Since its 2006 debut, "Top Chef" has turned Tom Colicchio and F&W’s Gail Simmons into food celebrities, introduced Americans to the pleasures of cooking with vending-machine food, and taught viewers that you should never, ever serve chef Colicchio over-roasted Broccolini (CJ, Season 3).
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The show also has created a wave of post-reality TV chef-testants turned restaurateurs, who have become a large and profitable niche in the food industry.
"Top Chef" winners walk away with $100,000 to $200,000, but the increasingly impressive level of talent each season means that those who don’t earn the title still go on to work in some of the most exciting restaurants in the country. Watch Bravo's new season—set in Seattle—on Wednesday nights to catch the next batch of aspiring restaurateurs.
Girl & the Goat; Chicago
"Top Chef: Chicago" victor Stephanie Izard kept in touch with fans via a blog, an enthusiastic Twitter account, and behind-the-scenes videos before opening Chicago’s Girl & the Goat in 2010 and earning her spot as an F&W Best New Chef 2011.
Izard emphasizes a bold mix of Mediterranean and Southeast Asian flavors in dishes like grilled octopus with guanciale and pistachio-lemon vinaigrette, and wood-oven-roasted pig’s face with tamarind and red-wine–maple sauce. Her second venture, Little Goat, opens in November, and is modeled after the East Coast diners she frequented as a child.
Perilla and Kin Shop; New York City
Less focused on fame and book deals than most, "Top Chef’s" first winner, Harold Dieterle, is already working on his third New York restaurant. His first project, Perilla, became a neighborhood favorite thanks to the satisfying New American menu with global accents. Dieterle brought a contemporary interpretation of Thai flavors to his second Greenwich Village outpost, Kin Shop, where he makes curry pastes from scratch. At The Marrow, opening this fall, Dieterle will look to his heritage for a menu that’s “meat-focused, with strong Italian and German influences,” he says.
ink. and ink.sack; Los Angeles
For a taste of the modernist cuisine that won Michael Voltaggio "Top Chef: Las Vegas"—dehydrated potatoes, burnt-wood ice cream, yogurt curds—head to his new Melrose Avenue hot spot, ink. There, the tattoo-loving chef crafts playful, stunning dishes. His take on the Canadian comfort food poutine trades the traditional ingredients for chickpea fries and lamb’s neck gravy. Just a few doors down is ink.sack, where sandwiches are served in 4-inch “taste” portions. Options include a Reuben with corned beef tongue and tangy Swiss Appenzeller cheese, and “The Spanish Godfather,” an ode to chef José Andrés, with a selection of cured imported meats.
Talde; Brooklyn, New York
Inspired by his family’s Filipino heritage and a former gig cooking upscale Chinese at Buddakan, Dale Talde (of seasons 4 and 8) serves Asian dishes with a homey spin at his new Park Slope restaurant. Dumplings come wrapped in crispy-salty pretzel dough, and crunchy Korean fried chicken is served with sweet cherries and spicy kimchi.
His second project with partners David Massoni and John Bush is the food-lovers’ dive bar Pork Slope, which has a pool table, an extensive whiskey list, more than 30 kinds of beer and an unapologetically lowbrow menu of pork cheeseburgers, Tater Tots and everything-bagel spring rolls.
The Spence; Atlanta
Inside a nautical-themed space, "Top Chef: All-Stars" winner Richard Blais mans an open kitchen, serving wood-fired dishes that fuse nostalgic elements (English muffin pizza) with mad-scientist showmanship (tableside smoke-infused pork belly). Blais also runs the popular casual burger joint Flip Burger Boutique and a hot dog spot called HD1, with a little help from molecular gastronomy: His addictive milk shakes, in flavors like Nutella and burnt marshmallow, are frozen with liquid nitrogen.
Catch; New York City
After snagging the Top Chef title in Miami, knife whiz Hung Huynh headed to New York’s Meatpacking District to open the Asian-inspired seafood house Catch. Diners come for dishes like Cantonese-style whole lobster (fried crispy and then pan-roasted), but the neighborhood’s party crowd loves a glass-enclosed rooftop lounge, DJ’d club music and sprawling lounge-style dining room. Huynh is taking concept to Miami’s South Beach in late 2012 when a second location opens in the new James Royal Palm Hotel.
Sweet Cheeks Q; Boston
A finalist on the first season of "Top Chef" and on All-Stars, Tiffani Faison cooks her way through an impressive 1,500 pounds of meat a month for this Texas-style barbecue joint, working with sustainably raised Angus beef and Berkshire pork. (Faison is particularly proud of the pork belly, which she cures, brines and smokes to achieve a meatier and less fatty texture.) Located near Fenway Park, Sweet Cheeks also has an expansive whiskey list and an outdoor beer garden.
Farm 255; Athens, Georgia
Whitney Otawka returned to Athens after appearing on "Top Chef: Texas." A former sous-chef at 5 & 10 for superstar Southern chef Hugh Acheson, Otawka now runs the restaurant Farm 255, which sources ingredients from its own co-ops, Full Moon Farms and Moonshine Meats. Otawka cooks sustainable comfort food like Farm Egg in a Jar: a Mason jar layered with potato puree, kale, chorizo and a coddled egg. Her Farm Cart is a vintage trailer that stops by local markets with items like a veggie bahn mi and house-made sausages.
"Top Chef: Miami" competitor Dale Levitski took over the kitchen at Sprout in 2009, reinvigorating the neighborhood restaurant with adventurous dishes like foie gras with watermelon, cucumber and saba (grape must syrup) vinegar. At Frog n Snail, his new Lakeview bistro, Levitski is experimenting with revamping Euro dishes, like duck l’orange with a cinnamony duck confit pierogi. “It is a very fun and interesting challenge to look at the skeleton of a classic dish and play with it,” he says.
Graffiato; Washington, DC
Known to reference his Italian grandma’s cooking on "Top Chef: Las Vegas" and All-Stars, Mike Isabella now pays tribute to her Sunday suppers at Graffiato. The minimalist spot serves pastas as small plates, including a version of nonna’s hand-cut spaghetti with cherry tomatoes; it also turns out fantastic, wood-grilled pizzas. Isabella recently opened the Mexican-themed Bandolero, which nods to his experience cooking at Philadelphia’s El Vez with a mescal-heavy cocktail list and offerings like shrimp cocktail with charred tomatoes, and crispy short rib nachos.
See more of the best "Top Chef" restaurants in the country.