HYDE PARK — Virtue Restaurant and Bar’s chef de cuisine will battle 14 rising culinary stars from across the nation as he vies for the title of “Top Chef” in the popular cooking show’s new season.
Hyde Park resident Damarr Brown is featured in the 19th season of “Top Chef,” which takes place in Houston and premieres 7 p.m. Thursday on Bravo.
“I’ve watched ‘Top Chef’ for years — it’s one of my favorite cooking shows,” Brown said. “I’m hoping that it’ll not only be a huge opportunity for me, but it can provide more light on Virtue and what we do here with the culture of the restaurant.”
Brown and his competitors will give their takes on meals that reflect the many cultures and communities in Houston. Tex-Mex and Nigerian dishes, barbecue staples and meals that astronauts could take into space are on the docket.
The competition will also see the chefs fish in the Gulf of Mexico, simultaneously cook meals for restaurant guests and prepare a tasting table for judges in the “Restaurant Wars” challenge, and create meals that look the same but taste nothing alike.
“They were all really intense, really creative challenges,” Brown said. “They all force you to think in a way you wouldn’t in normal life, because you just don’t have to. My creativity was through the roof because you’re forced to be in this space where you’re reacting to all the different challenges.”
This season’s winner will receive $250,000 and be featured in monthly magazine Food and Wine.
They’ll also make an appearance at this year’s Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado, alongside culinary talents like Erick Williams — Virtue’s owner and Brown’s mentor — and Stephanie Izard, owner of Girl and the Goat in the West Loop.
Raised by his mother and aunt, Brown used to tune into Top Chef with his family. It was a “proud moment” to honor his loved ones in front of the cameras by using skills “I saw my grandma [use] as a kid,” he said.
Brown, who was inspired by his grandmother’s cooking, studied culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu’s now-closed Chicago campus. “It was really important to me to work under a chef that looked like me” as a professional, so he sought out Williams more than a decade ago, he said.
“I knocked on the back door and asked if I could work” at mk, the River North restaurant where Williams worked as executive chef, Brown said. “I externed there for three months, then stayed there for seven years — I literally grew up at mk.”
Brown’s grandparents and great-grandparents are from the South, so the meals he makes every day at Virtue are “food I grew up eating,” he said.
Brown appears in this season’s trailer touting his collard greens. “It’s really hard to say” if that’s his favorite dish to cook at Virtue, but it’s in the running, he said.
“I love cooking collard greens,” Brown said. “Everything brings me back to childhood on [Virtue’s] menu.”
Brown took his professional and personal experiences with him to the “Top Chef” tapings, and the other contestants were generous in sharing their skills and backgrounds, he said.
“I wanted to give a different viewpoint on a chef,” Brown said. “Of course, I’m classically French trained, but that’s not necessarily the food that I choose to cook on an everyday basis. I wanted to share where I come from and rep Chicago at the same time.”
Virtue chefs and employees worked “really, really hard in my absence to afford me the opportunity” to compete in the new season of “Top Chef,” Brown said.
Though Brown wouldn’t spoil the season’s results, he did his best “to make it worth it” for his colleagues who picked up his slack — and he’s “super excited” to see how the competition can boost his career and the restaurant’s profile, he said.
“I know [the show] has done some marvelous things for chefs on past seasons,” Brown said, shouting out previous winners with ties to Chicago, like Izard and Joe Flamm, who opened Rose Mary on Fulton Market last year.
“I’m just trying to brace myself for whatever this next chapter is,” he said.
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