Stephen Hopcraft knew he wasn’t long for Top Chef when he lost the toothpick challenge. The cheftestants—yes, I gagged as I typed that word, but that’s what they’re called—had to take a dinner entrée that might be served in a restaurant and reduce it to a toothpick-handled hors d’oeuvre.
After being harshly critiqued repeatedly in prior rounds, the executive chef at MGM Grand’s Seablue felt due for some recognition. He had stacked a piece of grilled filet mignon and a grilled vegetable atop a potato cake, then topped it with a baked scallop with Béarnaise sauce.
Alas, he didn’t win. In fact, Hopcraft, 40, would be eliminated from the show in the next episode on a subpar flank steak, eighth among 17 cheftestants to be bounced. The season ended last week, so the next day I asked him, in the nicest possible way, how it feels to lose.
Turns out, not so good. Hopcraft is a jocular little guy, full of grins and clever snark, but he’s also surprisingly forthright that it smarts. And that toothpick challenge is particularly jarring, he said, because the winner of that challenge also got an extra $20,000. Angelo Sosa, a friend of Hopcraft’s, won it, but Hopcraft groused that Sosa’s creation—a hollowed cucumber cup filled with fried rice—didn’t comply with the challenge’s premise.
“I don’t know that you would ever find cucumber and fried rice as the main course on anyone’s menu in the country, and I would challenge anyone out there to find that and, if they do, I’d be very happy to find that restaurant and enjoy such an awesome entrée that I’m sure is ordered all the time—cucumbers and fried rice,” Hopcraft said. Then, with a grin that showed he’s not really as serious as his words seem: “If I sound a little bitter about it, I am.”
Hopcraft’s situation fascinated me because I’ve written quite a lot in recent years about the Bravo show’s benefit to Vegas and its restaurants, particularly when the show filmed a season here.
Yet watching Hopcraft under repeated attack by the judges, I wondered: Is all publicity really good? Would Vegas diners at MGM Grand, flanked by eateries from Joël Robuchon, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and Tom Colicchio (Top Chef’s top judge himself), spend $40 an entrée at the place with that guy who was badmouthed week after week on TV?
Don’t think such thoughts eluded Hopcraft as he endured his public lickings. “I felt like I carried the reputation of not only this restaurant but of the Mina Group and the hotel,” he said, referencing Seablue owner Michael Mina. “That was the part that was really crushing. I could tell as the season got going that I wasn’t going to be hugely successful, although I wasn’t giving up by any means. But it was going to be really hard for me to be successful and to win the judges over.”
So, obviously, there are regrets. Hopcraft didn’t watch any of the DVDs of the show until two days before he left for the competition. He didn’t memorize enough recipes, didn’t really understand the intensity of the challenges. And there were things that went wrong in the kitchen that the viewer didn’t see, although he’s contractually bound not to reveal anything that wasn’t shown on camera, he said.
But even losing Top Chef has its perks. His grin now adorns Seablue’s front podium, and diners ask for autographs as they try the $95-per-person Top Chef Tasting Menu that includes some of his work on the show. Folks who eat his food, he said, realize just how good the other cheftestants are, and that only enhances the show’s prestige.
“There’s a lot of people who come in and who really liked me,” he said. “I even had one lady come in and tell me I was an icon.” He pauses for a hearty laugh. “I was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ But it’s funny, I’ve told everybody that. Somebody thinks I’m an icon.”