Alex Reznik is a fairly recent transplant to Los Angeles, and he's taken to it with a convert's enthusiasm. Though he did leave his gig cheffing at Ivan Kane's Cafe Was for a time in order to compete on season seven of Top Chef, which is set in D.C. and begins June 16.
Reznik worked in kitchens from Italy to Las Vegas before landing at the bohemian Cafe Was. Read on to find out what he loves best about LA, onion soup without onions, and the terror of serving Eric Ripert.
Squid Ink: How long have you been in LA?
Alex Reznik: I've been in Los Angeles for two years. Coming from New York, I led a very hectic lifestyle – go-go-go – and L.A. is much more relaxed and I don't tend to meet a lot of “uptight” people here. Can't beat the weather. If I'm not in the kitchen, I'm hiking in Runyon with my dog, Chopper, or just driving along the coast in my '65 Mustang. Can't do much of that in New York.
SI: You're an Angeleno now. So did you have a particular rivalry with the other LA contestant, Amanda Baumgarten?
AR: I'd have to say it's actually the opposite. The Top Chef experience has created a close bond between us – there is a great deal of mutual respect we have for one another. I think she is an incredibly talented chef with an amazing heart – and she can be my sous chef anytime.
SI: Have you always had this great love for cooking and food and kitchen camaraderie?
AR: I was the son of a first generation European family, food was an integral part of my early life, where family and friends gathered at our dining table every night for good food and conversation. Watching my mother and grandmother cooking and laughing in preparation for this daily ritual gave me some of my fondest memories, and set me on a path of creative cooking.
SI: Besides Cafe Was, what's a favorite restaurant of yours in LA?
AR: You know, there are so many great restaurants in LA. We are surrounded by talented chefs. But if I had to pick one, I really enjoyed my meal at Eva. Chef Mark Gold is killing it over there. I only have one word to describe his food: delicious.
SI: Where did you hone your skills?
AR: I found myself in Las Vegas, the new culinary capital of the United States at that time, and began working with some of the greatest chefs from around the world, where my culinary talents for classic cuisine landed me a job at the world-renowned, legendary, five-star Lutèce [now closed], the quintessential fine-dining French restaurant located in The Venetian, where I was able to use cutting edge micro gastronomy to create French nouveau cuisine.
SI: It seems like you have a very clear idea of how you like to cook. But did you get any show tips from previous LA contestants?
AR: No – no tips, in fact, I never discussed with anyone that I was even going on the show. Had to keep the secret.
SI: Had any high-stress kitchen situations in real life?
AR: On our second day of being open, the hood fans shut down and the kitchen filled with smoke. At 6pm we were still waiting on a new belt. We started service not knowing if we were going to serve any hot food. The guy fixed it by seven and the guests had no idea.
SI: What about high-maintenance customers? They might actually prepare someone for Top Chef.
AR: This is Los Angeles, we get crazy all day. But my favorite is a regular guest who orders French onion soup with no onions or cheese.
SI: That's amazing. So who were some of the guest judges?
AR: I will say this: even I was surprised a few times. They're not kidding around this year.
SI: Did having Eric Ripert as a regular judge increase the pressure?
AR: Absofuckinglutely. Eric is one of the highest-regarded chefs of our time. Le Bernardin might just be my favorite restaurant. The good news is, his standards and expectations are right in line with my own, so we totally understood one another…..it was good pressure. But pressure.
SI: Would you do it again?
AR: Yes, of course I would. It's been an incredible journey – the kind of experience that money or time can't buy. Not only have I grown through the culinary challenges, but I have developed some close bonds with a group of the most talented chefs cooking across our country. Do it again? Sign me up.