Despite the rain, the chill and the precipitous decline of the “Top Chef” franchise this season, dozens of hopefuls arrived at Graffiato this morning and early afternoon for an open casting call for the Bravo reality show.
Among the hopefuls were Cicely Austin and Matthew Heaggans, a pair of cooks who previously shared the kitchen at the now shuttered Inox in Tysons. They both decided at the last-minute to attend the call; neither one of them had produced the requisite five-minute video to give to the casting department with Magical Elves, the production company behind “Top Chef.” Heaggans, in fact, was still filling out the 24-page application at Graffiato.
“I really only came here so that she would come,” says Heaggans, who’s now a cook at Old Angler’s Inn in Potomac. “She told me to come. I’m not interested in this life. But I thought if I would come, she would come, because she has way more business. . . .”
“He’s really good at what he does,” interrupts Austin, now a pastry chef for The Oval Room, the Bombay Club and Ardeo + Bardeo. “He’s one of the most talented cooks I’ve ever met. I think he sells himself short every now and again.”
If you can’t tell, Austin and Heaggans are also a couple.
Austin is being modest. She clearly has chops. Not only is she a Culinary Institute of America grad (pastry and savory) with training under noted pastry chef, retro-greaser and “Top Chef: Just Desserts” head judge Johnny Iuzzini, but she also earned a recent nod in Food & Wine magazine’s “The People’s Best New Pastry Chef” contest.
You’d have to think Magical Elves will give her serious consideration, even without a video in hand.
Not that casting director Noelle Cain is tipping her hand. She knows the Bravo protocol: Reveal important information at your own peril. Cain notes that she’s looking at potential cheftestants for Season 10, but that’s where the specifics end. She can’t say where next season will be filmed or who’s being given consideration among the local talent pool.
She does acknowledge, however, that today’s interviews were only part of the “Top Chef” auditions in the Washington area. Magical Elves also interviewed potential contestants — higher-profile chefs, from what I’ve heard — at a local hotel on Tuesday.
“We’ve done a lot of research to get specific [chefs] to a certain spot, then we also want to open it up to the general public because clearly there are diamonds in the rough,” says Cain during a break in the interviews at Graffiato. “They don’t have the PR, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have the skills. So I think that’s why we open this up.”
And what exactly are Cain and Magical Elves looking for in terms of a chefestant?
“We begin with the chops. You have to have the chops to compete against the level of chefs that ‘Top Chef’ has brought in,” she says, “and every year, I think we’re pushing the bar again to where the line is almost blurred between the ‘Top Chef’ people and [‘Top Chef] Masters.’”
Sure, Cain adds, the producers consider personality and backstory and other non-culinary elements when picking chefs. But kitchen talent is paramount.
‘We don’t want anybody entering this that we don’t think can win,” she says. “This is a show for chefs. This is a show for foodies. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a good competition.”
Cold hard cash seems to be the driving motivation for a number of the chefs who stood in line. A notable D.C. chef from a notable D.C. restaurant — who preferred to remain anonymous — dragged his tired frame out of bed to join the audition. Why? “It’s for the money, you know what I mean?” he says. “You can’t really argue with it.”
Some traveled from other states to give it a go. Krissy — just “Krissy” — is a diminutive chef from Greensboro, N.C., with a boyish haircut and a prim bowtie. On her fingers, she has “c-h-e-f” spelled out on one hand and “e-t-t-e” on the other. She has a chef’s knife tattooed on her forearm, complete with a written warning: “Do not get loud with me.”
Krissy is clearly hoping her hard-edged, androgynous persona will earn her a spot on “Top Chef.” Like a presidential candidate, she’s also playing up her outsider status. “Not a lot of people give Greensboro, N.C., a lot of attention,” she says, “so I’ll see if I can ease in there.”
Jeremy Law is also from North Carolina, where he runs a small farm and a 14-seat restaurant in Wilson, called SoCo, which operates from Wednesdays through Saturdays. Law is obviously the teacher’s pet of the audition; he’s brought a packet of information, including his five-minute video that his wife shot and edited on an iPhone.
Law has numerous reasons why he’d like to be on “Top Chef.” One is to sort of share the pain of being a working chef.
“I’d like to pick up some more acres. I’d like to add some livestock, and the prize money wouldn’t hurt,” he says. “If nothing else, it looks like a lot of fun to be cooking with a bunch of other people who are stupid enough to want to do what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’ve tried to get out of the restaurant industry — to no avail.”