Fans and viewers of Bravo's "Top Chef: Las Vegas", take note: Chef Robin Leventhal is a survivor.
Currently competing in the hit show's sixth season, the feisty cheftestant has become one of the top eight contenders for the "Top Chef" title. In addition to impressing culinary star Michelle Bernstein and showing a younger generation of peers that she's no old lady to underestimate at 43, she has also squared off against two types of lymphoma— and won.
As "Top Chef: Las Vegas" prepares to air its super-sized Restaurant Wars episode, the 43-year-old Seattle-based chef and self-described bad Jew took some time out to answer Intrepid Media's questions about the show, her experience with cancer, and lets us know why she's no flash in anyone's pan. Especially ours.
IM: First things first- "Top Chef: Las Vegas" is arguably the most exciting and competitive season the show has had yet. How is it as a Season Six cheftestant?
RL: This group is, without a doubt, tremendously talented— a couple I might even call brilliant! As someone who came to food a little later in life I am blown away by the skills these young chefs have! It has been an honor to work side-by-side with them and a privilege to have experienced this opportunity in life!
IM: Tell us about your competition—it seems like there’s an abundance of crazy talent this time around. Who did you enjoy meeting and competing against?
RL: I have to admit, I have had no exposure to molecular gastronomy, so I enjoyed witnessing and learning a bit of it from Bryan and Michael Voltaggio. There was always a touch of fantasy to their dishes and I like the mystery it evoked! I also really enjoyed watching what Kevin Gillespie and Jenn Carroll came up with. I only wish we could have tasted each other’s food more!
IM: Something else I noticed is that the guest judging has also been pretty tough. Up to now, we’ve seen you cook for the likes of Charlie Palmer, Joël Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, and Wolfgang Puck. How did it feel to cook for culinary star power like that? Who was your favorite guest judge?
RL: It was a tremendous honor just to shake ALL of their hands, for sure, but cooking for them was nerve-racking to say the least! Of them all, I really enjoyed how Daniel Boulud was able to be kind and still provide us with constructive critique.
IM: At the moment there’s a little bit of craziness going with Todd English, one of your former judges, over his wedding that didn’t happen. Have you ever been a runaway bride?
RL: LOL! I have to admit having cold feet over this before but had the sense to stop before things progressed to the runway. I however do congratulate Todd for not going through with it, regardless of the consequences and impact to his reputation. I believe we should heed our instincts a little more often. This, of course, comes from a comfort food queen who is all about having a heart!!!
IM: Of all the cheftestants, you are unique in that you are a cancer survivor. After your Quickfire Challenge with Michelle Bernstein, another contestant—Eli Kirshtein—accused you of "playing the cancer card" because you won. Can you weigh in on that moment? How did that feel?
RL: I truly feel we ALL have challenges in our lives that we must overcome. It is these experiences that enable us to grow and empower us to become better people in this journey.
The Quickfire was "Angels and Demons", and was about contrasting two sides to our own personal struggles. I simply applied my experience to this Quickfire and it happened to be exactly what they were looking for. For Eli to dismiss this as a copout is as unfortunate as it is shortsighted. He is clearly dismissing the professional opinion of Michelle Bernstein and the "Top Chef" judges.
Winning this Quickfire demonstrated I deserved to be there in this competition, and clearly he had to diminish that success in the only way he knows how. I feel that comment was immature, and perhaps if Eli had had a few more trying experiences in life, he may have been the winner instead. Denying this was a valid win reflects his lack of understanding what this challenge was truly about! It is a mystery to me how someone in an industry driven by customer satisfaction can lack compassion and grace as an individual!
IM: What can you tell us about your experience with lymphoma? Can you tell us how old you were when you were diagnosed, and how you coped? Clearly, this is a life-changing experience.
RL: I was diagnosed at the age of 38, eight months after opening my restaurant Crave. It was the last thing I expected to hear and my only experience to date was coping with the loss of my father at the age of 63 and his mother when she was in her early 70’s.
Thankfully, I have always been in tune with my body as an athlete, so I sensed something was not right before it had progressed to an untreatable state. I also had the dubious distinction of having not one, but two types of lymphoma. I have been told not only is this rare, but is also a reflection that "I am an overachiever."
Finding humor to cope with trying times can be very useful, this was very much how I moved through my diagnosis and treatment! I chose to spend my time not wasted on angstful people that are consumed by negativity. I would rather surround myself by the believers of progress and growth.
I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a wonderful community of people that share in these similar values. In turn, I have focused a portion of my time doing development work for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC), where I have both been a featured chef and member of their Chefs Advisory board for their Premier Chefs Dinner Fundraiser.
We are in an age where technology is profound and new discoveries are a daily event. In an effort to find a cure for lymphoma, I have set up a page on FHCRC’s site that I call "Truth to my Soul." This is a new piece in my efforts to raise money for lymphoma, and I hope it will generate greatly needed resources for the amazing research underway at FHCRC here in Seattle.
IM: What advice would you give to anybody diagnosed with lymphoma? Are there any particular healthy habits and cooking tips that helped you fight the disease?
RL: Not surprisingly, I immediately poured into any book I could find related to cancer, diet, and how food impacts our health. I became obsessed with consuming all the foods with the highest antioxidants, drinking green tea constantly, raw foods, juicing, eliminating refined sugars, consuming Chinese herbs, a few forms of alternative body work including acupuncture… it was overwhelming, the amount of information and various schools of thought over this subject.
But, what I do know is that first and foremost, it is important to eat healthfully, but not to give everything delicious up! Denial of pleasure is not the means to a happy— and thus, healthy— person. There is, however, a very real need for protein in our diets to strengthen our cellular growth, and not with quick energy sugars that feed the cancer cells. It has also come out in a recent study demonstrating that high antioxidant foods interfere with chemo, validating their helpful cancer fighting properties!
I also feel that we do not give lifestyle factors enough consideration when we talk about a body’s well-being. Our mental and physical health are inextricably connected, and running a restaurant is demanding to both of these conditions! Sleep and stress management are paramount to our overall health, perhaps more than anything else we do!
IM: Another recent happening in the food world is that "Gourmet" magazine just closed down. With the economy being what it is, it tough being a chef and a restaurant owner these days?
RL: This was a huge loss to the food world. The day it was announced, that was all we talked about on Twitter and Facebook. WOW, what a shock to us all, I cannot even imagine what the employees were contending with! I can’t even imagine a holiday season without my November issue of "Gourmet" with a gorgeous turkey on it! I imagine it must be a similar experience to when a little kid first learns that Santa does not exist! I never had that experience being Jewish, but Thanksgiving has always been our holiday in a house full of foodies!
IM: As a result of shows like "Top Chef: Las Vegas", cooking now seems like a really popular profession. What advice do you have for anyone who wants to go to culinary school, or is thinking about a career change?
RL: I would encourage anyone considering this as a profession to go get a job first. It is tough industry, and having passion for food is only one part of it. Going to school is a great way to obtain a lot of information neatly packaged— however, it is very removed from what working in a restaurant is all about. That being said, there are a multitude of ways to make a career in food, being a chef and running a kitchen is just the most obvious.
IM: What made you decide to become a chef? How long have you been cooking for?
RL: It was 1992, and I was pursuing an MFA in ceramics at the university of Michigan. In my desire to always keep learning, I took a summer job in the catering department. I had never touched a professional knife before, and was fascinated with the kitchen rather than the front of the house position I was hired for. I fell in love with it immediately!
As an artist, it both satisfied my desire to be creative and to connect with people on a deeper level than just conversation. I learned early on that my hands were my gift in life, using them in a meaningful way is fundamental to who I am. I never "decided" to become a chef, I just fell in love with cooking professionally, and the journey has led me to where I am today.
Tomorrow, I am hoping it leads me on a path that is focused less on running a kitchen and more time making art. I never confuse food for art, they are very separated experiences for me. This is not to deny that certain chefs out there who are very much making the dining experience artful!
IM: Do you have a signature dish, or a set of favorite ingredients that you always love to cook with?
RL: My signature dish is duck confit with a green chili savory bread pudding and drunken fig compote. I am a huge fan of shallots and butter. I typically pair fruit and savory together.
IM: Speaking of ingredients, just about everything has bacon on it these days. Is bacon too overused, or have we not yet discovered its full use?
RL: I LOVE that you asked me this question. Our very first Elimination Challenge was our "Vice" dish. My presentation was that "I am a bad Jew", and I did pork five ways, or a "cacophony of pork." It was a pork tenderloin that I stuffed with chorizo, and I made a "bone" out of candied bacon to resemble a pork chop. I also did bacon bruleed brussel sprouts. The sauce was a play off of a red eye gravy ("cowboy" gravy made with coffee and pan drippings from the ham). Later in the show, I used it in the form of "sand" on my deconstructed clam chowder dish for Penn and Teller.
I would say NO to that, and NO to it’s not too trendy… it’s delicious and I feel incredibly versatile. I do think it can be a clutch however. And we always joke in the biz, "If you want it to sell just put bacon in it!"
IM: What chef or cuisine inspires you?
RL: I am inspired by the fearlessness and dedication of Julia Child and the brilliance of Thomas Keller. I love bold flavors, and have a thing for Asian and Latin cuisine. However, my technique and style of cooking is more rooted in French with their love of braising and use of butter.
IM: What food or cooking style would you like to learn more of?
RL: I would love to more about molecular gastronomy, but am not a fan of chemicals, so it is more of the techniques and tricks, but balanced by a helpful dose of what is good for us first. I would also love to study sushi, it is one of my favorite foods to eat!
IM: A few months ago, Stefan told me he thought a burger was the sexiest food trend. What do you think is the sexiest food trend going on?
RL: We have seen sliders on menus for a while now and charcuterie is not over for sure! I think the next sexy trend is mobile food… with the high price of rent, a taco truck makes a lot of sense to a restaurateur. As a chef who loves the street food, clearly I am not alone here in appreciating ethnic and cheap eats! They are also sexy because of their odd after hours and atypical locations!
But I think the bigger movement is of sourcing locally. Knowing who grew the food, and that these people were genuinely kind or benevolent in their pursuit of bring their craft to us! Sourcing locally is less about being sexy and more a statement of celebrating our community.
IM: What would your last meal be?
RL: The Death Row question, and I think I change it up every time it is asked! Right now, today, Hamachi collar, but I have learned it’s not a sustainable fish— bummer! But if it was my last meal, then I am not going to deny myself it!
IM: Last but not least, over here at Intrepid Media, there are quite a few of us who love to cook. If we were to ask you to make us something intrepid to eat in our own little Quickfire Challenge within 45 minutes, what would you make for us?
RL: A bunch of foodies want something intrepid and my only limitation is time! I would have to say my first thought was a meal that required you all to use your hands! Messy food is fun and I feel we are too careful in our culture! I also think you want to be challenged a bit and to not have a predictable meal…so for my Quickfire Challenge, I am going to do a reverse challenge.
I would place a sea urchin in front of each of you, spines and all and proceed to give you a lesson on how to excavate the glorious Uni within! We will then enjoy its sweet briny tangerine colored flesh on my favorite purple glutinous ginger-coconut-lime rice with a wasabi-tobiko vinaigrette. Your vegetables will be quick pickled sweet hot Japanese cucumbers and I will gather some wild sea beans and make you a simple salad laced with sesame and ginger and together we will harvest the urchins and I will get to share the bounty of the Pacific Northwest with the now even more fearless office of Intrepid Media!
IM: Well I'm game for sea urchin. But I'm going to have to let the rest of Intrepid Media weigh in on the challenge.
RL: Clearly bending the rules here, but hey, that’s what I do! Taking tableside saucing and Caesars to the next level!
IM: Robin, you are incredible. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! You're welcome to turn the tables with us anytime.
RL: Thank you all for the opportunity to share a piece of my "Top Chef" experience supported with a healthy dose of personal experiences!
An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.
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10.19.09 @ 2:43p
Another great cheftestant Q&A, Alex!
10.19.09 @ 3:09p
Thanks! It was a total blast to do it
10.19.09 @ 4:24p
Robin's Truth to My Soul page is indeed available on the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research site. She shares more of her insights there!