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'Put Your Head Down and Cook'

A 'Top Chef' semifinalist on how she beat the odds.

12:00 PM, Feb 23, 2012 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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When Lindsay Autry began her first day on Top Chef: Texas, she was surprised to see how many of her fellow chefs made it through the audition process—they hadn't. Lindsay then learned all 28 of them would compete on-air until 16 actual contestants were left standing. "Just put your head down and cook," the North Carolina native told herself. She would then focus on just making it to the top 10, then the top 8, the final 5, and then on to the finals. "I definitely exceeded my expectations," Lindsay told me on the phone this morning. The executive chef of Omphoy Ocean Resort and Michelle Bernstein's restaurant in Palm Beach, Fla., made it to the final three.

'Put Your Head Down and Cook'

"I kind of knew it would come down to me or Sarah [Grueneberg] versus Paul [Qui]," she said. The competition was a fire-and-ice theme—but do you do hot versus cold or hot-spicy versus cold-mild or cold-spicy versus hot-mild? The challenge was definitely subject to intepretation. And at this stage of the game, it came down not only to interpretation but also the minor details. Even head judge Tom Colicchio admitted on his blog that Lindsay's dish "would never have sent her and her knives packing." He went on to explain,

Her halibut was cooked properly, as was the celery root salad. But I couldn’t enjoy the raw kale -- it was jarring. Her cocktail did pair well with her dish, but when taken on its own merits it was the poorest of the three cocktails we were served that evening. Remember that the cocktail itself was being judged -- it was part of the challenge. Further, we failed to see Lindsay fully embrace the challenge itself -- it was not enough to make good food, she had to also work with the concept of “fire and ice,” and I failed to see the fire in her “fiery celery root salad.” I think Lindsay played it a bit too safe when conceptualizing her dish for this challenge, and she paid the price for doing so.

As for her rivals, while Lindsay has the utmost respect for Sarah, she calls Paul a "boy wonder" who "really stands out." When I joked with her that Paul has probably accumulated as much cash in prior challenges as the grand prize of $125,000, she quickly replied, "He's close. It's $80,000. And a car."

Lindsay has no regrets about the experience, which she describes as "all about taking you out of your element and how well you adapt." She reminded me of the grueling physical nature of the competition—not every week, but every day. After the barbecue challenge, which kept them up for more than 40 hours, they had 8 hours of sleep, then went on to Restaurant Wars. "You're tired, you're dirty, you haven't showered well in a long time." She added, "I should've done P90X."

And although Lindsay admits the tensions among some of the chefs were real, the expressions we sometimes see are an editing trick. "No!" she said, "I might have made a weird face [there are six cameras alone at judges' table] but I didn't make it at Beverly!" Ah, reality TV at its best.

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