Reality Bites

Many well-trained chefs are turning to TV for their big breaks. In fact, more than a dozen chefs from South Florida kitchens have appeared on Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen and Bravo’s Top Chef as contestants, judges and guest diners.

Despite gaining fame and, in some cases, larger bank accounts — if not from show winnings, then from personal appearances and tours after their television gigs — some former contestants have discovered that the spotlight can take away something much more valuable, their self respect.

Some felt ridiculed on national television. Others suffered from spending time away from their families and businesses. And at least one local chef walked away from Top Chef feeling down on the entire restaurant industry. Yet the shows have influenced the way they cook and opened their eyes to new ways of doing things.

Paula DaSilva is the most recent chef to step onto and get spit out of the maw of reality television. The chef of 3030 Ocean Restaurant at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa in Fort Lauderdale, DaSilva was eliminated in the finale of Hell’s Kitchen, the Fox program that concluded its fifth season May 14.

DaSilva says she’s not bitter that she lost.

“I was overqualified for that position,” she says of the first-place, one-year contract as head chef at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City, N.J. The winner also received $250,000. In some ways she does feel like a winner in that she came away from the show with a new sense of what a kitchen staff can accomplish.

“I was always pretty demanding of myself in the kitchen, but Gordon Ramsay on the show took it to a whole new level,” she says.

“When you leave the show you take that away with you. You’d be insane not to.” Back in Fort Lauderdale, she’s realized she can expect more from her own staff. “I can push them for more work, more quality and expect more from them without sacrificing anything,” she says.

Stephen Starr, a guest judge on Top Chef and owner of the newly opened Steak 954, a boutique steakhouse in the W Fort Lauderdale hotel, admits he would be disinclined to hire a reality-show chef. “Overnight sensations often fade,” says Starr, who built an empire of elaborate and theatrically influenced restaurants in New York, Philadelphia and Atlantic City before arriving in Fort Lauderdale.

“Fame comes through a lot of paying your dues and hard work,” he says. But Starr is not entirely averse to working with a reality-show veteran. He co-owns restaurants with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in New York and Philadelphia, though he says he went into business with the reality star not because of his hit show, but because he is an accomplished chef. “He wasn’t some kid who auditioned and got the job because he had a certain look or whatever,” he says.

Howie Kleinberg had spent 13 years working feverishly on the Miami restaurant scene. But he didn’t feel he was getting the recognition he deserved.

“You can do great food, but if people don’t know about it, it’s not worth it,” Kleinberg says. So the chef who took pride in serving patrons admittedly puzzling creations such as veal cheeks with foie gras auditioned for a spot on the third season of Top Chef. He felt the show would showcase his cuisine, which he considered too forward-thinking for the Miami market.

Impressing the casting directors with his blunt opinions and need for attention, Kleinberg found himself playing a familiar role on TV. “They knew who they were getting before I ever stepped foot onto the set. I told them I am a straight shooter,” Kleinberg says.

But the experience prompted him to reconsider his devotion to haute cuisine. “After being on Top Chef, I kind of got turned off by that whole high-end kind of attitude,” says Kleinberg, who once avidly read cookbooks from Michelin-rated chefs. He says the show’s nasty, confrontational judging process changed his attitude. During his first Top Chef challenge, he didn’t get a dish finished and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain criticized him for it.

“‘What’s your major malfunction?” Kleinberg remembers Bourdain asking him. Kleinberg shot back with a quote from one of Bourdain’s own books: “You serve food when it’s right, not when the timing says it’s time to put the food up in the window.”

The same guy who tried to educate his patrons with esoteric dishes and longed to open a restaurant in New York now says, “I want to get back to the basics and do everyday food for everyday people.”

He has since opened Bull Dog Barbecue in North Miami.

Having left the show with a new sense of confidence, he has a newfound respect for the average Miami palate. “This is my hometown,” Kleinberg says. “I have my finger on the pulse of what this community wants.” And he thinks they want Shrimp and Grits, marinated skirt steak and pulled pork.

“Spending summers in North Carolina with my family, I was practically weaned on barbecue,” says Kleinberg. “It’s the food that I love to eat and the food I love to cook. Now ... I’m taking these classic recipes and making them my own.” Carlos Fernandez, owner of Hi-Life Café in Fort Lauderdale, also thought appearing on Top Chef might validate his success. Even though the Cuban immigrant and self-taught chef has operated his own restaurant for 10 years, Fernandez still feels inferior to more formally trained peers. Going on the show, he says with a laugh, “was a great way to get a Top Chef diploma or a Bravo certificate.

“The Top Chef judges eliminated Fernandez halfway through the series’ second season in 2006.”

Something I definitely took away from the show was that I’m doing it,” says Fernandez, who adds that his appearance boosted his confidence along with his restaurant’s profits. It also broadened his menu.

During his time on the show, sales at Hi-Life Cafe increased 20 percent, he says.

And before he went on the show he remembers only looking at ingredients from his own perspective. But after being on the show and watching how 14 competitors handled the same ingredient, he began looking at things differently. And since he’s back in his own kitchen, he’s expanded his menu.

“It used to be safe, basically continental. But now I’ve loosened up,” he says. Where before his top sellers were dishes like roasted duck with a merlot and port reduction and steak au poivre, now he’s into pan-seared jumbo scallops with an orange reduction sauce served with ginger sweet potato mash.

And last November, Top Chef-style, he let his restaurant diners vote what to put on his menu and what to take off. Although the Chicken Balsamico was told to “pack its knives and go,” he feels it’s a great dish for home cooks and offers the recipe here.

“It takes 10 minutes to chop and seven minutes to cook. It’s flavorful and fast,” he says.

Jeff McInnis, the executive chef at the DiLido Beach Club in The Ritz-Carlton South Beach, appeared last year on Top Chef. The show’s directors made the most of McInnis’ blond hair, blue eyes and knack for going shirtless. But don’t expect to see him marketing himself on a hot-chef calendar any time soon.

“Right now, all I’m doing is cooking in my kitchen,” he says.

McInnis complains that the show “took me away from my family... [and] interviews continue to take us away from the stove.”

And not all his interviews have gone well. After being eliminated, the Miami native appeared on The Today Show, where he prepared lettuce rolls. To his surprise, host Kathie Lee Gifford spat out his dish on national TV.

Nevertheless, the chef, known for dishes featuring exotic sorbets, believes his Top Chef experience is worthwhile. “I got to cook for people like Rocco DiSpirito and Martha Stewart,” he says. “I was able to meet chefs you only get to read about.”