Jacqui Gal

‘Top Chef’ Season 5

Fellow chefs, barkeeps and ex-roommates give us the scoop on the new cheftestants

Quickfire Challenge number 1. Photos: courtesy of Bravo.

“Top Chef” fans are a pretty serious bunch. The minute one season’s winner is announced, the next batch of contestants are ready for some roasting. On the spit: “Top Chef” Season 5’s hopefuls, who mark the series’ return to New York after a brief detour to Chicago last season. (It debuts on Nov. 12.)

When taping on “Top Chef” Season 5 began in Brooklyn this past summer, the blogosphere was abuzz with chef IDs and speculation about who’d be the last cook standing. Yeah, Bravo’s own Web site give you some quick, sugary bios on the contestants. We did our own sleuthing—here’s what we dug up…

Leah Cohen
Current post: Sous-chef at Centro Vinoteca in New York

Pedigree: A Culinary Institute of America alum, Cohen spent a couple of years cheffing at La Madia , a Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy, before working her way up the ladder at Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park .

The buzz: Paparazzi shots of Cohen’s long brown hair immediately got her recognized as “one of Anne Burrell’s cooks at Centro.” While there was some speculation that she might be cast as “the bitchy one from Westchester,” George Elkins—the managing director Mangia hospitality group, which owns Centro—says this could not be farther from the truth. “She’s very even-tempered,” he says. “She actually shows tremendous leadership. She doesn’t fly off the handle, but she’s very opinionated. She has the bar raised very high and she mentors some of the younger cooks, so she’s very tough. But she doesn’t lose her temper.”

The dish: Since newly minted celeb chef Anne Burrell has actually departed Centro Vinoteca, Cohen has had some big shoes to fill. “She’s done a remarkable job,” says Elkins. “She’s bringing new things to the table, and everything we’ve tasted has been, well, she’s just been hitting it out of the park.”

The verdict: “She’s a formidable contestant, and she’s not to be taken lightly,” says Elkins. “She’s got a good chance of going right on up there.”

Jamie Lauren
Current post: Executive chef at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in San Francisco

Pedigree: An honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Lauren has worked with Anita Lo ( Annisa , in New York.) and Lance Dean Velasquez (Bendean, in California.), as well as Jean Michel-Bouvier (of L’Essentiel, in France).

The dish: Lauren grew up in Manhattan. After culinary school, she moved to France to sharpen her skills, and came back to a post at Annisa with Anita Lo. After 9/11 brought life into sharper focus, Lauren decided to seek a sunnier lifestyle on the West Coast. Back then she was known, says Lo, as Jamie Sinsheimer. Lo still bumps into the young chef’s mom at Whole Foods sometimes.

The buzz: “She was very talented,” remembers Lo. “But I haven’t seen her in the greater part of a decade. She was so young but she had a good head on her shoulders and, uh, she could cook.” Lo adds, “She was a little fiery, I think, but that might be a good thing for television.”

Life loves: Indian food and Madonna (Lauren has been to 15 of Her Madgesty’s shows, and openly admits to lip-synching “Like a Prayer” into her hairbrush).

The verdict: While Lo says she can’t predict for sure because “I don’t know who the other contestants are,” she thinks Lauren could be in with a shot. “I hope she wins,” says Lo. “It would be great if she did. I think she’s done a lot for herself, so I am proud of her.”

Alex Eusebio
Current post: Executive chef at Restaurant 15 in Los Angeles (although it might be under new ownership soon, so we’ll have to keep an eye on Eusebio’s plans)

Pedigree: Trained at the Institute of Culinary Education. Worked as Alex Garcia’s sous-chef ( Calle Ocho , in New York) before moving to Denver to work as an executive chef at Cuba Cuba and chef de cuisine at French restaurant Project AIX . Then opened Mojitos and EIGHT -18 in California.

The buzz: Apparently Eusebio is a dab hand with meat. “He once did rabbit, which I had never had,” says Restaurant 15 barkeep Eric. “I don’t really eat much meat, but after working here I do.” And he’s modest. “He’s really talented with what he does but you would never know it,” says Vivien, a manager at Restaurant 15. “He doesn’t think he’s great, he just makes food, but there’s rarely any complaint about the food. He’s pretty anal about it. The plate never goes out unless it’s perfect.”

Life loves: His English bulldog, Maya, and his brand-new wife Sara’s golden lab, Lily. Also, the Jets—Eusebio point-blank refused to cook Sunday brunch during football season, says Vivien. The dogs wear Jets jerseys on game days. He’s also a marathon runner and has completed both the New York and Boston marathons.

The dish: A little Web snooping reveals Alex and Sara’s wedding Web site, which details their Aug. 24 nuptials on Martha’s Vineyard. And since taping on “TC5” wrapped at the end of August, this means Eusebio could have been battling Quick Fire challenges right until the 11th hour on his wedding day, leaving Sara to struggle with last-minute plans. “He wanted to do it, but he had Sara in mind as well,” says Eric. “That was the one thing that was keeping him back, but in the end it was so cool that he could do both.”

The verdict: “He’d be very competitive,” says Eric. “He’s good at doing what he does, so I think he’ll do pretty well. Like at least in the top three.”

Radhika Desai
Current post: Executive chef at Between Boutique Café & Lounge in Chicago

Pedigree: Studied at the Cooking & Hospitality Institute of Chicago. Worked as a sous chef at Vermilion in Chicago.

The dish: Known to friends as “Rad”, Desai is the first Indian-American chef to compete on the show. She’s a hardcore fan of “TC”: “I’ve seen every episode at least three times, if not more,” Desai told Chicago Magazine in October.

The buzz: According to Vermilion executive chef Maneet Chauhan, Desai is quite the kitchen star. “She is extremely dedicated,” says Chauhan. “It was great to have her in the kitchen because she was really creative and had this amazing sense of dedication.” Quick Fire challenges won’t be a problem, says Chauhan, because Desai “thrives under pressure.” Chauhan adds, “Knowing Radhika, she probably carried herself with a lot of grace.”

Life loves: “She loves traveling,” says Chauhan. Indeed, Desai told last year that she had traveled to Dubai, where she was thrilled to meet a Szechuan chef who taught her how to clean, gut and filet a blowfish. She also plays the violin.

The verdict: “We watch ‘Top Chef’ religiously and faithfully,” says Chauhan. “We are very proud that she is on it, and we’re looking forward for this season to start.” But does she have a chance? “I am sure she does. I am rooting for her, I have my fingers crossed,” says Chauhan. “I don’t foresee another reason as to why we can’t have another female chef [winner] from Chicago.”

Hosea Rosenberg
Current post: Executive chef at Jax Fish House in Boulder, Colo.

Pedigree: A self-taught chef, Rosenberg has worked for Wolfgang Puck and last year cooked at James Beard House in New York.

The dish: Jax Fish House is a relatively small place, seating 60 at a time, says general manager Aaron Derr, so Rosenberg is very hands-on. “He gets on the line, he’s putting out food. He’s not just there to do the menus and look good in front of the cameras.” One of Rosenberg’s biggest concerns about being on a reality TV show was how he might be portrayed, Derr adds.

The buzz: Rosenberg and fellow cheftestant Melissa Harrison both work for the same restaurant group in Colorado. The pair made a pact to watch “TC5” with their co-workers, including Derr, who has been Harrison’s roommate on a couple of occasions. “I’m ecstatic for both of them,” says Derr, although he knows only one of the two will be coming back to Boulder with bragging rights. “With them it’s not like, ‘I’m gonna kick your ass.’ It’s more like, ‘Hey man, you did really well, I just happened to do a bit better than you—ha ha!’”

Life love: Cream pies. On their last day, the staff at Jax Fish House give soon-to-be-ex employees the pie treatment. “It’s a sign of appreciation in kind of a weird way,” says Derr. Rosenberg may not have instituted the tradition, but “he instigates,” says Derr. “If you don’t get pied, you’re almost like, ‘Don’t they like me?’”

The verdict: Rosenberg is a formidable contestant, says Derr. He went undefeated in Denver mock–“Iron Chef” contests and competes in pork-offs and at the Denver International Wine Festival . “Whether he’s won the overall title or chef’s favorite, he always comes away with some sort of prize, and I think that shows he’s really adaptable at giving people what they want.”

Melissa Harrison
Current post: Sous chef at Centro Latin Kitchen & Refreshment Palace in Boulder, Colo.

Pedigree: Earned her culinary degree at Baltimore International College.

The dish: You know Melissa’s in the kitchen when you hear laughing, says Centro general manager Taige Smith. She’s also pretty eager to please: “I have guests who want gluten-free, dairy-limited, half butter on one side, half salt on the other, and I’ll come up to her when she’s 20 tickets in the weeds and say, ‘This is what we have to do to make this person happy,’ and she just slams it out,” says Smith. “So I think that she does well under pressure.”

Life loves: The outdoors. Harrison loves skiing and fly-fishing as well as camping, hiking and pretty much anything that can be done in the “serious mountains” that can be found just a 15-minute drive from where she works.

The verdict: Harrison gets along with everybody, says Smith. “She relates well with the amigos in the back, and she has a good time with the front-of-house staff as well,” he says. “She never loses her temper and she always resolves any problem she has the day that they occur,” he adds. So, could Harrison’s friend-focused attitude be a handicap in the I’m-not-here-to-make-any-pals mentality of the reality TV world? “I don’t think that she would have been a strategic player in that way, but you never know.”