Near the conclusion of the most recent season of the hit food show Top Chef in June, Bravo announced that a tour promoting the reality program would be making 23 stops in 19 cities throughout the summer. On Wednesday, Top Chef: The Tour hit Madison, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the attendees.
Set up on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard just off the Capitol Square and near the midweek Dane County Farmers' Market, the Top Chef trailer cast a wide shadow over its neighbor, the Mad Dogs Chicago Style Eatery food cart. An expectant crowd milled about outside, and after a surprise spotting in the Starbucks across the street, I saw Chicagoans Stephanie Izard (Season 4 winner) and Dale Levitsky (Season 3 finalist) take their seats and begin signing autographs and posing for pictures.
Once we all filed into the well-appointed and surprisingly comfortable trailer -- one of my party commented that it was a more spacious kitchen than her first apartment -- Dale and Stephanie entered to enthusiastic applause. We were informed that the day's menu, herbed cheese ravioli over a pluot-tomato fruit salad with fennel and basil, would be prepared with primarily local ingredients. The chefs, they told us, spent their first day in town shopping at the Willy Street Co-op, and later visited Harvest for dinner. Both obviously value and subscribe to the "locavore" concept.
The crowd was encouraged to speak up during the cooking process, and there was no shortage of commentary. The chefs promised dish on any aspect of the show, and the avid fans in attendance certainly shared their thoughts. Both chefs spoke about their former and forthcoming Chicago-area restaurants; Stephanie divested herself of Scylla during her season of Top Chef, and is looking for a site for her in-the-wings gastropub concept, and Dale will be opening a diner-style joint with fellow Season 3 contestants Sara Nguyen and Chris "CJ" Jacobsen.
As for the food? It was delightfully light and summery, in keeping with the chefs' attention to seasonality. The sheep's milk cheese ravioli, wrapped in a wonton skin for efficiency's sake, was creamy but not heavy. Grape tomatoes and diced pluots played well with the sweet herbal notes of fennel and basil, and the vinaigrette blended the sweetness and acidity perfectly. The dish would be an ideal amuse bouche at any number of restaurants in Madison; I'm thinking Fresco and Harvest, for sure.
It's certainly nice to see a fan event for a TV show that doesn't devolve into some hammy mockery of the original product. Judging by the Madison event, Top Chef: The Tour sticks closely to the show's creative philosophy, but separates from the careful editing and over-conscious product placement. Both chefs were personable and funny, and at least one intends to come back to Madison. Stephanie told me after the show that she's hoping to make a weekend visit solely to focus on the Dane County Farmers' Market and maybe check out a little more of the restaurant scene.
Of course, that's only if she can find the time between future tour stops and tapings of Rachael Ray. Y'know, just like the rest of us.