Back from reality
Whether you've packed your knives or taken home the GladWare, life after competing on Top Chef is far from glamorous. This is the story of how Dale Levitski, formerly a rising star in Chicago's culinary scene, went from runner-up on season three of Top Chef to broke and unemployed-and how he bounced back.
Wed Dec 9 2009
Photograph: Joe Wigdahl
Sprout restaurant, a 40-seat bistro on the west end of Lincoln Park, re-opened on Friday the 13th of November after an 11-day closure. It was a “smooth opening,” recalls Sara Nguyen, 28, the sous chef, until Tofer Kristofer, the 35-year-old general manager, interrupted an unfamiliar man heading—without permission—through the restaurant’s dining room and toward the kitchen.
“Can I help you?” Kristofer said to the man. “Are you friends with Dale and Sara?”
“I just wanted to go in and say hello to them,” the man replied.
Kristofer asked the man to wait and approached Dale Levitski, 36, the restaurant’s chef.
“John’s here to see you,” Kristopher said. Levitski walked into the dining room, where John was waiting.
“Dale Levitski?” John asked.
“Yes, I’m Dale Levitski!” he replied giddily.
John handed him a piece of paper and said, morosely, “You’ve been served.”
Levitski and Nguyen met two-and-a-half years ago on the third season of Top Chef. Nguyen—who, at 25, was the youngest contestant on the season and nine years younger than Levitski—stayed on until the seventh episode (“I was just so totally over it,” she says.). But there was no doubt that their friendship would go on for much longer. “We just had this great connection, this great chemistry,” she says. “So I said, ‘You know, when you’re ready to open your restaurant, let me know. I might be ready to leave New York.’”
Levitski went on to become the season three runner-up, losing to the reviled Hung Huynh in a live finale that aired October 3, 2007. Soon after, he began work on a mega-project called Town and Country, a 200-plus-seat restaurant that would operate a 24-hour kitchen, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night menus in the near West Loop. In the spring of 2008, he called Nguyen to tell her the restaurant was almost ready and that she should come to Chicago. She did. But the restaurant’s opening date kept getting pushed back as investors backed out, reluctant to throw money at such an enormous project while the economy collapsed. In the meantime, Levitski worked front-of-house jobs at Sola and Relax, but as the economy shrank, so did his hours. Nguyen, too, struggled to find work, and after taking a server position at a neighborhood Italian restaurant, she found herself scrubbing toilets, washing dishes and deck-scrubbing floors, while still getting paid a server’s salary of three or four dollars an hour. Before long, both Levitski and Nguyen were unemployed, living off $20 a week, eating countless variations of ramen, spending their days “having sleep-offs,” playing with Levitski’s dogs, sitting on a broken love seat watching the same movies over and over again on their tiny television—and not paying rent. “It was really depressing,” says Nguyen. After their third roommate left without notice, leaving them with an additional $4,000 to $4,500 in unpaid back-rent, the two lived “as squatters” in their apartment from January through May of this year—a debt that the two wouldn’t face up to until their encounter with John on opening night.
Levitski was born in the northwest suburb of Arlington Heights, where he broke every diving record at his high school in 1990, then went on to the University of Iowa, where he redshirted as a diver freshman year, an NCAA loophole whereby athletes can practice with a team for one year and still have four more years to compete. His financial aid was revoked his second semester of his fifth year, and he never graduated college. For those five years, he’d been frying chicken wings at a place called the Ground Round, which he describes as “a ghetto Applebee’s.” From there, he moved to Chicago, working the line at Deleece and Blackbird before leaving to open the first location of Orange in 2001. “We got, like, four forks from the Trib, and we had one six-burner stove. It was bonkers,” Levitski recalls. After a year, Levitski says he was let go “with a restraining order,” after he disagreed with the business practices of one of the owners. He’s never been to an Orange since and claims to not be allowed entry. “I left Blackbird to open Orange,” Levitski opines. “I mean, what kind of kick in the pants is that? But it worked out for the best.”
Levitski insistently takes a positive approach to his past, conceding that these were a tough few years, but focusing on the way he’s matured and grown in the interim. “I got noticed by Henry Adinaya at Orange,” he says, “which three years later ended up landing me the job at Trio.” In between, he made a name for himself executing bistro classics as the chef of La Tache, until Adinaya tapped him to re-open Trio—the Evanston restaurant that had launched Gale Gand and Rick Tramonto into Tru, Shawn McClain into Spring and Grant Achatz into Alinea—as a more casual incarnation called Trio Atelier. Even though the restaurant had a new name and concept, there was no escaping the fact that he was the follow-up to Grant Achatz, and he took a stand against the molecular gastronomy techniques associated with the Alinea chef. “A lot of that cooking is like, ‘Look, ma! No hands!’” he says. In February 2006, a little more than a year after re-opening, Adinaya decided to shutter Trio Atelier, citing his dream to open a hot-dog stand in Hawaii, and leaving one of the city’s rising stars out of a job.
A few short-term gigs later—including opening the high-end lounge Stone Lotus—Levitski went on to Top Chef. His performance on the show is a source of pride for him, particularly after the scar of Trio Atelier’s closing. The morning after the season finale aired, he told Time Out Chicago: “I never actually felt that I lived up as a ‘Trio chef.’ Last night, I did.” But the show also caused him a fair amount of grief. For Levitski, who is very sensitive about his weight (“I used to be, like, five percent body fat,” he told me within minutes of meeting him), being called fat by home viewers was damaging enough. But there were other attacks: “Gawker called me the true villain of Top Chef,” Levitski recalls. “And that if you support me you support all mediocrity in the world.” And then there was the fact that despite devoting much of the year to Bravo, he technically was unemployed. “Everyone thinks you’re rich when you’re on television,” he says. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite; we didn’t get paid shit.”
Until Levitski started at Sprout this November, not a single Chicago-based Top Chef contestant was actually working in a restaurant kitchen. Stephanie Izard is slated to open her restaurant in spring 2010; Radhika Desai, the resident season-five contestant, left her restaurant, Between Boutique, posting on her personal blog: “If you have a pile of money and experience with opening or sustaining restaurants, drop me a line.” She’s been pitching her business plan to investors, but so far, nothing’s developed. Of course, competing on Top Chef Masters boosted the profiles of Graham Elliot Bowles, Art Smith and—mostly—Rick Bayless, but for chefs who don’t yet have their own restaurants, the track record is bleak. Even Izard, whose season-four win has made her a minor Chicago celebrity, has no delusions about how she’s stayed relevant: “I have a PR rep, I have a manager, and I do all these Wandering Goat dinners, and all the stuff that’s in the media is all me creating creative ways to stay in the media while I’m getting my restaurant open.”
As for Levitski’s life post-Top Chef, “I got screwed by one consulting job, and I was very picky,” he says. “I didn’t want to just land in any restaurant. And the restaurant I wanted to open—Town and Country—took a year and a half too long, and I stuck with that commitment, being like, ‘Okay, I can live on nothing,’ and that really just snowballed into, ‘Wait. I can’t live on nothing.’” Meanwhile, he faced more than the specter of irrelevance: His mom, whom he calls “one of my best friends,” died October 3 after battling breast cancer for two years.
Just two days later, and unbeknownst to Levitski, an all-organic restaurant called Sprout opened in Lincoln Park. It had already gotten a barrage of bad press from a conversation one of the owners, Satko Ibrahimovic, had with the Tribune’s Monica Eng, in which he mentioned that the restaurant might be serving $120 entrées. Rapid chef shake-ups ensued, and eventually, “The shit hit the fan with Satko,” Levitski explains, and “he got pushed out,” leaving Mike Causevic, formerly a silent partner, as the sole owner. The fact that Kristofer, already the GM, called Levitski, whom he’d known for 11 years, wasn’t as surprising as the fact that Levitski answered the phone. “I hadn’t been answering calls for a while,” says Levitski, who has been notorious for having a full voicemail box and not returning e-mail. (Levitski tends to evade questions about what he was going through emotionally during this time.)
He and Nguyen came in, closed the restaurant for 11 days and reopened with a three-course, $60 prix fixe. “We opened with things I’m very familiar with—things that I’m very confident are very good,” Levitski says of the menu, which he and Nguyen developed in a day. Sprout’s black chairs show wear, and Levitski openly concedes that the reddish-brown sconces are “really, really ugly.” But “the patio is just disgustingly cute,” he says cheerfully, and the restaurant is planning a slow redesign. Is Town and Country dead? The two insist it’s “on hold,” and Nguyen says it’s “still Dale’s dream to do something big like that,” but for now, the two speak about Sprout with a blissful sense of relief. “We have Sprout now, which is a blessing,” Nguyen says. And Levitski sees taking on the challenges of Sprout as a mark of his increased confidence in himself. “I think a lot of people would be disappointed or insecure or frustrated that it’s not perfect on opening day,” he says. “I think now, my priorities have changed, where it’s like: This is my home.”