After putting together a Las Vegan-free fourth season, Bravo’s casting team came to its senses, choosing local boy Gene Villiatora for reality cooking competition Top Chef.
The Hawaiian transplant—formerly of Roy’s on Flamingo—has taken an unusual route to celebrity chefdom, getting his start as a dishwasher and working his way up without attending culinary school.
Villiatora has added an element of spontaneity to Season 5, creating improvisational Indian food and building a makeshift hibachi grill for an outdoor Thanksgiving challenge. We caught up with him the day after his deconstructed sushi nearly got him sent home.
Did not having formal training help or hurt you on Top Chef?
I don’t think it hurt me at all. I have the same knife skills, same knowledge. In fact … hands-on training gave me sort of an advantage. I felt quite intimidated when I first arrived … but as the challenges came on, I’m hanging.
Is it hard to make a name for yourself in restaurant-saturated Las Vegas?
Definitely. It’s hard to break through and get your name out there. [But] with people seeing me from the show, there’s a lot of opportunity that’s arising for me here. I’m actually doing a tasting next week for a major casino, and if that goes well I’ll actually be the executive chef at a pretty swanky restaurant.
Were some of the challenges we’ve seen still shocking, despite your trying to prepare for them?
Oh yes, the first episode with the apples - I didn’t even think of that, and I was unprepared. I didn’t even bring a paring knife. I can’t remember the last time I used a paring knife, let alone peeled an apple with a knife.
Are there any rookie mistakes that you promised yourself you wouldn’t make on Top Chef?
I told myself that I wouldn’t get too fancy with things – just keep it simple and flavorful. But obviously last night’s (December 10) episode truly proved me wrong on what I wanted to do.
If you could design a Top Chef challenge, what would it be?
Probably breaking down whole halibut and seeing who has the fastest time. It takes skill to do that without wasting or breaking the fish. I tested myself before, and I broke down a 70-pound halibut in under five minutes. Four sides clean, no waste. That would be a nice challenge. I would throw my money in the bank on that one.
I’ve heard you love Spam. Did you ever think about using it on the show?
I did. We had the hot dog challenge I thought about making a spam hot dog and grinding it up. That’s one of the times I wanted to use spam. I decided to save the spam for myself. Any day I’d take a can of spam over a cut of rib eye.