NICK ELMI and Kevin Sbraga were the first locals to win "Top Chef." (They surely weren't the first dude winners.) But they also weren't the first Philadelphians to compete.
A year before Padma picked a Philly winner, a pair of area women took part. It was Season 6 (2009-10) when Jen Zavala, then chef at El Camino Real, in Northern Liberties, and Jen Carroll, helming celeb chef Eric Ripert's kitchen at 10 Arts, in the Ritz-Carlton, entered reality-TV's realm.
Zavala's stint on the show was short-lived. She was first to "pack her knives and go." "It was a very humbling experience," said the chef, who now has a catering business and will reopen her popular Cherry Bomb Bus food truck at 33rd and Arch as soon as the weather improves.
Last weekend, she prepared Polish food at the stationary food truck inside Garage, East Passyunk Avenue's latest hip beer bar. Rumor has it, her grub rocked.
The South Philly resident said, "People still ask me about 'Top Chef,' but I'm really shy. I withdraw from using it as a platform to get my foot in the door."
She added that she's "really happy" she did the show, but, "I wouldn't do it again."
Jen Carroll, however, would.
She made it into the final four - and into the hearts of the show's superfans. The Somerton native was so popular, Bravo invited her back for follow-up series "Top Chef All-Stars" and "Life After Top Chef."
After Season 6 aired, the Ritz-Carlton hung Carroll's mug on a banner outside. She worked there two years before going out on her own. For a while, she planned to open a place, either in New York or Philly. She wanted to call it Concrete Blonde.
But then, life happened. Her mom had a stroke. More recently, her dad was hospitalized. "I became one of their main caretakers," said Carroll of her parents. Right now, she stays busy cooking for private clients and making celebrity and charitable appearances on a schedule that suits her family's needs.
Carroll said that doing "Top Chef" "made such a huge impact on me. . . . Once the show ended, it just opened up so many doors. I was doing a ton of events, traveling, getting to work with and meet chefs I'd looked up to for years and years."
Last November, she did a weeklong cooking stint in Costa Rica. "I never thought I would be recognized in a small town in a grocery store in South America - and I was," she said.
"The power of TV is really insane," Carroll said. "I never realized how strong, how much of an influence it had on people."
- Lauren McCutcheon