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Q&A with Top Chef All-Star Dale Levitski

By Tony Peregrin in Food on Nov 12, 2010 5:00PM

Dale SPROUT photo_resize.jpg You might say it’s the ultimate food fight: 18 finalists from previous seasons of Top Chef—including Chicago’s own Dale Levitski —are competing against each other in season eight of Bravo's sizzlin' hot culinary competition show, Top Chef. Unlike previous “All-Star” one-offs and specials, Top Chef All-Stars will be a full season following the format of regular Top Chef, with one notable exception: the viewers—and the judges—already know the competitors (or “cheftestants” in Bravo parlance.)

Perhaps no one is more hungry for redemption than Levitski, whose rise, fall, and second rise were famously chronicled in articles by the Trib and Time Out Chicago around this time last year. The Cliff Notes version: after the show, Levitski returned to Chicago, fell into a depression, suffered financial hardship, became addicted to daytime television, and started drinking. His mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away, and his dream of opening his own restaurant, Town & Country, fell victim to the economic downturn. Eventually things turned around when Levitski took over Sprout restaurant, a French-American Bistro in Lincoln Park, with his friend (and fellow Top Chef contestant) Sara Nguyen.

A year later, Sprout has received three stars from the Chicago Tribune and was named a “Best New Restaurant” by Chicago Magazine. Levitski has really put down some solid roots at Sprout, and on the eve of the restaurant’s one year anniversary, the 37-year-old, self-taught chef served up some dish on his latest endeavor, Top Chef All-Stars.

Chicagoist: Where were you and what were you doing when you first got the call to be on Top Chef All-Stars?

Dale Levitski: They called me at the restaurant and I experienced a whole bunch of emotions at once—I was excited, but then I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, do I really want to do it all over again?!’ But being asked to be on All-Stars is the biggest compliment that they could have given me.

C: In December 2009, both the Chicago Tribune and Time Out Chicago ran very candid profiles of you, Dale. So, almost a year later, how are things going for you, personally and professionally?

DL: Yeah, it’s actually a pretty interesting time right now, so it’s kind of funny that you mention that. We’ll be celebrating the one year anniversary of Sprout’s opening this Saturday. It’s stunning to me, when I think about our accomplishments over the last year: We’ve been given a three star review by the Trib, a 28 Zagat rating, and we were a Diner’s Choice Winner from OpenTable. We were opening up as the Bad News Bears, and I am so amazed when I stop and think about where we are now—everyone has done a remarkable job.

C: And how are things going on a more personal level—outside the kitchen? No more stagnant afternoons on the couch watching All My Children, I take it?

DL: [Laughs.] My life is exponentially better. Not only am I financially able to support myself and have a secure job—it actually doesn’t even feel like a job at all. I have no stress right now.

C: At one point you were out and about in Boystown quite a bit.

DL: I have kind of stopped going out over the last 6 to 8 months, although, before I was going out all the time! [Laughs.] I love to spend Sundays with Sara [Nguyen], my roommate and Sous Chef at the restaurant, and my dog, watching movies on the couch. Those are the best. We don’t even leave the apartment. Well, one of us will venture out to pick up food and movies. Life is so much better now, so much more calm.

C: Aside from Sprout, what are some of your favorite restaurants in Chicago. Where do actually eat when you go out to eat?

DL: Basically, I eat at the places on Broadway, between Belmont and Diversey. I haven’t been to Girl and the Goat yet, but Stephanie [Izard] is a friend and I really, really want to go.

C: Do you still get recognized on the street?

DL: I do. It’s flattering. I do get stared at a lot at times, and I’m like, is my zipper open or something?! Not having a mohawk does deter it, though. But people, especially in Chicago, are so supportive. And with the announcement of All-Stars, the response has been amazing. It feels awesome.

C: Did you watch much of the last season of Top Chef, the Washington, DC season?

DL: Yeah, I saw one of the episodes. It’s kind of hard to watch Top Chef. You get so stressed out, and you want to be there, competing in that challenge. It’s the reason most of us went back [to All-Stars].

C: The All-Stars cast is a mixed bag of near-winners and fan favorites: Who were you excited to see, who were excited to compete against, and who did you kind of dread engaging with?

DL: I was really excited to see Antonia [Lofaso, Season 4] and Spike [Mendelsohn, Season 4]. Actually, the entire cast of Season 4 are awesome. And I was obviously excited to see Season 3 people. I was really interested in getting to know Jen, [Carroll, Season 6 ] she is awesome. You know as a group, it’s not always a great match in terms of personalities, but individually everyone is great.

C: That’s a polite way of saying there were one or two chefs that you didn’t like.

DL: I would say there are one or two individuals and I’ll leave it at that, I won’t name names—but I think it will be pretty obvious, depending on how it goes in editing! [Laughs nervously].

C: New this season to Judges’ Table is author and chef Anthony Bourdain—what was it like being evaluated by Bourdain?

DL: He guest-judged Season 3 twice. I’m not intimidated by him at all. [Pause]. He looks sort of like a cartoon character! [Laughs.] But, you know, he is a person, just like everyone else, although he does have that silver tongue—although so do I.

C: Speaking of Judges Table, let’s talk about Tom Colicchio for a minute. Viewers see one side of him on the show, particularly at Judges’ Table.

DL: Tom is tough. He is an executive producer of the show, so, it’s his baby, I like to debate with Tom. [Pause.] You could say I have a love-hate relationship with him.

C: Tell us something about Colicchio that viewers might find surprising.

DL: He’s very quiet and shy in real-life, which means he’s pretty much like every other chef. He plays the guitar and he is just a super-chill guy. He’s chill-chill. It’s easier to be around him off camera. [Laughs.]

C: Colicchio recently said the following about the All-Star season to TV Guide: “Because we know them, it’s very hard to criticize them,” referring to the all-star line-up. “The good part is, it’s consistently better food.”

DL: I think, trying to look at it from the judges’ point of view, this time around it is going to be harder. The judges are human, and they have experienced us all before. They try to be objective, but they will have their favorites.

C: Which experience did you enjoy more Season 3 or All-Stars?

DL: This time, with All-Stars, we all go back as experts—and sometimes knowing too much [about the show] takes the wonder out of it all. When we were in Season 3, we were so naive - and it made it a little more fun. Now, we know there’s going to be a twist, although we think we know what that will be and we are, of course, always wrong! [Laughs.] Except for Antonia—she is psychic…it’s weird!

C: I’ve read that one of the hottest challenges this season was for Jimmy Fallon’s 35th B-Day event at Colicchio & Sons…[We’re interrupted by a Bravo press rep who, like a booming voice from above, firmly informs us that we can’t discuss this. We both laugh in response.]

C: Okay, moving on [pauses, checks notes.] I’ve also read that another hot challenge this season is a Quickfire featuring Cookie Monster, Elmo, and Telly as guest judges…[ On cue, the booming voice scolds us; on cue, journalist and subject break into fits of nervous laughter.]

C: Is there anything else you’d like to add regarding Top Chef All-Stars, Dale, without giving too much away?

DL: I will say that Judges’ Table is a whole new animal. And the challenges are more difficult and more intense. I think it is the most challenging season yet.

The Top-Chef All-Stars premiere is Wednesday, December 1st, at 9pm.