Top Chef’s Laurine Wickett has been on the San Francisco dining scene since since 1990, when she landed here to do an internship at Ernie’s. After putting in time at Moose’s and Palio d’Asti and helping Craig Stoll at The Frog and the Peach and Delfina, Wickett started working as a caterer in Silicon Valley in what eventually became Left Coast Catering. She mastered the art of market-driven menus long before farm-to-table was a catch phrase. An early fan of Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market, as well as local farmers’ markets, Wickett knows from fresh produce. Unfortunately that didn’t help her as much as it could have in Las Vegas. We got her on the phone to ask about the market and dining scenes in Sin City, big wigs she’s known, and her annoyingly successful gambling method.
How did your “no-menu” experience help you with the Top Chef competition?
You know, I think Top Chef actually brought me back to more of my original roots in cooking. Back in the early days we would go over to Berkeley Bowl and to Monterey Market and basically shop and see what they had and write a menu while we were shopping… That helped in Top Chef. They gave us a theme or an ingredient that we had to work off of.
Do you think you have an advantage coming from San Francisco, with all its top-notch produce, or did that work against you? How did the produce in Vegas stack up?
I think West Coast chefs were very market-driven and were used to having great, high-quality produce. We were in Vegas, so the quality of the food we had was disappointing. The East Coast chefs were giving us West-Coasters a hard time — “How are you going to be able to cook without your high-quality ingredients?” There’s this standing controversy on whether or not East Coast chefs are more skilled because they have to take ingredients that maybe aren’t as great or as fresh and do something with it.
Who are some of the more notable Silicon Valley big-wigs you’ve cooked for?
Larry Ellison of Oracle, Intel CEO Andy Grove, Peoplesoft CEO Craig Conway. Working for Larry Ellison, we crossed paths with lots of people including Steve Jobs and his wife Laurene Powell, Michael Milken, Al Gore… there were a lot of heavy hitters at his dinners.
What was your favorite restaurant in Vegas?
The one dinner we went to [was] at B&B; — Bastianich and Batali. I’ve eaten at a lot of [Mario] Batali’s restaurants in New York and even thought the quality was the same, I feel the food was a little “dumbed down” for the Vegas crowd. [For] many of the chefs that have restaurants out there, I think that’s not where the chefs are spending their time. They just happen to have a location in Vegas.
What was the most you gambled?
I hate gambling. Not a dime. Maybe twice I threw a quarter into a slot machine and won $50 once and $25 another time.
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