More than any other reality television show, Top Chef hits that elusive American sweet spot of prestige and commerce. The franchise has sold mass-market frozen dinners, but still maintains the respect of the food industry and regularly produces contestants who go on to open critically acclaimed restaurants. I got to witness this high-wire culinary act firsthand at the James Beard House on Wednesday night, during a dinner cooked by Top Chef contestant Sheldon Simeon. Why Sheldon? Earlier this season, he won an elimination challenge that granted him the prize of … cooking again. Everybody wins! Especially me, your Vulture correspondent who got to eat a five-course dinner sitting next to Food & Wine editor and Top Chef judge Gail Simmons. Yes, she looks great eating.
Let’s start with the James Beard House, a little townhouse in the West Village named after the man who was known as the “dean of American cookery.” (Also a gay man; here’s a good piece about it.) The restaurant, or “performance space” as it calls itself, is easy to miss. I walked by it twice before I actually noticed the subtle, gold-plated building number. It looks just like one of those apartments in the Village that you stroll by on cool autumn nights, wondering if Carrie Bradshaw is tapping away at her keyboard inside.
The dinner was sold out. I get checked in by a bespectacled gentleman who tells me my table number is five, which I immediately forget and think is maybe table No. 2. The first thing I see is the kitchen, which is brightly lit and crowded with admirers taking photos of Sheldon Simeon making food. Everyone is obsessed with Sheldon. He’s a fan favorite, and exudes the same lovability in person that he does on camera. Later that night, people will quote Sheldon to me: “You can’t cook with hate in your heart.”
Sheldon is flanked by other celebrity chefs who are helping that night: April Bloomfield from the Spotted Pig, along with Top Chef alums Carla Hall and Silvia Barban. I’m starting to think that “performance space” is exactly the right word for this dinner, because Sheldon is smiling and talking, all the while he actually does the important job of feeding 70 people. If someone tried to talk to me while I was writing, my brain would short circuit and I would die.
There’s a wall of people in the cocktail area, and as much as I love alcohol, I can’t stand crowds, so I duck outside onto the patio. Others follow suit, and I decide that we’re the most sensible people in the room. One of them, an investment banker from Hawaii, asks me if I’m a fan of Top Chef. I explain that I don’t describe myself as a “fan” of things, but that I have watched every single episode of Top Chef since the first season, including Just Desserts. Okay, so maybe I am a fan. I love Top Chef!
We don’t get cocktails, but the cater waiters are kind enough to bring food to the patio. I try a cured pork belly on a cracker that tastes like a very fancy Lunchable. There’s a airy foie gras mousse on toasted Hawaiian sweetbread. But the best hors d’oeuvre I eat is a pork and shrimp lumpia with fermented chiles and pineapple. I want to take another one — the last one — but I don’t want to look like a monster.
First course: Salmon
I’m seated next to Gail Simmons, and I quietly start to freak out. I tell her in no uncertain terms that she’s my favorite judge on Top Chef. It’s true! Maybe it’s because she doesn’t appear on every single episode, but I feel her absence more acutely; she provides the necessary counterbalance to Tom Colicchio’s stern dad demeanor. She is always precise about what she thinks a dish does well, without being unnecessarily catty or cruel. And here is something I can tell you about Gail after dining less than 24 inches from her face: She is beautiful. Obviously, a lot of people on TV are beautiful, but she looks like a gorgeous feline decided to become a person.
Before we can start eating, James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro comes out to welcome all the “new faces” and let everyone know that the James Beard House is also open for regular-people dining. Then she introduces a man from Dassai brand sake, which is the alcohol pairing for the first dish. As the sake guy talks, a fleet of waiters bring out a salmon crudo with grilled pineapple. It’s a perfect example of what Top Chef excels at — that elusive late capitalistic enterprise of brand synergy. I eat my salmon. It’s good, but I think it needs a little salt?
Second course: Sheldon’s winning dish!
This is the big moment: the dish that prompted Tom Colicchio to proclaim Sheldon Simeon would be one of the great American chefs. It’s a chow fun noodle dish, which Sheldon created earlier this season by pulverizing Carolina Gold rice served with hibachi pork belly, okra, and turkey neck broth. When they bring the dish over, they pour the broth table side, which ups the fancy factor by ten percent. Since filming, the plating changed so that Gail doesn’t recognize it at first. The noodles are smaller, but she says that it tastes the same. The noodles are delightfully chewy. And the broth! Gail uses a spoon to drink it up. I follow her lead.
There’s also a couple from New Jersey sitting at our table. The wife, in particular, is a big fan of the show. BIG FAN. So far, Gail has been talking to her colleague from Food & Wine, but I’m watching the woman watching Gail and waiting for her big moment. When it comes, she doesn’t waste it. First, she wants to know what Gail thinks of the dish. (“Sheldon apologized that I had to eat the same dish twice, and I was like, We picked it for a reason!”) She and her family are going to go on a trip to Los Angeles, so where’s a good, casual place to eat? (Jon & Vinny’s.) What about Brooke? They love Brooke. Which Brooke restaurant should they go to? (Playa Provisions.) Gail tries to check her phone, but the woman presses forward. Gail. Gail!
Third course: Turnips
I love how weird this dish is from Tony Maws, the chef of Craigie on Main. It’s a couple of turnips with the tops in a beet, chorizo, pork blood, and dashi ragout. A lot of people don’t know how to eat it, but it seems like you can just smother the turnips in the ragout and go to town. It’s a funky, savory dish that looks like a double-turnip homicide. It’s tasty.
Gail has a spare moment, and I too, want to talk to Gail. She says how she’s “an eater,” and as someone who watches her over the course of dinner, I can attest that she finishes her plates. As a fellow eater, I want to know how she’s so skinny, and she immediately returns the question with a wink. “Well, how are you so skinny?” (My heart skips a beat.) She continues, “We’re not so skinny that it sounds like we’re lying.” So true, Gail Simmons!
Fourth course: Sheldon’s lunch plate
Before the plate itself comes out, the waiters bring us a tray full of “dime bags” filled with dehydrated broccoli and chili thread. We later learn (because Gail asks the waiters) that we’re supposed to crumble it over the next dish, a “lunch plate” consisting of mochiko chicken, ahi poke, macaroni salad, and ho’i’o (fern shoot) salad. Sheldon loves to cook these fun, inventive dishes that come from his love of Hawaiian and Filipino food. You can’t cook with hate in your heart!
Gail talks about a British show that she loves, and it’s not the one you’d expect … unless you guessed Back in Time for Dinner. The first iteration of the series follows a family, who cook according to the technology and social mores of a particular decade, starting with the 1950s. Gail explains how, for instance, the chest freezer was part of a changing family structure that allowed women to more easily work outside the home. I suddenly have the improbable wish that Gail Simmons recap this show for Vulture.
Fifth course: Dessert
The dessert course is made by Carla Hall, the beloved Top Chef contestant who appeared on season five before coming back to do All-Stars. She’s made a coconut and lime mousse, studded with mango and toasted coconut and served with sesame shortbread cookies. Just like the chicken pot pie challenge that she won on All-Stars, Carla has tucked a couple of shortbread cookies underneath the mousse like a little pieces of treasure. Hootie-hoo!
At the end of the meal, the chefs come out to take a bow. Everyone has their phones out. This is like a One Direction concert for foodies. “Tonight was very special,” Sheldon says. “I’m super stoked that I got to fill your bellies with aloha.” The rest of the chefs talk about how wonderful Sheldon is. They open it up for questions, and one man asks a “question” that is really a story about how he and his wife went to Hawaii, and tried to eat at his restaurant, Tin Roof, on their way to the airport only to discover the restaurant was closed on Sundays. Sheldon is eminently gracious with this ungracious man, apologizes, and explains that “Sundays are for family.”
Truly, that’s what Sheldon does with his food: He gives you something that he would give to his family, which is the most generous thing a chef can do. If you’re Asian-American, you understand that he’s reconstructing parts of your childhood and honoring how your parents eat. As the guests file out, each of them shakes Sheldon’s hand or asks to take a photo with him. He always says yes and always smiles, even though I can see the tiredness creeping into his eyes. It’s been a long day. It makes me think about how hard he’s had to work to get to where he is, and how, even though I only know him from television, I’m proud as hell. Mahalo, Sheldon.