Food & Drink

'Top Chef': An Interview

Branzino's Ashley Merriman on Being Horrified, Making Mistakes, the Rumors, the Other Chefs, and Why This Season Kicks Ass

'Top Chef': An Interview

IN THE FINAL FOUR? LEAVING BRANZINO? Ashley Merriman tells almost all.

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."] recommended

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Comments (21) RSS

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This season is a lot better than last, thanks to the talent of Ashley and her competitors. Last year felt like a contest between burnt-out line cooks. May as well have brought back Ilan and his hack attempts at Andy Nasser's recipes.

The marriage-thing seemed to be Bravo's method of commenting-through-surrogate on the issue. Was ham-handed on their part, but Ashley made her point well (even through editing, which, is kinda remarkable actually). Still, the scenario for the bachelor/bachelorette thing was not really that interesting. Pool party, popped collars, poseurs. Ugh. The gender pairing of teams was a wtf moment. Really? There's enough competition inherent to the format without layering a lame boys v. girls, lunch recess, cooties vibe. Hopefully, the producers got it out of their system with this early show.

My wife and I are crossing our fingers that Ashley wins. I like articulate laid-back people who let talent speak. Good luck!
Posted by smashpj on September 2, 2009 at 1:06 PM · Report this
singing cynic 2
Despite the fact that women have been getting steadily axed so far, there seems to be a tremendous amount of female talent this season... Ashley & Jen in particular.

I also love the guy who looks like Yukon Cornelius.
Posted by singing cynic on September 3, 2009 at 4:06 AM · Report this
I love Jen and can't stand Michael I., who actually stated she won the quickfire due to favoritism. He's so sexist. I don't buy Ashley's claim that it's the editing that makes him come across that way. I'm sure she's just trying to be nice.
Posted by virginia mason on September 3, 2009 at 3:52 PM · Report this
JF 4
I thought the type-casting has gone a bit too far. I half expected the producers to fabricate some footage of Ashley setting the American flag on fire or force her to wear combat boots and shave her head. Either way, it's too much and it is not really doing her justice.
Posted by JF on September 4, 2009 at 9:34 AM · Report this
selective editing or not, of course the show is going to use to most interesting/controversial footage. if you sit around all day talking about boring inane stuff, then have an interesting 5 minute conversation, how could you expect them to show just the boring stuff. no one thinks you were bitching about marriage the whole episode, but what you say is what they have to work with.
Posted by DeathatSea on September 4, 2009 at 10:34 AM · Report this
dont be naive. michael knows that one sure fire way of maintaining a presence in this (albeit brilliant and skill based) reality program is to frame himself as the villian. but his heart isnt in it. and you can tell. he's almost just reading a self-written script.
"i'm better cause i'm a man".
what are you-challenging Billie Jean King to a tennis match in the 70's?!?
Posted by still the best season yet on September 9, 2009 at 9:08 AM · Report this
I've worked with Michael I at Zaytinya (the Jose Andres-owned restaurant where Mike is the executive chef), and he's great! yes, that's his personality, he's loud and a flirt, but he's fun and a good person, and a damn good chef.
Posted by k7 on September 11, 2009 at 11:36 AM · Report this
Just in case she's reading this, I just wanted to say that I've really enjoyed watching Ashley on this show. I love her down-to-earth manner and soft-spoken resoluteness. She comes across like a real person you would like to know in your real life. she's really cute. And hates Las Vegas. My kinda girl.
Posted by Matilde on September 11, 2009 at 2:41 PM · Report this
Pfffft. Okay. Merriman's positions at Tilth and Branzino might have won her props, but...

The King County health department's database shows a different story. I don't care if she's gay, straight, bi, or into manatees (like, REALLY into manatees), but it's fairly clear she doesn't keep her house in order. During the season I've seen her handling food in ways that are most definitively NOT the way I would want to eat food.

And the red critical violations at Tilth and Branzino that stopped showing up on the health inspection reports when Merriman no longer worked at those locations tell a much stronger story.

As for me, personally - when I ate at Tilth, the food was bland, overcooked, the sauces dumped on top to cover up overcooked and thickly sliced pieces of food. It may not have been the food, but serious gastrointestinal bugs showed up both times after I ate at Tilth. As a result, I have no intention of eating at Branzino or any of Merriman's other restaraunts.

Robin, on the other hand, never made a dish of food I didn't enjoy, and her food at Crave, while sometimes a little out there, made me happy every single time I put it in my mouth.

Merriman can continue to be a mullet-driven crusader for teh gay, but at the end of the day, whether she's gay or straight doesn't matter if you're hugging the porcelain throne after the dinner service is done.
Posted by Malachi on September 12, 2009 at 10:59 AM · Report this
As a side note, here's Merriman's record at Branzino from the King County Health Inspection reports.…

Since the inspection reports are not available online from 2006, I'm sure someone could go in and do a request for those records from Tilth, but it's telling that the same issues of the kitchen remain while Merriman continues to work there, and that the same issues (while possibly universal in busy kitchens) continue to appear wherever Merriman goes.
Posted by Malachi on September 12, 2009 at 11:08 AM · Report this
She's a freakin' pussy. Having a cow about making food for customers who are having a wedding is merely being a crybaby. You're a chef. You cook for people who don't have like-minded political views all the freakin' time. Whiner. I could have out cooked her any day, and I'd challenge her any time.
Posted by MrDirector on September 13, 2009 at 9:18 PM · Report this
I went back through and read about Merriman's hissy fit over catering a wedding. Oh, really, Merriman?

Not to mention you come from one of the most progressive states in the Union, your stance on whether or not you can actually get married has NOTHING to do with you professionally. If getting married to someone else is the only reason you are having an issue with the cooking (and not, say, that you completely suck ass in the kitchen), then you're running pretty low on things to blame for your suckitude.

Every single episode, Merriman sheepishly huddles in the back of the chefs. She's never up in front. She's never active on the teams she cooks for. She blames the ingredients for her failures, or the fact that, by the way, you should probably NOT fuck with a classic recipe when serving it to French chefs of the world.

Maybe it's because she's a classic Seattle hipster - awkward, nerdy, socially inept, prone to passive-aggressive blamegaming on anything from her sexuality to her gender, but Merriman needs to GTFO of the kitchen.

Posted by SeeUonTuesday on September 15, 2009 at 7:00 PM · Report this
I think Ashley is absolutely amazing, cute as hell, and I'd love to date her and eat her wonderful cooking any time she wants to slap me around with a stick of butter. Just my worthless but honest 2 cents.
Posted by XtianSays on September 24, 2009 at 12:36 AM · Report this
Went to dinner tonight, most amazing food and technique. Really inspired. Ashley really seems in person as real as on the show!!! Go Ash!!
Posted by Blue76 on September 25, 2009 at 9:49 PM · Report this
holy hell.. I think I'm in-television-love with Ashley. if I ever crossed her path, I make no gaurentees to her or her lady that I wouldn't hit on her with every ounce of my charm.
Posted by jennagrey on October 13, 2009 at 7:30 PM · Report this
I am bummed that Ashley got booted when she did... I was shocked! I also was looking forward to taking a day trip to Seattle to taste her food to find out she is on a new adventure... Good Luck to you Ashley!
Posted by BubbleGirlBikerChick on October 23, 2009 at 4:04 AM · Report this
I didn't like Ashley at first, but she kinda grew on me. I think she's probably an average cook, but she seems like a very nice person. She should have defended herself more when the things she got in trouble for were not her fault. And Ashley - please stop cutting your hair with manicure scissors while blind-folded.
Posted by mombabytiger on November 11, 2009 at 1:46 PM · Report this
Ashley is/was the best!!! I was so sad to see her leave :( She seemed true to herself and i believe that came across.
Ashley you are awesome!!!

Also i don't believe it was not ashley cutting her hair in that one episode but what's her name...robin.
Posted by amalia on November 14, 2009 at 6:33 AM · Report this
Ashley you are amazing amazing amazing! the 1st time I saw you I know who my favorite chef on this season would be! you are extremely talented, adorable, and charming <3333 Don't give up your dreams. even tho you didnt win, I still love and adore you. Go girl! nothing can stop Ashley Merriman!
Posted by sophie on November 15, 2009 at 10:22 AM · Report this
Go Ashley! you kick a**!
Even though she's gotten eliminated, you can still vote for her to be fan favorite. Go to… and vote for Ashley as many times as you can. 80 votes maximum per person. It's fast, simple, easy and safe. Its completely free! Please vote for Ashley !
Posted by love AshleyM on November 20, 2009 at 6:47 PM · Report this
video tribute to ashley! check it out…
Posted by jennfee on December 10, 2009 at 3:45 PM · Report this

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