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Food for Thought

While ‘Top Chef D.C.’ is mired in poor ratings, a 'Top Chef' master is riding high.

6:45 PM, Jun 23, 2010 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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As Lisa de Moraes reported in the Washington Post, the ratings for last week’s season opener of Top Chef D.C. were dismal: With a mere 1.8 million viewers, the episode was the lowest rated opener in Top Chef history (compare with the 2.6 million who watched the first episode of Top Chef Las Vegas and the 2.7 million for Top Chef New York).

Food for Thought

Those of us living inside the beltway obviously know our nation’s capital has also become a foodie capital with our own share of celebrity chefs like Jose Andres and rising stars like Johnny Monis, not to mention highly praised restaurants such as CityZen and Rasika. And of course the area also boasts its share of Top Chef contestants, including Bryan Voltaggio (Volt in Frederick, Maryland), Spike Mendelsohn (Good Stuff Eatery on Capitol Hill), and Carla Hall (Alchemy Caterers in Silver Spring, Maryland).

So could the ratings drop reflect a dismissive public beyond the beltway—those who perceive the District as a steak-and-potatoes town catering largely to lobbyists and legislators? Admittedly, there is some truth to this, as there does seem to be a steakhouse around every corner. Bravo should be commended for selecting the capital for the Top Chef series, bringing an awareness to all that D.C. has to offer, and yet it remains uncertain that ratings will rise.

Of course it could simply be that viewers are suffering from Top Chef fatigue. After all, the show has been on for seven seasons. The Post’s Hank Stuever complained that he shared little sympathy for the contestants since they were all successful and very accomplished to begin with. (Note to Mr. Stuever: If you want to see unsuccessful and seriously unaccomplished chefs, try watching Hell’s Kitchen, in which one contestant kept confusing crab with lobster.)

Personally, I prefer watching the professionals. And if you want to see truly serious chefs pushing themselves to the limit, there is no better show than Top Chef Masters. At a press lunch earlier today, I spoke with Top Chef Masters finalist Susur Lee at his D.C. restaurant Zentan. He looked every bit as zen as he did during the cutthroat competition—besides tennis, he’s also started yoga, which he admits is tougher on the body than he expected. But contrary to depictions of him as a “fiendishly clever arch supervillain chef” (the Toronto Star), Lee came across as warm and engaging.

Being on Top Chef Masters has certainly changed things for the chef. Lee will now get stopped on the street by fans asking for a photo with him. But, he also adds, “I’ll get these phone calls from people I hadn’t heard from in a long time and they’re acting like we are best friends and I am like, ‘who are you?’” Around midseason, Lee notes, business at his eateries—including in Singapore—began to noticeably increase. Needless to say, if asked, he would gladly do the show again.

The press lunch itself was an emperor’s feast that included Lee’s famous Singapore Slaw (19 ingredients fused to perfection), Shang’s Crispy Garlic Chicken, and Cantonese Marinated Skirt Steak with shallot butter. I asked for a signature cocktail and Abdullah, the waiter, returned with a martini consisting of Thai-chili-infused Russian Standard vodka, unfiltered sake, and a floating pansy. With all the journalistic courage I could muster, I was able to down this sweet and spicy feminine concoction, flower and all—because it's part of my job.

Finally, for those fortunate to live near Zentan, the kitchen will be creating a five-course menu featuring some of his work from Top Chef Masters such as the Roast Chicken Curry—but for tomorrow night only. (He will also be signing copies of his book, Susur Lee: A Culinary Life.)

Episode two of Top Chef D.C. airs tonight at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

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