It's 10:00 a.m., and chef Fabio Viviani is eating cereal with chocolate milk. “Whole grain Cheerios, because fiber is good,” he tells us through a charming Italian accent, “but I also have chocolate milk, because fiber doesn't taste so good.”
In a certain sense, this fits his culinary style. If you saw last week's finale of Top Chef Masters, you may think Viviani, local restaurateur and Top Chef alum, is more the Kerry Heffernan type — striving solely to create a delicious plate of food for the customer. But surprisingly, he says he's more the Chris Cosentino “challenge the diner” type, though he's learned to put his agenda in check. “Twenty years ago Fabio would have said, 'Screw you guys, tripe and intestines is what I love to eat, take it or leave it'” he tells us, “but now, Fabio is a businessman before he is a stubborn freaking kid. So what I do, staying true to who I am, I find the right balance between my tradition and what pleases my customer … I'm in the people business. I want to make people happy.”
Viviani is a busy man. Between his two restaurants in the L.A. area — Firenze Osteria and Café Firenze — and more on the way, he does appearances and cooking classes, and makes zany YouTube videos in which he teaches viewers how to cook while basically goofing around. He also tweets incessantly. You'll all this, he says, in Life After Top Chef, Bravo's new series that follows alums Viviani, Richard Blais, Jen Carroll and Spike Mendelsohn to see what happens when the Top Chef limelight fades. (Except, now they're kind of getting a new limelight but … well, it's a metaphor, you get it.)
The most real thing about this reality show, it seems, is that it illuminates the varying levels of fame and success chefs can achieve in this post-Food Network era. According to Viviani, these days there are three categories one could fall into: real world chef, celebrity chef, or, as Viviani says, “fantastic chef in real restaurant life, who also do television appearance.” All four stars of Life After Top Chef seem to fall somewhere on that spectrum.
On the show, Richard Blais is gearing up to open a new fine dining restaurant. He did this once before and it failed — something he's determined not to have happen again. It's a time-consuming endeavor he must also balance with being a husband and father, which is the plight of chefs everywhere.
Somewhat similarly, Jen Carroll is experiencing what can only be described as a chef's rock bottom: once chef de cuisine under Eric Ripert, her most recent endeavor, Concrete Blonde, fell through when she parted ways with her investors. Despite her culinary street cred, she's now restaurant-less — a status that leaves her feeling like a jilted lover.
These two play the role of “real world chef” on the show, and in many ways, it's refreshing. Finally a show with a food enthusiast audience is breaking through the glamorous exterior of fame and fortune so frequently associated with chefs on food TV. For many, it's actually a grueling career. You neglect your family, your health and your sanity. You risk everything and you fail sometimes. That's life for everyone, including chefs.
But for chefs who choose to capitalize on their fame, sometimes the road is paved a little smoother, as seems the case for Spike Mendelsohn. He went on Top Chef for the fame, he states plainly in episode one of Life After. Classically-trained and once a protégé of Thomas Keller, Mendelsohn now runs a burger joint and a pizza place in Washington, D.C., something his counterparts on the show insinuate is the easy way out. But Mendelsohn has lines out the door, due in no small part to his willingness to play the celebrity chef role. “Getting yourself out there is what being a modern chef is all about,” he says.
Then there's Viviani, who, via a combination of hard work and self-branding, puts himself in the last category. “I would be silly not to capitalize on exposure” he tells us, but he doesn't rest on it, adding that he often works 130 hours per week — something he's excited viewers will get to see.
Unfortunately for Viviani, though, not everyone would agree he's a “fantastic” chef. Certainly not the L.A. Times, which gave Firenze Osteria zero stars a few years back. However, the 2,500 people, he tells YumSugar, who emailed him their support directly after, and countered that review by giving his restaurant its busiest month ever.
“Success is very personal,” Viviani says. “For me, it's more about consistent growth, and quality of life for people who are working with me.” Viviani, who jokes he'd rather have three Mercedes than three Michelin stars, realizes his goals as a chef are not the same as many others. “If you are striving for Michelin stars,” he says, “you are pleasing two percent of the nation. I'd give that up any day to please the 98 percent left out.”
Catch the premiere of Life After Top Chef tonight at 10 p.m. on Bravo.
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