Next week, Ann Arbor chef and restaurateur Eve Aronoff makes her debut on nationwide prime time TV.
The owner of Kerrytown’s eve is among 17 contestants to compete for the title of “Top Chef” on the sixth season of Bravo’s Emmy-winning series, filmed this year in Las Vegas. Its three-month run premieres on Wednesday, Aug. 19, at 9 p.m.
Aronoff acknowledges that she never watched Top Chef – let alone considered appearing on the show – before its producers approached her to become a contestant.
“People connected with the show had been to the restaurant and enjoyed it,” she explains, “so they invited me to apply.”
Her credentials were clearly in order. Cordon Bleu-trained Aronoff opened her restaurant in 2003. Three years later, she published the cookbook eve: Contemporary Cuisine – Méthode Traditionnelle, featuring many of the restaurant’s recipes. She’s prepared dinner in New York at the invitation of the James Beard Foundation and represented Slow Food Huron Valley as a delegate to Italy’s Terra Madre conference.
We don’t know how things turn out for her on the series – whether she wins the $100,000 grand prize. Her contract won’t let her discuss on-camera specifics, to squelch potential leaks about the storyline or who gets eliminated – and when. The show even supplies a “minder” who pre-screens interview topics and sits in on phone conversations with the media.
But the pairing of chef and TV show appears improbable on its face, much like flan with pickles. Contrasts of style and substance arise even before the first episode downstreams on cable.
Aronoff, who unselfconsciously prefers to prowl her restaurant in loose-fitting chef garb, hair piled under a long-billed baseball cap, undergoes a makeover for the show that leaves her more closely resembling a white-coated made-for-TV doctor on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
And she’s unafraid to acknowledge that some of her real-world strengths as a chef curdle into obstacles on the show. “I don’t know if reality TV is totally my cup of tea,” she offers dryly. “It’s a totally different mindset. For me, cooking is very free-spirited.”
It’s easy to conjecture that her slow-food, non-competitive approach clashes with several mandatory dishes on the reality TV menu: beat-the-clock pacing, contrived situations, and cutthroat rivalries.
“I’m used to tasting 20 different shrimp or scallops, or going to a different farm to pick each ingredient – not being in one store where you have a certain time to pick something that you wouldn’t necessarily work with in normal circumstances,” she explains.
Arriving on the set doesn’t change things. Cooking in a TV kitchen – no matter how well-equipped – requires a different approach than a restaurant.
“The show is set up to simulate challenges in real life, but some of them aren’t things that would happen,” Aronoff says. “For example, if you get an ingredient you’re not happy with, in the [restaurant] kitchen you could go back to the cooler or choose not to use it. On the show, what you get is what you work with.”
Top Chef’s overall format resembles many other competition/elimination reality series. Contestants must prepare top-drawer cuisine under extreme time pressure, while simultaneously casting a fish-eye on what their competitors are up to.
Chefs then subject themselves to sometimes-humiliating evaluation by a panel of culinary experts, followed by the ritualistic culling of the weakest. Instead of listening to Donald Trump intone, “You’re fired!”, authors of each week’s least-palatable dishes hear the equally humiliating, “Pack up your knives.”
In a touch worthy of the NCAA basketball tournament’s play-in game, one of the 17 contestants receives a quick heave-ho via a test of basic cooking skills, before ever setting foot inside the TV studio-cum-kitchen.
The kitchen itself? “It’s much more state-of-the-art than I’m used to,” laughs Aronoff, whose own restaurant houses a tiny kitchen with elderly equipment. “Everything is convenient, it functions properly, there’s plenty of space. The ovens all cook to temperature.”
Top Chef also provides its contestants with all sorts of gadgets that let them explore the “new directions and techniques, things that you don’t have to use but they’re there if you want to,” she explains.
But Aronoff doesn’t use the gadgets, even if other contestants do.
“It’s not really my interest. I focus more on the flavors and natural textures and contrasts, or making something cold that’s usually hot, or making olive oil into a foam. But there were people who were super-creative in that way. They’re neat to be around.”
Aronoff describes herself as inner-directed rather than competitive. “I want people to be happy, to take care of them, to create something special – not to beat someone else.”
While that may play well in her small restaurant, it doesn’t necessarily succeed in reality TV’s alternate reality, where the goal is to beat the other guy before she beats you.
“I was definitely among the least competitive. But in terms of being anal or detail-oriented or driven, I’m all of those things. I’m super-driven, but not super-competitive,” says Aronoff.
“I was more excited to meet people who were really into what they were doing and knowledgeable. I definitely did meet people like that. That was my biggest part of the show; there were a lot of really talented people.”
From the start, she also faced what she describes as “weird circumstances”; her father entered the hospital and she broke a bone in her foot the day before she left for Las Vegas, forcing her to hop around the set in a walking cast.
“You just keep going – that’s what the restaurant industry is like,” she says. “But I wasn’t in a totally normal state of mind going into it.”
At last report, Aronoff hadn’t made plans to watch the show, but said she planned to.
She also acknowledges that she’s getting a lot of unaccustomed media attention, and others around her are “super-excited.”
But in the process, she’s come to realize that she’s not a spotlight-seeking person. She says she’s happy she was asked to be on the show – and right now she’s glad to be back to her real life.
Did the experience change her?
“It’s changed me pretty dramatically. I don’t think I can answer that right now, but I think I’ve learned a lot about myself.”
“I don’t necessarily think I would have pursued this on my own. As a person, I don’t know if I was searching for that. For me, the most fulfilling part is just the cooking, day to day.”
About the author: Joel Goldberg, an Ann Arbor area resident, edits the MichWine website and tweets @MichWine. His Arbor Vinous column for The Chronicle is published on the first Saturday of the month.