Young and Hungry

Reality Bites: How Top Chef Contestants Stay Undercover

Spike Mendelsohn

In the fall of 2007, Spike Mendelsohn told everyone he knew he was traveling in Vietnam for six weeks.

In reality, the chef of Good Stuff Eatery and We The Pizza was in Chicago filming Season 4 of Top Chef. The story seemed plausible: He was cooking Vietnamese food at Mai House in New York at the time and often ventured to parts of Southeast Asia where he was unreachable.

Before he left, Mendelsohn wrote a batch of fake emails to his parents: “I was like, ‘Hey, I miss everybody. I’m in Cambodia just hanging out eating fish.’ Another email would be like, ‘Hey, I’m in Laos. I’m living in a treehouse. I really don’t have too much Internet connection.’”

His sister, one of the only people who knew his true whereabouts, logged into his email and sent the messages to his parents every few days. When he returned, Mendelsohn pulled out photos from previous trips to southeast Asia and showed them to his family.“My mother is so nosy and always trying to figure out what I’m up to,” Mendelsohn says. “The idea that I was in Vietnam didn’t really raise any questions.”

Elaborate cover-ups like Mendelsohn’s are standard practice for TV contestants with strict confidentiality agreements. Past Top Chef contestants say they risked being sued for a million dollars if they divulged any information about the competition. “They pretty much take your first-born,” Mendelsohn says of the nondisclosure contract the show required.

Keeping nosy moms and others in the dark, however, isn’t easy when filming a show like Top Chef, which leaves contestants incommunicado for weeks. They can’t use the Internet and their limited number of phone calls are monitored and filmed. “I’ve never been personally to jail,” says Season 6 contestant Bryan Voltaggio of Volt in Frederick, Md. “But they probably have more contact with the outside world than you do when you’re on Top Chef.” Fellow Season 6 contestant Mike Isabella adds, “They take everything away from you: your whole identity, your wallet, your license, your phone. No books, no newspapers, no TV, no music, no nothing.” Even after they’re kicked off the show, contestants stay in a “holding house,” so everyone arrives and leaves at the same time. “Rangers” watch over the cast to make sure they’re not breaking the rules. “If you go out, they go with you,” Isabella says.

Now, a new crop of D.C. chefs is entering into the world of reality-TV celebrity. Last week, Bravo announced the cast for the 10th season of Top Chef, filmed this summer in Seattle. Among the 21 contestants are three locals: Dan O’Brien of Seasonal Pantry, Bart Vandaele of Belga Café and the forthcoming B Too, and Jeffrey Jew, who worked at Marvin, Blackbyrd, and The Brixton and currently lives in Florida.

Mike Isabella

Another round of contestants means another round of elaborate deception. In July, Y&H got to hear their cover-ups firsthand. (Despite Bravo’s insistence on secrecy, rumors circulated about Jew and Vandaele’s participation while the show was still filming.) An assistant manager at Belga Café and Vandaele’s publicist both said he was in Belgium for an unspecified period of time. That was particularly suspicious since he was absent during Belgian Restaurant Week, for which the eatery had several events planned. Meanwhile, Jew, who was supposed to be the opening chef at The Brixton, was mysteriously missing during opening week. Sheldon Scott, a spokesperson for the restaurant group, ESL Management, said Jew was “on travel” but did not say where. Neither Jew nor Vandaele responded to emails or Facebook messages at the time.

Bravo reps declined to comment for this story and would not allow any of the current contestants to talk to Y&H about how they covered up their absences. (Apparently, even secret-keeping must be kept secret.) But the stories they told at the time, and conversations with D.C.’s other former Top Chef stars, make it clear just how complicated vanishing for six weeks can be.

“Having to pay a million dollars makes you a good liar,” says Season 5 contestant Carla Hall, whose husband was the only person who knew the truth. She told everyone else she was in the Bahamas. “I used to work in the Bahamas, and I would go away for months at a time,” Hall says. “It was all private islands, and so it wasn’t unusual to go long periods of time without talking to people.”

When she filmed Top Chef All-Stars in New York in 2010, Hall tried to keep her destination a secret at first. But her catering company had a huge project in the works, so she ultimately gave into questions from her staff: “They were counting on me and I had to say, ‘Oh by the way, I’m out. I won’t be here.’ They were like, ‘What?!’ So, I had to tell them, because they didn’t understand why I was leaving.”

Unlike Top Chef, where nearly all communication with the outside world is banned, in the "All-Stars" season contestants were allowed to make regular phone calls. Hall used that time to check in with her mom, who didn’t know she was filming the show. Isabella, who worked for José Andrés at Zaytinya when he filmed Top Chef in Las Vegas in 2009, told his staff he was working at Andrés’ restaurant The Bazaar in Los Angeles. “I’d worked at The Bazaar to help open it up, so people believed it. ‘OK, cool, Mike’s going back out there,’” Isabella says. Meanwhile, the staff at The Bazaar assumed he was still in D.C. His immediate family knew the truth. When Isabella shot Top Chef All-Stars a year later, Think Food Group wouldn’t give him the time off unless he signed a contract saying he would stay with the company, he says. Instead, Isabella quit his job at Zaytinya. He already had Graffiato in the works and told people he was in Italy doing research and development for the new restaurant. (In fact, Isabella has never been to Italy.)

Voltaggio has a harder time remembering exactly how he hid his appearance on the show three years ago, because he made up several different stories along the way. He told some people that he was working on a mystery project.“I walked out the door and half the people in my life didn’t even know that I left,” Voltaggio says. Those who did know included his parents, his wife, his business partner Hilda Staples, and his chef de cuisine. “I had to tell the people that were obviously closest, because you can’t just disappear with no phone, no computer, no Internet.”

It wasn’t until Voltaggio returned from filming that the questions really started. He spent the month before the cast list was revealed being as vague as possible. Anyone who asked was shut down with: “I was doing something. Don’t worry about it.” As a result, people started to make up stories about him. “People on staff at the restaurant I’m sure in, like, the third week were like, ‘Is chef in rehab?’” When he had to leave again for a week during the finale, which is filmed several months after the rest of the show, he told everyone he was vacationing in the Napa Valley’s wine country. “It was easy. Every chef does that,” Voltaggio says. Because his wife always goes on vacation with him, he told her to avoid going to the restaurant, where his staff would spot her.

But hiding his whereabouts was actually the easy part, Voltaggio says.

The hardest secret to keep? Who wins.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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