An Exclusive Interview with Top Chef’s Robin Leventhal

Ashley is "intense," Padma’s a joker, and Art of the Table’s the best restaurant in Seattle.

By Karen Quinn September 16, 2009

Ever since we learned that two Seattle chefs were going to compete on Top Chef this season, we here at Seattle Met have been wondering if Ashley Merriman and Robin Leventhal had met prior to taping.

“We did know each other” said Leventhal, a Lymphoma survivor and former chef/owner of Crave. “I even offered her a job when she first moved here from New York. So it was fascinating to walk into the room and see her there, and say ’Hmm, I’m competing against Ashley, who could’ve been one of my employees at one point!’”

In last week’s nail-biter of an episode, both Robin and Ashley were on the chopping block after Daniel Boulud and Tom Colicchio were underwhelmed with their snail dishes in an elimination Quickfire. “Needless to say, that was way too close for me!” said Leventhal. Both Seattle chefs ended up making it, only to struggle in the Elimination Challenge—Robin’s partner Ron was annoyed with her frenetic energy and their dish ended up boring the judges. Merriman, meanwhile, almost went home. “I could not believe it was only the fourth competition," said Leventhal. "What else could they possibly throw at us after that?”

Guess we’ll find out tonight.

Read on to find out more behind-the-scenes Top Chef secrets from Robin Leventhal.

Is it fun watching the show for the first time?
Yeah. I’m kind of no fun to watch with because I’m like, “You guys! We’re missing it! I didn’t hear what he said!” So I am DVRing it and going home and watching it immediately after I get done seeing it with my friends.

Is there anything else that viewers should know that they wouldn’t get directly from the show?
I think you want to believe that it can’t be that hard. As a viewer sitting in my living room watching previous Quickfires, I think “I could’ve done that! I could’ve kicked butt on that!” And then you get there, and you’ve got the cameras, and the lights, and the pressure, and the desire, and all the great competitors that you’re working with side-by-side, and in a foreign kitchen…and all these variables, they add up to something bigger than what you can appreciate just sitting on your couch! The truth is, it’s really that hard.

Any funny Tom or Padma stories?
Padma told us jokes to kind of break up the intensity. We would be standing there getting ready for a Quickfire, and we’re all in our focus modes—totally intense—and they’d started to share a little bit of outside news for us. Padma would say “Well, I thought you guys might be interested in what’s going on in the world, we’ve got updates on Swine Flu.” So that provided a little outside entertainment.

Okay, describe the following contestants in one word:

Michael I Boisterous. Or bossy. No! [laughs] We’ll stick with boisterous.

Ashley Intense.

Jennifer Oh, man. I’d like to say “the bomb.” [laughs] That girl does not mess around. Yeah, she’s the bomb!

Michael V A mad scientist.

That’s two words, but close enough.

Ron Unassuming! I think Ron’s a really quiet guy that, ya know, did speak up last week!

How did you like Vegas?
I loved it! I wish I could’ve seen more of it. We definitely were busy with producing the show but being inside these restaurants was phenomenal… so far away from that flash Vegas is associated with.

Are you glad to be back in Seattle?
Yeah. I got back and we were having our hundred-degree heat stroke wave, and everyone was bitching about the heat, and I was like, God this is great! I feel right at home!

What was your first meal when you got back?
The first thing I did when I got back to Seattle was I went rollerblading around Greenlake! Because I hadn’t had any physical exercise. But the first meal I had was at I Love Sushi with my mom and my brother. And being in the desert, I hadn’t had really great raw fish during that whole period, so I was craving some fish.

So speaking of that, what’s your favorite Northwest ingredient for cooking?
Well I do love me some salmon! Salmon and cod, so that’s probably as Northwest as we can get.

Best restaurant in Seattle?
I’m going to give my props to Art of the Table.

Do you miss Crave?
I miss it all the time! There’s a huge piece of my heart that went with it! I looked at a building the other day because my heart is very much into restaurants, and being in touch with the public. This weekend I’m going to be doing the chef’s collaborative Urban Picnic at the top of Rainier Tower. There’s so many ways that I can still be immersed with the people that support and love my food. It’s just redefining what that path is right now.

So what’s next?
Right now, I’m really trying to foster relationships, trying to bridge that gap between my community and my craft, and create the continuity in my life that will enable me to carry my creativity to the forefront. My fantasies are creating a product line that will give a percent donation to the Fred Hutch [Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center] to further my investment to finding a cure for lymphoma. I have a Masters in ceramics—I would like to design tableware. These are my fantasies. And I did my own auction; I think being an auctioneer would be a lot of fun to do for benefits and that sort of thing—not liquidation sales!

How’s your own health? Are you doing well?
My own health is good. Thankfully, I understand why I wasn’t healthy. And keeping stress down is paramount for me. And taking care of myself physically; and being happy. Stress and the no sleep—I think those are the two huge factors; and unfortunately when you run a restaurant, as rewarding as it is, it’s very stressful and sleep is secondary.

What was the best thing about being on Top Chef?
Any time I can experience something new, that is a phenomenal thing. I feel like I can really transform my life with this experience and this exposure.

Read the Stranger’s interview with Ashley Merriman here.

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