Top Chef premieres tonight on Bravo (9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific), and the seventh season is set in our nation’s capital. There’s nothing Washington likes more than a good trashing vetting, so Grub Street thoroughly examined the backgrounds of the six chefs who represent the cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. We found what they forgot to make private on Facebook, tracked their Twitter feeds, and interviewed their colleagues. Read our dossiers, below.
Kevin Sbraga, 31, Philadelphia
Sbraga’s bio boasts of stints at Georges in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and Union Trust and Garces Restaurant Group (GRG) in Philadelphia. Grub Street interviewed several people who worked with Sbraga at Union Trust and GRG, but all refused to speak on the record. Today he’s the executive chef at Rat’s Restaurantat the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey, which is operated by Starr Restaurant Organization.
The son of a baker parents, Sbraga went to Johnson & Wales, and in 2008 won the “Best Meat Presentation” award at the Bocuse d’Or qualifier. Philadelphia magazine referred to him in a recent interview as a “chef’s chef.”
Lynne Gigliotti, 51, Philadelphia
Gigliotti is a Philly Restaurant School and CIA graduate. She worked for Gordon Keith Wagner Caterers and later Restaurant La Terrasse in the eighties, and then spent some time on the line at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta and the Jean-Louis at the Watergate. She owned and operated her own restaurant, Grappa, in Atlanta, and now teaches at the CIA.
“I remember that she was quiet and a little shy, but was an extremely talented chef,” Gigliotti’s former boss Gordon Keith Wagner told us. “Sometimes people get the nuts and bolts of cooking, but not everybody has the nuts and bolts and the taste buds to go along with it. She had a great sense of taste and was extremely creative. I wouldn’t say she was the most level-headed chef — I don’t think there is such a thing — but she was the most passionate.”
According to Gigliotti’s Facebook page, her favorite quotation is: “Let me refer you to my web site, WWW.gofuckyourself.com.” Her profile says: “If you like Tom Robbins and Carl Haissen books, you will get my sense of humor.”
Jacqueline Lombard, 33, Brooklyn
Jacqueline Lombard (Jacqui to her friends) is “an incredibly energetic, curious, and talented woman,” Otto pastry chef Meredith Kurtzman told us of her former sous. “She was a valuable part of the team.” Lombard joined Otto after ditching her advertising career to attend the French Culinary Institute. When she left the restaurant to start a catering company, Mario Batali introduced her to Stella McCartney, a relationship that spawned her niche as caterer to the fashion people, a crowd not exactly known for their robust eating habits. (In a 2008 Paper magazine interview, Lombard called McCartney her “mommy client,” and mentioned cooking for luminaries like Elle MacPherson and Jil Sander.)
After a few years in the fashion-catering trenches, Lombard returned to life as a restaurant chef when she signed on last February at the Gansevoort 69, the restaurant that replaced beloved meatpacking district diner Florent. She wasn’t there long — the timeline indicates that she left right around when Top Chef began shooting. Lombard was briefly affiliated with a little-known restaurant called Leña, but she’s now part of the team at Greenpoint’s Café Royal. (Owner Cody Utzman explained that he, Lombard, and Lombard’s roommate, Natty Felder, all share chef-ing duties at Café Royal and its sister restaurants, Brooklyn Standard and Papacitos.) Lombard is affiliated with the website nyherald.com, (her Top Chef bio lists her as the site’s “Dining and Wine Editor,” though the website itself — which has updated its dining section twice in 2010 — refers to her as a “contributor.”) And through it all she’s stayed tight with the fashion set, staging “pop-up restaurants” for the likes of Balenciaga and Jil Sander as recently as yesterday, per her Facebook page.
Though perhaps not entirely relevant to her Top Chef prospects, we cannot let pass without comment Lombard’s contribution to 2009’s “25 Random Things” Facebook meme. These range from the mundane (she was born Amanda Jacqueline Moffat) to the extraordinary (the last name “Lombard” came courtesy of her ex-husband, who, in a stunning narrative twist, turned out to be her half-brother’s second cousin). Other spectacular Chef Jacqui facts: She was a lingerie model “for five minutes”; she’s had rubella, Lyme disease, viral meningitis, and hepatitis A; she’s double-jointed; she claims to have four nipples; and when she was 6 years old she watched the movie The Last Unicorn and became convinced she was a unicorn trapped in a human body. Her Twitter account, wisely, is locked.
Ed Cotton, 32, New York
A second-generation CIA grad, Ed Cotton is also a second-generation chef. Chef Ed Cotton Sr., ran the kitchen at the now-closed Cottage Crest Restaurant in Waltham, Massachusetts, exposing his son to the cooking bug early. Cotton Fils studied Culinary Arts as a student at Lexington, Massachusetts’s Minuteman Career & Technical High School. (On the school’s website, a teacher praises him as someone whose “natural talent for cooking and love of food was obvious.”) When Cotton finally landed in New York, he spent five years working for Daniel Boulud at db Bistro Moderne and Daniel — and got his first taste of TV fame when he signed on as Cat Cora’s sous-chef on Iron Chef America. She calls him her “dear friend and respected sous-chef.”
In the last three years, Cotton’s logged serious hours hopping from one high-profile position to another: In 2007, he was rumored to be the opening chef at Bar Boulud, but instead landed at Veritas (from which he was shortly fired). Cotton ran the kitchen at BLT Market for a little over a year, before picking up yet another gig last fall launching the Tribeca restaurant Plein Sud, which opened in April. (He’s currently hiring for line cooks!) Despite all the marquee executive chef-ing, Cotton does have dreams of opening his own place someday: He told the Waltham Daily News Tribune that he’d like to name a restaurant Alfonsina, in honor of his Sicilian grandmother.
According to Cotton’s not-so-private Facebook page, he doesn’t like to shop at Tribeca Whole Foods, listens to Jane’s Addiction and Fugazi, and likes to watch that painting show with (R.I.P.) Bob Ross.
Amanda Baumgarten, 27, Los Angeles
“Don’t underestimate Amanda,” warns chef Ben Ford of Ford’s Filling Station, where Amanda Baumgarten worked before her recent turn as sous-chef at Water Grill. The 27-year-old had her start in the London kitchens of La Tante Claire and Le Gavroche after training at the city’s Cordon Bleu, followed by sous-chef stints for respected L.A. names like Melisse and Patina. And if the Facebook photo of her firing a handgun wasn’t enough to terrify the competition, Ford calls her “tough” and “battle-ready.” “[She’s] one of the most talented cooks I’ve ever worked with. I used to throw her curve-balls she routinely hit out of the park, so no doubt she will do well in this competition.” But does this Scorpio with a background in butchery also have a softer side?
Brigitte Kouba, of Brentwood’s Literati II, went to high school with Baumgarten and thinks the chef could win the competition by strength of character alone. “Amanda has always been fiercely intelligent, fabulously charismatic, and wildly creative,” Kouba tells Grub Street. Her intelligence will make her a strong competitor, her personality will make her a favorite among viewers, and her creativity in the kitchen will blow the judges away. She’s smart and savvy with a great sense of humor, so she definitely has what it takes to become the next Top Chef.”
If that’s the case, Baumgarten may have less time to pursue her Facebook interests, which include “harper’s, new yorker fiction podcast, [and] ira glass.” She claims to not own a television, but that’s probably why she has so much time to read. Favorite titles include In Cold Blood, Cat’s Cradle, and Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. Follow her on Twitter, just in case she decides to post more than three times.
Alex Reznik, 33, Los Angeles
The six-foot-two Alex Reznik made his name cooking in Vegas at Lutece and Paris Casino before upping the culinary cred of Ivan Kane’s nightlife empire by opening Café Was with the impresario. “I had finally met a kindred spirit,” Kane says of their first encounter. “Café Was needed a bohemian approach and a theatricality of cuisine that had confused others I had met who were less daring and unwilling to turn dining into an adventure.”
A Brooklyn native who cites Paramus, New Jersey, as his hometown on Facebook, Reznik adopted California as both home and culinary inspiration, focusing on seasonal cooking and local ingredients, with actual farmers’ market sightings to prove it.
Long before he was so sustainable, Reznik grew up eating his mother’s Russian cooking and has his foundation in traditional French cuisine. However, after losing 30 pounds in 2007, Reznik flipped his style to include healthy substitutions (like replacing butter with flavored vegetable stock in risotto) and introduced veggie and vegan tasting menus last July.
Ivan Kane promises that viewers won’t forget the creative chef, who’s known for lollipop frog’s legs and Thai duck-leg confit. He teases, “Plowing ahead where angels fear to go, Alex has a real outlaw spirit in his approach to cooking. What completes the package, however, is a real dose of humility. He’s a character, equally as comfortable in the front of the house as he is in the kitchen. This combination of compelling charm and distinctive, delicious food, I am certain, will take him far on season seven of Top Chef.”