“Your Quickfire time starts now!” orders Padma Lakshmi—model, author, and Top Chef cohost. The chef’testants begin racing around the kitchen with pots of thick glaze, clear consommé, and (yes) hot mess, struggling to concoct brilliant culinary masterpieces in less than 45 minutes.
Fortunately, the succulent sous vide short ribs cooked up on the show might end up at a restaurant near you. Unlike America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, where finalists and winners seem to evaporate from the zeitgeist, Top Chef veterans tend to stick around the limelight. They take executive chef positions at hot-spot restaurants or open their own; and not surprisingly, these places usually get rave reviews.
The Top Chef sensation began in 2006 and has made an indelible mark on the culinary scene. Celebrity-chef judges like Tom Colicchio, Joël Robuchon, Eric Ripert, and Thomas Keller have only added to the show’s appeal. The show is even spawning spin-offs like Top Chef Masters (where celebrity chefs compete to benefit charities) and the upcoming Just Desserts (Top Chef for pastry chefs, cohosted by Food & Wine Magazine’s Gail Simmons).
And the show’s fans have tripped over themselves to eat at a restaurant helmed by a Top Chef alum. Says the show’s first-ever winner, Harold Dieterle, “Top Chef contestants have an accessible outlet for showing off their skills. They’re cooking at known restaurants, trying to open their own places, consulting. You can go have a meal and see what the chefs are doing.”
One option? Perilla, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Here, the ever-humble Dieterle serves seasonal New American dishes along with his most-demanded signature, spicy duck meatballs (the same ones that got him flak from the judges during the show). And this fall, Dieterle will open a contemporary Thai spot called Kin Shop, nearby.
Across the country, you can sample the creative European cuisine from everyone’s favorite Season 5 villain (and finalist), eclectic Finnish/German chef Stefan Richter. Head to Stefan’s at LA Farm, in Los Angeles, for Kumamoto oysters with absinthe Jell-O or slow-braised pork cheek and caraway sausage with sauerkraut pretzel dumplings and beer sauce. You can also try more Cali-style (and less expensive) dishes at his new Santa Monica restaurant, Stefan’s on Montana.
As in the competition itself, restaurants helmed by Top Chef veterans emerge as winners and, well…nonwinners. Click through our slideshow to see our picks for the best of the bunch.