The new season of "Top Chef" might have been filmed in New York, but that won't stop Chicago from trying to capture the top toque two seasons in a row. Though we've lost home-field advantage, hometown girl Radhika "Rad" Desai, executive chef of Between Boutique Cafe and Lounge in Wicker Park, is determined as ever to represent and pick up where Stephanie Izard left off. We caught up with her to see who she is and whether she's fit for the challenge.
What's the best Chicago-related advice you've given or received?
I had lunch with [Rick Bayless] and my executive chef when I was working at Vermilion. He told us that Chicago has something for everybody, different tastes, different cultures, different styles, and as a chef in this city if you just do what you do, and do it well, you will find your niche. I've tried to keep that in mind and just stay true to my style.
If I were to come to your neighborhood, where should I eat?
I'm a big fan of Rodan, Vintage Wine Bar, and Mac's. Rodan is a hip lounge with a menu that has some Asian and some Latin flavors blended together very well. Vintage is a small wine bar (now closed) with a simple well executed menu that goes great with their wine list. Mac's is a pub with surprisingly good bar food. It's a great place to go after a long night in the kitchen to have a bite and a beer.
You're originally from Cincinnati, home of the famous chili. You have a favorite chili parlor?
If I had to pick one, I'd pick Gold Star, because it's the one I always went to with my family. I've found a lot of people in Chicago have never had the pleasure of dining on chili-cheese on spaghetti; chili covered mini coneys, chili salads, or chili burritos. I feel sorry for people who have only had chili in a bowl.
You worked as a park ranger in Death Valley. Any wild animal attacks?
Death Valley was an interesting experience. I didn't see any animal attacks, but there were giant snakes that would lie in the middle of the road. They were 10 feet long and you had to wait for them to cross. So a good bit of my time there was spent sitting in my jeep waiting for huge snakes to move. As far as cooking went, I didn't have a lot of resources to work with, so I had to be creative. When I cooked for the other rangers I'd plan out the presentation to help overcome the lack of ingredients.
What would we be surprised to know about Between Boutique Cafe and Lounge?
One thing that people are surprised to hear is that all the interior decorations are imported from China, where the co-owner, Lulu, was born. The red string curtains, the hanging feather lamps, the orange wall designs were all handpicked from China to give the place an authentic exotic feel.
You did some work in Dubai. Gordon Ramsay's gone over there now and it seems to be blowing up. Was that challenging? A lot of stuff gets shipped in right?
Dubai is an amazing city. I've heard it described as a Disney world for adults, and I have to say, that's pretty accurate. It seems like every building is the biggest of its kind. A good portion of the ingredients were local, but one of the things we imported was a special beef filet from New Zealand that we sold for 180 dollars. It was the most tender piece of meat I've ever eaten.
What influenced your decision to go on Top Chef?
I've been a fan of the show from the first season, and last season as I watched the show I started thinking more often what I would do for each of the challenges. I had made it to the level of executive chef and had my name in the press a bit, so I thought I was ready to show the world my flavors. My boyfriend and family gave me a lot of encouragement to go for it and here I am.
I know you can't tell me whether you won or lost, but did you already have plans for the prize money just in case, i.e. what is your ultimate culinary career goal?
I would love to own my own restaurant, but one of the things I've always wanted to do is write a cookbook with dishes from around the world. A hundred grand would go a long way covering travelling/research expenses.
Rad may be in the spotlight, but she's not the only talented female chef in town. Check out some of the other names to know.