On the Set of the Top Chef Maui Finale
Top Chef finalist Nina Compton serves guest chefs Hugh Acheson and Paul Bartolotta her dish at Gannon’s in Wailea, Maui. (That's me! in the background!) Photo credit: Bravo Photo
I've been keeping a secret for four months. Me and about a hundred other people in Hawaii. We've known about Top Chef filming on Maui, known who the last two finalists were, even. How'd we do it? An NDA and the threat of Bravo suing you for $1M for tweeting "At Top Chef Maui, b*****s!" is enough to keep everyone #mum on their social networks.
A lot of food shows have been passing through Hawaii lately (thanks, HVCB!). I get invitations to observe some of them, but none do I jump at the chance at like I do for Top Chef, just to witness what really happens on the set.
I first started watching Top Chef because all the cooks around me were talking about it—it’s a show that’s as compelling to people in the industry as those who aren’t. Sure, there’s the human drama (and Padma!) that lures everyone in, but it also reflects kitchen life—the pressures, the egos, the last minute curveballs, and even the subjective nature of taste when you send out a dish you think is perfect, but not everyone agrees (especially those pesky critics).
So when I had the chance to sit in on one of the finale dinners, I dropped everything to get a taste of Top Chef first hand, to find out if the food’s actually any good. Because, ultimately, that’s the thing you can never tell on TV. I attended Nina Compton’s dinner at Gannon’s (that’s me, in the corner! For just a second!), and I’m happy to discover that it is good, really good. Especially the crispy breadfruit with whipped foie gras and the braised goat orecchiette with goat cheese, dishes strong enough to cut through the giddy haze of being this close to Padma and Tom. Serve breadfruit like Nina did, and you’ll shut up all the breadfruit haters. (Actually, Hawaii in general could learn a lot from how the Caribbean cooks breadfruit. I spent two years there and hardly ate any potatoes.)
I didn’t try both contestant’s menus, so I couldn’t compare the two, but Isaac Bancaco, the chef of Kaana Kitchen at the Andaz, did. We chatted later, after the filming, and he said that the dinners were comparable. “Nick’s dishes were very refined, clean, and well-thought out in execution,” he says. “I picked up a lot of techniques along the way, watching him. Nina cooked from her heart, from her soul, from her cultural background. That’s how I would cook.” Still, though, he admits he was “rooting for the contestant in my kitchen.” Watching Nick cook in his restaurant, “I wanted to jump in and help, give them pointers, tell them the little hotspots on the flat top. There are two ovens, one works better. I wish I could’ve told them which.”
Most of the other diners that night were industry people, including chefs from Kaana Kitchen, Gannon’s and Peter Merriman’s Kapalua, reinforcing the idea that Top Chef is about chefs and for chefs (and a million other viewers).