"What does it take to make it as a chef?" narrator Katie Lee Joel asks in the opening scene of Top Chef Season 1, circa 2006.
"It's hard to get recognized," Tom Colicchio answers, as B-roll from a restaurant kitchen with the flames glaring and line cooks chopping plays on screen — an image that's now all-too-familiar to diehard Top Chef fans. "You have to have solid credentials before you can get your own kitchen." While the credentials of Top Chef's inaugural cast ranged from self-taught cooking teacher who'd never set foot in a restaurant kitchen, to a 24-year-old sommelier from Las Vegas, to cooks who were actually known in their home cities, the cooking competition completely revolutionized how we recognize food talent across America.
Over a decade later, the completely made-up title has become one of the most coveted among chefs and food lovers alike — but what has become of the Top Chef Season 1 contestants? We caught up with the chefs to see what they're up to (hint: Brand sponsorships).
The first to be eliminated on the very first episode of Top Chef for tasting his sauce with a finger instead of a sanitary spoon (we've seen this result in less harsh punishment as the seasons have progressed), Lee has somehow managed to remain completely inconspicuous on the Internet. Thrillist confirmed he was living in Los Angeles but pretty much MIA as of 2013, though we have evidence of his existence from a pasta class he taught in California in August 2015. Watch him surprise us with the best restaurant of all time. Maybe.
It's nearly impossible to watch an episode of Top Chef without being constantly reminded of what vehicle they're driving to what supermarket to buy groceries to cook in that special brand of cookware to be judged by a very important someone representing a very important food brand. Though Sestito was the second contestant to pack her knives and go on Top Chef Season 1, the Hamptons-based chef has still reaped the benefits of the show's publicity: She partnered with Grey Goose to create a farm-to-table feast circa 2011 and runs her own catering company, CYNFUL Food. Her latest venture is CYNFULY-CANNA, where she creates meals and events "based on micro-dosing cannabis into her foods," according to her website. In 2020, she appeared on an episode of Netflix's Cooked with Cannabis, but didn't win. And don't you forget that she was Beyoncé and Jay Z's private chef. She even prepared in-flight meals for the couple on a trip to St. Barts. Girl has it good.
Hill's reality TV career didn't stop with Top Chef. He also appeared on Food Network's Private Chefs of Beverly Hills (Hill's own former clients include Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, and Eddie Murphy), Spike TV's Bar Rescue, and as a guest celebrity judge on MasterChef and MasterChef Junior — the latter of which must hurt Tom Colicchio's feelings. Or not. Hill has also used his talents to go a more traditional route: In 2018, he opened Chef Brian's Comfort Kitchen in Washington D.C., though it since closed. He tried again in Miami, opening Chef Brian Hill's Comfort Kitchen in the city's Yumbrella food hall just four days before they had to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While he no longer appears to be a vendor at Yumbrella, Hill is active on social media, not only promoting his catering services, but also speaking out about racism and social justice.
Next eliminated: Candice, who has perhaps enjoyed more fame than any other contestant from Top Chef Season 1. So famous is she now, that she was unable to answer our questions on her whereabouts, though her lifestyle website and publicist shared some scoop. Since appearing on Top Chef, Kumai has been dubbed "The Clean Queen" and "The Golden Girl of Wellness." She has written five books, including cookbooks Clean Green Eats and Cook Yourself Sexy, as well as her most recent book Kintsugi Wellness. Kumai has made countless media and speaking appearances, worked with plenty of brands, appeared on several more reality shows (including Iron Chef America: The Series and Selena Gomez's Selena + Chef), launched a podcast, and created her own docu-series, Kintsugi.
Parks has next to no internet presence, with no social media accounts or active website to be found. She did write a book entitled If You Wanna Get a Man, Learn How to Cook Book which is currently available on Kindle for $9.99, so there's that.
Following her Top Chef appearance, Beaman — a self-proclaimed Holistic Health Coach — has stayed out of the restaurant scene and launched her own healthy lifestyle website, AndreaBeaman.com, where she shares recipes, tutorials, articles and advice on holistic living. She also offers a variety of classes and has written a few books, including Happy Healthy Thyroid,
According to Chef Miguel Morales' LinkedIn profile, he's been working as a Banquet tournant at the Mandarin Oriental New York since 2004 — starting before he was the Top Chef Season 1 "Fan Favorite," as his profile also indicates. It's unclear if that profile is up-to-date, but Morales does have a pretty active Instagram account where he shares plenty of food pics, as well as behind-the-scenes snaps of his life and Top Chef throwbacks.
Following his Top Chef appearance, the then-24-year-old sommelier from Las Vegas raked in the chips, with a Nespresso partnership we can only assume was a lucrative result of appearing on a Bravo reality series. In early 2008, Asprinio opened his first restaurant, Forté di Asprinio in West Palm Beach, Florida, but by December 2008 he backed out of the already highly acclaimed restaurant for murky reasons. The restaurant dropped his last name but closed shortly after. If you do want restaurant advice, however, you can consult SA Hospitality Enterprises, Asprinio's restaurant consulting business based in New York City.
Lee Anne Wong
After being voted off the island, the upstate New York native continued her role as executive chef at New York's French Culinary Institute and became a supervising culinary producer on future seasons of Top Chef. She also served as a culinary producer on Rocco's Dinner Party and an executive producer on Zeno Supper Club. Wong didn't stop competing after her initial Top Chef run, either. In 2010, she beat chef Marc Forgione competing on Iron Chef America with Halloween candy as the secret ingredient. And she returned to Bravo for Top Chef: Colorado; she ultimately withdrew due to altitude sickness while pregnant, but returned again two years later for Top Chef: All Stars. And in 2013, Wong relocated from New York to Honolulu, where she opened her first restaurant, an island-style brunch house called Koko Head Cafe. In case you missed that, Wong runs a restaurant that serves dumplings and egg sandwiches all day, (almost) every day, in paradise. She's also the Executive Chef at Papa'aina at the Pioneer Inn in Maui. Turn off your TV and head to Hawaii.
"Top Chef just opened so many different doors," third place winner Dave Martin said in 2017. "Now I'm old, it's old," he laughed. "I used it as a platform to create opportunities for myself." After only cooking professionally for about two years, Martin leveraged his experience and publicity from the show to move to New York, where he still consults for restaurants and major food brands. Top Chef taught Martin who he was as a chef, encouraging him to focus on what he likes to make and eat: Comfort food.
"Don't be anything you're not... I don't have to make some fancy bullshit thing," Martin said of his passion for making tasty, comforting dishes from various cuisines. At the time, he said he had been making pizza and experimenting with different doughs, inspired by a recent trip to Italy.
Though Martin doesn't keep up with Top Chef (other reality shows occupy his time), his friends fill him in on the new seasons and he still embraces the most important lesson he learned while filming the show. "You have to treat people with respect," he said. "It's just cooking. We're cooking, we're not saving lives. I'm still nice and friendly and humble and I can cook. Don't be an asshole... unless you're a brain surgeon, saving lives."
"At the time, we had no idea how big it would become, we weren't even sure that this would air," Tiffani Faison laughed over the phone back in 2017, recounting her first season on Top Chef. "Had it not aired it would have been an entirely worthwhile experience," she said, noting that no other time in life did she get the time to worry about nothing but cooking.
"There's something really interesting on appearing on the first season of anything," she said. "We didn't know what it would be... we didn't know about 'restaurant wars' or the other challenges." Since being named Top Chef's first-ever runner-up, Faison has cooked at a variety of restaurants, eventually opening her own restaurants in Boston: Sweet Cheeks Q in 2011, Tiger Mama in 2015, Fool's Errand in 2018, and Orfano in 2019. Though she definitely doesn't regret appearing on Top Chef because she had fun and "learned a lot," Faison said in 2017 that she no longer watches the show. "It feels so stressful to watch – it's hard!" But she has returned to reality TV as a contestant on other shows, including Food Network's Chopped and Tournament of Champions.
When he's not tweeting about sports or being caught by the food media paparazzi, the very first Top Chef winner continues to work in the food scene, primarily as the president of his bar and restaurant development company, HD Hospitality. After closing his two beloved New York City restaurants, Perilla and Kin Shop at the end of 2015, the very first Top Chef became a dad that following January. In 2014, he published his cookbook, Harold Dieterle's Kitchen Notebook; and in 2019, he opened the Mediterranean restaurant Ten Hope in Brooklyn.
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