JP and Vincent On Top Chef?

Looks like the Top Chef producers are feeling Minnesotan. They invited both J.P. Samuelson, formerly of J.P.’s American Bistro and now of Solera, and Vincent Francoual, of Vincent, A Restaurant, to audition for the Bravo show.

“They contacted me, they asked if I was interested,” Samuelson told me. “I said yeah, absolutely. It was very last-minute, and plane tickets were crazy expensive, so I just drove down to Chicago. The interview took all of fifteen minutes, they film it like you’re doing an interview on Top Chef. They ask: ‘Why should you be here.’ I laid on the sob story of the restaurant. It’s very topical I guess. We had a conversation about it. Then they asked me what I would cook if there was a quickfire challenge with scallops, bok choy, a pomegranate, and Brie. I said I’d blanch the bok-choy, use some pomegranate seeds as texture with the bok choy and juice the rest to reduce for a sauce, sear the scallops in brown butter with lemon and thyme and make a beurre monté [a butter sauce] to melt the brie in. They seemed really happy with it, and they told me it went well, but I assume they tell that to everyone.” The one sticking point Samuelson told me seems to be that they’re worried that he is too accomplished.

Mind boggling? Keep reading.

Top Chef producers also invited Vincent Francoual, chef of Vincent, A Restaurant, to audition. “There was a 50 page application,” Francoual told me. “They called on a Friday. They asked me to come to Chicago on a Monday about two weeks ago. You do a casting in front of a camera. They ask you what do you do, why should you be on Top Chef. There’s no cooking involved; it’s more that they’re searching for personality. There were lots of other people, mostly kids. I was encouraged that there have been some people over 40 on the show recently, and I thought it was very good that they called, but they said they want to shoot in April, and since I haven’t heard anything, I am not getting too excited. I think it’s about how the personalities they find work together more than anything.”

Good point. It’s hard—in fact, it’s completely impossible—to imagine Vincent or J.P. making huffy comments about each other, which would deprive the show of its all-important huffy comments. But still! How odd. How exciting. This might really transform this show from being “Top Person Who Wins An Odd Food Related Game Show” to “Top Chef.” I am suddenly interested in this show in a way I never was before. When will we know for sure?

“I had heard [the next season would be filmed in] L.A.,” Samuelson told me, “But Tim [McKee] told me he heard London. They did say to keep my passport ready.” So, um, watch the airports for flying chefs! And post here if you see them.

Unfortunately, all of this Top Chef news has overshadowed what I really called up J.P. to talk about, namely that his first menu for Solera debuts in a few weeks. He told me that this new menu will have more seasonal items, and they may have a prix-fixe tasting menu that changes weekly and is advertised on the tables. He also told me that Solera, long the foodie’s favorite wedding-site in town (and also one of the secret penny-pincher’s wedding venues in town), is now even more affordable because people having their wedding there can meet with J.P. to plan it all out. He also told me about a great foodie/wine-lover’s bargain that is kicking off March 26 at Solera, namely Spanish regional wine dinners priced at $55 a head. That money will get you all kinds of food and wine (that’s right, wine included) as the chef and a wine authority lead you through the salient points about particular areas of Spain. The first one focuses on Castilla y Leon. The menu includes St. Vitus Day Crayfish with Tomato and Brandy; Grilled Trout with Red Peppers, Morcilla and Potatoes; cheeses from Castilla y Leon; Roasted Suckling Pig with Burges Lentils; Judiones de el Barco de Ávila; and Roasted Quail in Chocolate Sauce with Grilled Bread. It features wines from Rueda, Bierzo and Toro. Finally, J.P. told me that fans from the Bistro have been besieging Solera with phone calls and e-mails demanding his legendary calamari. Will it appear on the new menu? No one knows. “But it’s not like they don’t have soy-sauce in Spain,” Samuelson told me.

But what does Padma Lakshmi think? Sorry. I can’t get over the Top Chef news. May the best chef win? As J.P. Samuelson told me as we wrapped up our conversation: “We’ll see. Television.”

Solera Restaurant
900 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
(612) 338-0062

Vincent – A Restaurant
1100 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis,
(612) 630-1189