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Boston chefs and ‘cheftestants’ kick off ‘Top Chef’

A scene from “Top Chef.”
A scene from “Top Chef.” David Moir/Bravo

In May, Bravo’s “Top Chef” cooking show began filming Season 12 in Boston (airing Wednesday nights at 10 p.m., beginning Oct. 15). In the first episode, the first-ever “Top Chef Food Festival” was held at the Museum of Science’s outdoor patio overlooking the Charles River. It was a splendid day, made even more special by the attendance of big-name Boston chefs who cooked their sought-after dishes. For the first elimination challenge, “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi asked the “cheftestants” to serve an updated version of the very first dish they remember cooking. Most of the local restaurant chefs, who were stationed alongside the cheftestants, did the same. Over 200 guests, including Mayor Marty Walsh, appear to have had a grand time tasting the various foods. We were curious to find out what the chefs cooked, what they thought of “Top Chef” coming to town, and whether they watch or participate in competitive cooking shows.

Ming Tsai

Chef and co-owner of Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon, host of “Simply Ming”

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“We were asked to make a dish close to our hearts, so I made the first savory dish I ever made,” says Tsai, who describes his childhood favorite as Mandarin fried rice with garlic, ginger, scallions, and egg. At the event, he jazzed it up with red-roast duck, in which the shredded meat and skin cook in a rich broth of soy sauce, red wine, rock candy, ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. “My grandfather taught me how to make it.

“ ‘Top Chef’ did a smart job mixing the contestants with us. You could tell [the contestants] were nervous,” says Tsai. “I always try other chefs’ foods,” he says. “It was all good.” Of the contestants to his right and left, he said, “Their food was spot-on.”

Tsai is no stranger to cooking competitions. “I beat Bobby Flay on ‘Iron Chef.’ On ‘The Next Iron Chef,’ about five years ago, I didn’t win; I came in third. But it was fun. I love cooking under pressure.” Tsai thinks the shows create more demanding customers and make chefs more accountable. Of cooking show viewers, he says, “They’re getting entertained.”

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Aram Boghosian for the boston globe

Michael Schlow

Chef and partner in Via Matta, Alta Strada, and other restaurants

“I’m really happy they’re showcasing the city. We’ve come so far foodwise. It’s really an exciting time to be cooking here in the restaurant business.” He adds, “We are much more than just lobster and chowder and baked beans.”

Schlow’s nostalgic dish was his favorite sausage and peppers combo with homemade morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), piccolo peppers, pickled jalapenos and onions, and scallions, served on small, easy-to-eat toasts. “It was something I always loved as a kid,” says Schlow, who had the dish at ballgames. At the Museum of Science event, the chef says, “There was a lot of really good cooking going on.”

** warning: for less than 2.5 col ** for Names - 31names - Sighting/Bobby Flay, Todd English & NJ Housewife Teresa Giudice. (Handout) 15topchef
** warning: for less than 2.5 col ** for Names - 31names - Sighting/Bobby Flay, Todd English & NJ Housewife Teresa Giudice. (Handout) 15topchefHandout

Todd English

Chef and partner in Figs, Bonfire, Ozone, and other restaurants

“Lobster, of course, is a big part of Boston and I spent a lot of time in Maine as a child,” says English, who made lobster and sweet pea fritters with black truffles. “I’m very proud of Boston; it’s a great culinary city.” He adds, “I really appreciated that the mayor was [at the event].

“I saw some really interesting food. It was a good representation of what Boston has to offer.” As to the contestants stationed near him, “They were definitely a little jittery.”

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English has battled on “Iron Chef” a few times and says, “I won some and lost some.” In general, he thinks competitive cooking shows “represent the pressure we feel in the kitchen,” and with the requirement to be innovative, also tell “what it takes to be a chef.”

Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe/file

Lydia Shire

Chef and owner of Scampo and culinary director of Towne Stove and Spirits

“It was a fun day and the weather was beautiful. All the biggies were there. For me, it was particularly fun to see Todd English. I got to spend some nice time with him and Jasper [White].” She adds, “It was nice to see a mixture of older and younger chefs.”

Of cooking shows in general, Shire says, “I don’t really watch that kind of television.” When she does have down time, “I’m a massive football fan.”

Shire made what has become one of her signature dishes: rack of lamb chops, on long bones, marinated in pomegranate molasses with garlic, shallots, rosemary, and thyme. “It’s so delicious because it’s sweet and there’s a little acid from lime,” she says. “People pick up this long bone and chow down on it. The flavor is just to die for.”

Jasper White

Chef and partner of Summer Shack restaurants

“Since I’m one of the older chefs in Boston I thought I’d do something that was different, but old Boston,” says White, who has been cooking for over 40 years. He made “lobster cutlets” or small patties formed from the chopped crustacean, carrots, bell pepper, celery, chives, and chervil, with a lobster leg sticking out from the patties so they resembled frenched lamb chops. A collector of old cookbooks, White adapted a recipe from “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook” by Fannie Merritt Farmer from 1896. He served the cutlets with fennel slaw and a dollop of herb-butter sauce. “I did [the dish] at Jasper’s and I’ll pull it out of the hat every now and then.” The lobster is chopped, he says, because “people couldn’t chew very well. They had really bad teeth back then.

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“We’re all proud that the show chose Boston. It’s really good for the Boston dining scene.” White doesn’t watch many cooking shows, but, he says, “My youngest daughter, Hayley, loves the show.”

Wilfredo Lee/AP/file

Barbara Lynch

Chef and owner of Barbara Lynch Gruppo

“I made a white bean bouillon with mascarpone and pecorino raviolini,” says Lynch, who presented it in small bowls. The soup was sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts and shaved black truffle. Lynch didn’t get a chance to sample any of the other chefs’ dishes. “We were so spread out and we were really busy,” she says. “The mayor was there. It’s great for the city of Boston.”

Ken Oringer

Chef and partner of Clio, Uni, Toro, and Coppa in Boston, and Toro in New York

“I always wanted to be a chef when I was a kid,” says Oringer. “We’d have leftover Chinese food and white rice — I’m not a big white rice guy — so I would go into the cupboards and take out a bunch of ingredients.” He’d mix the leftovers with steak sauce, sesame oil, frozen peas, chopped-up hot dogs, and more. “It was easy and instant gratification.” Oringer’s dish, naturally, was crab fried rice with green curry and XO sauce, which he considers “a most prized Chinese condiment.”

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At the event, Oringer tasted Jasper White’s and Lydia Shire’s dishes. “Anything those guys cook, I’ll line up for. . . . It was so cool to have ‘Top Chef’ come to our city and showcase the diverse chefs we have and the camaraderie we have.” Oringer doesn’t turn his TV on very often but says, “These [cooking] shows are hugely entertaining. I’m always tense and nervous watching them.” He’s been on “Iron Chef” and is proud of his work in the coffee battle, which he won against Cat Cora.

Jamie Bissonnette

Chef and partner of Toro and Coppa in Boston, and Toro in New York

“I made the first thing I ever cooked successfully,” says Bissonnette, which, when he was 11, was soft scrambled eggs. This time he paired them with clams, olive oil, and garlicky, crunchy croutons, a traditional Spanish dish. “Eggs are one of my favorite things to cook,” he says, and the dish is “a testament to some of the simplest things done right.”

At the event, Bissonnette was stationed next to business partner Oringer and he ate some of his crab fried rice. He also nabbed one of Jasper White’s lobster cutlet chops. “It was so cool and really flavorful. That’s so old-school New England and so Jasper,” he says, adding, “He’s someone I’ve looked up to for 20 years.

“Boston is such a unique city. We’re so lucky to have a tight community of chefs. I was the youngster there. The camaraderie is just awesome.” The former “Chopped” winner says competitive cooking shows “bring credibility to what we do.”

Read an interview with Bissonnette on his new charcuterie book.

Mercure Photography

Kristen Kish

Chef and Season 10 winner of “Top Chef”

Kish, who was working at Stir when she won “Top Chef,” and afterward moved to Menton, has both a keen eye and practical experience for what makes contestants successful. “No one seemed frantic. They were all very organized and ready to go.” The chef kept her own dish fairly simple — the same advice she has for the contestants — and made crepes stuffed with mortadella, French comte, and whole-grain mustard lightened with creme fraiche. After the crepes were filled and rolled like burritos they were pan-fried until lightly crisp. “I love ham and cheese and I love anything crispy,” she says.

1-28-2012 Boston, Mass. 250 guests attended the First Annual Fenway Chili Cookoff 2012 held at Church Restaurant . Tiffani Faison of Sweet Cheeks Restaurant. Globe photo by Bill Brett 15topchef
1-28-2012 Boston, Mass. 250 guests attended the First Annual Fenway Chili Cookoff 2012 held at Church Restaurant . Tiffani Faison of Sweet Cheeks Restaurant. Globe photo by Bill Brett 15topchefBill Brett for The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Tiffani Faison

Chef and owner of Sweet Cheeks

Faison, an experienced competitor, was runner-up on “Top Chef” Season 1 in 2006, competed on “Top Chef All-Stars” in Season 8, and was a finalist on “Top Chef Duels,” which concluded last week. In an e-mail from Asia, she writes: “For me, it was really fun to have my colleagues in Boston see the filming of an episode. Having been through it so many times, it was nice to have friends involved and gain a greater understanding of how it all works.” Regarding the contestants’ energy level, she writes, “I will say the intensity compared to other challenges I’ve seen was lacking — maybe because it was just the first challenge.”

For her dish, “We made our signature beef brisket on a biscuit with Parmesan butter and North Carolina ‘agro-dolce.’ It’s a combination of the things we are most loved for at Sweet Cheeks. It is also very reminiscent of my mom’s biscuits and home cooking.”

Faison tasted some of the contestants’ dishes but few of those of her fellow chefs. “I was less interested in my colleagues’ food because I know them so well. I wanted to gauge the level of talent in the competition. I think it became clear who the toughest competitors would be very quickly. We’ll see if I was right.”

Related coverage:

What to watch for in ‘Top Chef’ opener

Please ‘Top Chef,’ don’t resort to Boston cliches

‘Top Chef’ season shot in Boston makes its debut

Watch the trailer for “Top Chef” season 12

Kristen Kish throws a party (and shares her recipes)

‘Top Chef’ Boston season revealed

16,000 apply for ‘Top Chef’ episode


Interviews were edited and condensed. Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisawzwirn.com.