'Top Chef': An Interview
Branzino's Ashley Merriman on Being Horrified, Making Mistakes, the Rumors, the Other Chefs, and Why This Season Kicks Ass
Watching Top Chef at the beginning of the season is seizure-inducing. The chef-competitors—17 of them to start—are shuffled on- and offscreen at five-second intervals. Their dishes fly by in frenetic high-speed montages. There are countdown clocks and flushed faces and compressed lips and shouted curses. There are tears. And because this season is Top Chef: Las Vegas, host Padma Lakshmi's cleavage appears regularly to inform us that There! Will! Be! More! Chance! Than! Ever! So far, the chefs have pulled poker chips out of a hat borne into the kitchen by approximately 27 spangled-and-feathered showgirls; they have rolled dice to determine how many ingredients they will work with; they have cooked homages to their favorite sins; they have made and served hors d'oeuvres for a poolside bachelor/bachelorette party, and many of them have jumped into the pool at this party.
To help us make sense of season 6, the typecasting starts early and hits hard, and Seattle's two hometown-heroine competitors have already had their roles cookie-cuttered out for them. Robin Leventhal, formerly of Capitol Hill's much-loved Crave, is all set to be Cancer-Survivor Lady (need "feisty" be said?). And Ashley Merriman, executive chef of Belltown's very-well-reputed Branzino, is The Militant Dyke: She spoke in a measured way about marriage equality in the bachelor/bachelorette-party episode, then the producers included an inordinate amount of footage of it.
Meanwhile, here at home, two rumors have emerged: (1) that Merriman made it into the final four contestants (a rumor heard recently at Branzino) and (2) that Merriman has left Branzino and moved to New York (a rumor found, among other places, in comments on Slog, The Stranger's blog). Merriman is traveling currently; she was reached by phone at her hometown of Center Sandwich (best town name ever), New Hampshire. Also in on the conversation: The Disembodied Voice of the Bravo network, a censorious public-relations individual patched in to tell us what we could and could not discuss. The finale of season 6 has not yet been filmed, so no dice on any info about that, with or without The Disembodied Voice.
How annoying was it choosing a poker chip out of a hat held by a spangled-and- feathered showgirl?
[Clears throat.] It's Vegas, and that's the thing you have to realize going in. You're on reality television, and it's in Vegas. Vegas is probably my least favorite place on earth... [As far as the showgirls, dice, etc.,] you have to expect that.
I'd never been to Vegas. I'm never going back.
What's it like to watch the shows for the first time?
It's pretty horrifying. I never really thought that I would do this; it's not really my style. It's a very invasive process... Initially, I was like, "No way am I doing that." Maria Hines [of Wallingford's Tilth], my mentor, encouraged me.
There was a LOT of footage of your low-key talking about marriage equality. Was that an accurate representation of the overall conversation? How do you feel about your portrayal on the show and how the edits make you look?
I don't know what I'm allowed to say about the editing. [Pause. The Disembodied Voice remains silent.] I will say that to me it seemed like there wasn't really much else going on in that episode, just the men and women going back and forth... The story was made, for sure. My objection was not about the wedding or the party, it was about the behind-the-scenes production. [The Disembodied Voice: "We're not allowed to talk about production." Pause.] Suffice it to say I was disappointed and frustrated with how it came out. Absolutely.
Do you regret making that extra-credit panna cotta, which didn't set, that almost got you axed in episode 2?
I don't regret making it; I just regret executing it poorly. The groom—he asked for something sweet—and panna cotta is a fairly simple thing to execute. I did the math wrong when I was converting the recipe... I shouldn't have served it. I should've turned it into a spuma [apparently an obscure Italian dessert].
Did you find yourself adopting a protective persona on the show?
I tried really to be myself... I've watched Top Chef. It's kind of the only merit-based reality show there is... If I tried to start altering my personality, shutting down or being more quiet, I wouldn't come across as me. It's the only thing you can hope for, is to cook well and come across as yourself.
There's a rumor around town that you are going to be traveling with three other contestants, which would seem to indicate you're in the top four. Can you comment on that?
I have no idea what that rumor is. People might have seen pictures of me and Mattin [Noblia] and Mike Isabella [publicity photos of the chefs taken before taping started]... I'm not going on the road with anyone. I have no idea what that's all about.
What are your feelings about Mike Isabella? He made some pretty sexist comments in episode 1.
I adore Isabella. He comes across as a complete jackass, [but] Michael Isabella is a very talented chef and a very smart man, and I adore him. Knowing the situation and knowing Michael, I didn't take it as anything other than a joke—and in the end, the joke's on him. To me, that's funny.
This was in Slog comments: "Ashley left Branzino and doesn't live in Seattle anymore." Can you comment on that?
I am the executive chef at Branzino. I'm splitting my time between New York and Seattle right now.
What are you doing in New York?
I'm consulting on a restaurant with Alexandra Guarnaschelli [of New York's Butter]... There are two people I would just say yes to. Maria Hines is one—I would drop everything to work on a project with her. Alexandra's the other. She taught me everything.
I'm transitioning out of Branzino. They will hire a new executive chef.
Any general Top Chef observations?
It's a very challenging situation, and there's even more stuff you don't see—behind-the-scenes stuff. I felt that the level of competition could have been better last season, [which was] kind of a motivation to try out. It's way too early [in this season] to see how badassed some of these people are. Michael [Voltaggio], I mean, he has a Michelin star. [Former New York Times restaurant critic] Frank Bruni flew out to L.A. and gave him four stars. He and Kevin Gillespie, they're both James Beard nominees. Jen Carroll is Eric Ripert's chef de cuisine. As the show goes on, you'll just see more and more that these people can cook their asses off.
So this season kicks last season's ass?
It really, really does.
So it appears that Robin Leventhal's cancer survivorship is going to be made a big deal of...
[The Disembodied Voice: "We can't talk about future shows."]