you a few times, at festivals and things around town – do you still get noticed in person?

DL: Everywhere. Even though our season ended a year ago, still. I was at the corner store, and the owner guy who works there, whenever I could come in people would make comments to him [after I’d leave] and he’s like, “Everyone in the neighborhood knows who you are.” It’s a very flattering thing, but it’s a very daunting thing at the same time.

C: Why is that?

DL: You get slightly paranoid, just because everyone knows who you are. Whether I’m just walking my dog in my pajamas, you don’t really realize how many people do know who you are. From being on television, people feel like they know you – and it’s very flattering, but after my whole Top Chef experience, I’ve kinda had the same conversation with everybody for the past 2 years.

It’s “what are you doing, when’s your restaurant opening,” it’s the same take. Especially in Chicago – I’m very proud of what I accomplished on the show, but I do get the “you were robbed” a lot. Going that far, my point of view on it is: I won, but he got the check. Because I got everything I needed out of it.

C: Well, also, it must be nice to have people you asking about your restaurant – it means that people are still interested in you as a chef, and not just as a reality TV personality…

DL: I’m stunned, and kinda shocked – especially because I’ve been out of the culinary scene for a little while, since Trio closed. It was really a great confidence builder, not only from the general public, but from the other chefs. Like, the chefs in the city, very respectable chefs – I was very nervous going on the show, being the first Chicagoan.

It was like, are they going to call me an all-out douchebag? [laughs] But I was really shocked at how supportive and proud the other chefs in the city were. And that’s a huge boost of confidence - that they feel that myself and Stephanie in particular really represented who we are as a culinary community well.