Sunday, November 09, 2008

Still Hot in The Kitchen: A Conversation with Former “Top Chef”-testant Ryan Scott

This Wednesday night people will be putting down their knives and tuning in to watch the latest installment of “Top Chef.” This season, its fifth, comes from the make-it-there-or-go-home-crying Big Apple (love it). So I thought it would be fun to catch up with one of last season’s cheftestants and local celebrity Ryan Scott, formerly of Myth Café and now at Mission Beach Café in San Francisco.

UPDATE (11/18/08): is reporting in its "Inside Scoop" column that Chef Scott is leaving Mission Beach Cafe and starting Dec. 1, Chef Thomas Martinez takes over the kitchen. Chef Scott didn't hint at this during our interview, so this is surprising news.

Chef Scott was one of four San Francisco cheftestants who traveled to Chicago (or ground zero for Obama nation, I imagine) last season to chop, puree and flambé their way to the title of Top Chef. That honor eventually went to Chicago native Stephanie Izard (the first female chef winner, woo-hoo!), and Chef Scott was sent packing when he got too fancy at a tail-gating challenge with Da Bears.

Since coming back home, he’s become a partner and executive chef of Mission Beach Café in the Castro-Mission neighborhood and has been making the rounds of appearances for charity cook offs here and around the country. In fact, when I got together with him recently at his restaurant, he had just came back from Chicago where he did a fund-raiser with Izard and other “Top Chef” alums for the Common Threads charity co-founded by Art Smith, Oprah’s one-time personal chef.

If some of you forgot, Chef Scott was pegged early on in his season as the pretty boy. And there was no mistaking his made-for-TV smile when he came out to greet me. He wasn’t wearing any of his chef’s whites, but was wearing what he called his “winter Ryan” with a military-style jacket and plaid-print scarf.

I chatted with him about whether he’ll be watching the show, what his life is like a year since leaving “Top Chef,” and his numerous charity work (which leads to a very personal, revealing moment).

The following are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Single Guy: Like I mentioned, I wanted to do this interview as a build up for the next season starting up.

Ryan Scott: What? What are you talking about, what show? “Project Runway”?

SG: You know, that small little kitchen show.

RS: Got me. [[He shrugs his shoulders.]]

SG: So are you planning to watch it?

RS: I didn’t watch the last part of mine. (laughs) I didn’t have time, we were so busy. I would really like to watch. I’m a huge fan of Jamie (Lauren, executive chef of Absinthe Brasserie and Bar and the only San Francisco cheftestant in Season 5.) Yeah, we’ll see how she does.

SG: Yeah, she’s the only chef from San Francisco this time. Why do you think that is?

RS: Because they put too many of us in Season 4. (laughs)

SG: That’s right, they bunched you all up.

RS: … It takes a certain talent to be on the show. I think (Chef Lauren) really fits the bill. She’s adorable. Hopefully she rocks it. I’m sure she’ll do well.

SG: Did you watch the show before you applied for your season?

RS: I watched a little bit. I watched Harold (Dieterle) win Season 1. I remember watching it and thinking, “there’s no way I would ever do this show.” … The house that they lived in (in San Francisco) is like two blocks away from where I live now, so I run past it every morning. So I’m like, it’s kind of surreal, kind of funny.

I said I wouldn’t do it, and then I saw Season 2, and watching Marcel (Vigneron) and Sam (Talbot) and all the other guys and thinking, you know, I think this is something I’ll do.

I remember I opened at Myth Café and I said OK, I’m going to fill out an application for it and check it out. I actually got a phone call right before I filled out the application that they were casting for Miami. Somebody called and asked if I was interested, and I said, yeah, so I got all the way to the final (interviews) for Season 3, but I didn’t make it. I went to LA, tried out and didn’t get on. So I was a little bitter with Season 3. I watched, maybe, none.

SG: I didn’t realize it was such a long process for the casting.

RS: It’s sooo long. It’s so arduous. They really don’t want you to stay on; it’s that hard. They pound you and pound you and pound you. They make sure that they don’t have somebody who’s going to turn out to have been a porno star before they were on “Top Chef.” That’s what they really want to find out.

So I didn’t make it on (Season) 3, then I made it on (Season) 4.

SG: Do you still think about your experience on “Top Chef”?

RS: I didn’t think about it until this last week when I was in Chicago. It was one year ago last month that I left Chicago. So it was the first time I was back since the show. It was really cool to go back, and it was very cool to hang out with everybody. And when we would go into a bar, um, coffee shop, not a bar, and to have people come up, it was so cool to be in Chicago. … To go back and see it all again, and drive past the house, and see how people react still a year later about the show. I’m very fortunate. I just watched the reruns of Season 1 the other day, and I’ve been very fortunate people know who I am, to stand out only half-way through the show.

SG: Do you still get recognized because of “Top Chef”? Like when you’re just walking around San Francisco, do you have people come up to you and …

RS: freak out?

SG: Yeah, freak out. So how exactly do they freak out?

RS: It depends on what area you’re in. Castro area, they freak out. The Marina, they point. I was at the Castro Street Fair to support some friends of mine. It’s so funny. I had such a blast to where I had to end up leaving. They just want to take a bunch of photos, sign a bunch of autographs. People just want to converse, and I just love it.

SG: Have you gotten used to this whole celebrity chef status you gained from being on “Top Chef”?

RS: I think notoriety has been great. It’s helped us out a lot. I really want us to grow and expand. The one thing I’ve gotten from the show, which I love, is to be able to help people. Between fund-raisers and functions and more functions and more fund-raisers and more fund-raisers, we’ve done a lot this year and we’ve helped out a lot of people, which is great.

Things that are near and dear to me a year ago—without the pull of the show—wouldn’t have gone that far.

SG: I’ve noticed some chefs on the show who really seem shy and a bit overwhelmed by the attention they get afterwards. So you don’t feel pressured or stressed about it?

RS: No, it’s been phenomenal. … I saw Spike (Mendelsohn) last week, and he and I, the intention when we went on the show was to get exactly what we wanted. We didn’t go on the show to get a TV show. We went on there to excel and make ourselves better with the quality of our skills, and also get the notoriety to expand our brand and do the things we want to do. Like Spike just opened the first of his many chains of restaurants. Taking this (Mission Beach Café) over really made this place get on the map. We just got recognition from Gayot and Zagat, and I’ve been here less than six months. That’s huge.

[[Chef Scott was referring to Gayot’s recent inclusion of Mission Beach Café as one of 10 Hot Spots for Dining in San Francisco.]]

RS: The greatest thing about the show was it put me on the map, but it also let people know that I’m not a one-trick pony. I can actually do more than what was shown on there and what we did at Myth Café. I think we’ve really excelled at this restaurant. It’s grown exceedingly. And we’ve really enjoyed it.

SG: I do want to get to your experience here at Mission Beach Café, but I do have one more “Top Chef”-related question. Was there anything about the show that you felt never really came out or was never really shown to viewers?

RS: I think me, personally.

SG: So you don’t think the person people got to know on the show is really the real Ryan Scott?

RS: No, not really. Because I think I’m more a really fun-loving guy. You can put me in any situation and I’m the person that makes everyone crack up and have a good time. In six episodes, and, you know, how many minutes? Forty-seven minutes, maybe less than that, they’re trying to display 16 people’s personalities. I think if I made it a little longer you would have seen more of me. I think the fun-loving guy that a lot of people on the show get along with was shown a little bit. But now the times I do the demos, go do live things, I did the “Top Chef” tour, that way I got to reach out to a lot more people. Yeah, I do talk a lot. They did get that across.

… I would have liked to show a little bit more of my talent, but now it’s my turn to come back and do it here. This place has been the vessel for me to do that.

SG: How has it been at Mission Beach Café? Do you feel you’ve been able to accomplish what you set out to do?

RS: I think so. When you come into something that’s already a little established, you have to put your stamp and your mark on it. I think one of the best pastry chefs (Chef Alan Carter) in San Francisco if not the nation is here. The way he thinks about food is amazing. You think about pies, and you think that’s all you do, try his stuff.

SG: Was working with Chef Carter one of the reasons you decided to come here?

RS: He’s the reason why I came here. Yeah, we went to school together (at the California Culinary Academy). We always had a thing for each other about the way we can cook together, and it really has excelled since I’ve been here. It’s been phenomenal. This is definitely just a great vessel to get started, to see new things and a new demographic for me to cook for.

The financial district was more a fast-paced, 300 people turn and burn, and I get to put a little spin on a few stuff. But doing four menus (at Mission Beach Café)—breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch—has been challenging in a little shoebox, and with no walk-in (refrigerator). We’re "cooking for people out of a house" is what I tell people. Imagine cooking at your house and trying to do it for 60 people a night, 300-plus on the weekend for brunch, and turn around and do it for dinner and then do lunch.

We just bust the format on lunch here. I’m doing brunch and lunch. And it’s grossed so much just in two weeks. It’s just a huge response. I think people really like to get eggs all day. People don’t think twice about $13 for eggs, but you put $13 for a sandwich and they freak out. So they want the big platter, the hash browns, the pancakes, and you know what? That’s what we’re giving them here. You cook for the clientele. You’re cooking for where you’re at.

SG: How would you say this is different than what you were doing at Myth Café (which has since closed).

RS: I don’t even think there’s even a comparison. The palate just on the other side of town is way different. This is a vegan, vegetarian-driven neighborhood and then you get every two or three covers you see the guy that wants a slab of beef on the plate. … At Myth I had fun and I didn’t have a lot of competition, and this genre, this area where we cook for, we have Range four blocks away, we have Delfina, Dosa, Foreign Cinema, Tartine and Bar Tartine. I mean, the fiercest of the fierce are cooking down here. I think the best chefs in San Francisco are in this area right now.

SG: What’s your approach to the cuisine that you’re doing differently here?

RS: First of all, it’s completely lunch driven, and I’ve tried to bring that format here. People have definitely bitten into it and they like it. But this is not like other fast-paced neighborhoods. People here definitely can have a glass of wine with lunch and relax a little bit more, and don’t mind having roasted salmon with lentils and yogurt dressing, and it’s not a big deal. That was something I wasn’t used to over there. And I worked with strictly electric at my last place. So having BTUs and being able to use gas, to be able to hone that and find out who I have been.

I haven’t been able to cook fine dining since Gary Danko, and that’s been almost four and a half years ago. It’s been awhile, so it’s been great to be able to figure out who I am as a chef again, on the food level, and the simplicity of how I think I cook on a certain level. So we’ve taken simple Mission Beach Café food and put it on to a beautiful plate and brought some flavors that you wouldn’t think would be in this area. So when you walk by this place and you walk through the doors and sit down and order something, you’re amazed by every bite.

SG: How often do you change the menu?

RS: A lot. Monthly, if not seasonally. It changes so much I’m getting yelled at about how much paper we go through. (laughs)

SG: Do you feel that even in this short time you’ve been able to come up with your culinary point of view?

RS: Definitely, I think it’s definitely been shown.

SG: How would you describe it?

RS: New American cuisine. It’s an angle on a twist on what the classics are. But when you sit down and get caramelized gnocchi and cherry shallot butter on top of a grilled New York (steak)—simple combinations but when you get the flavors it’s pretty killer.

SG: Is it fancy café food or fancy comfort food?

RS: I think it’s fancy food in a café atmosphere. You have these tables we’re sitting on that are about $1,000 a piece, and when you get the Heathware plates, which are handcrafted too, what we’re spending the time on each of the dishes are really amazing. And the products are just out of the world.

SG: So how much of your clientele is coming in because you were on “Top Chef”? Do you still get people coming in to see you and not necessarily the food?

RS: Yeah, every night.

SG: So what do you think about that?

RS: I think if that’s what gets them in the door, then I win them over with the food. I mean, that’s my job. The whole goal of the show was to let people know who I am and that’s been absolutely great. If that’s what draws them in, and they come in and say they came to see Ryan Scott but the food blew them out of the water, then we did our job. … So be it if people come in and want to say hi and take a photo. I dig it. It’s such an honor. I mean, I love that people want to say hi and talk food. That’s why I’m here.

SG: So it’s pretty obvious you like to talk … (RS: Really?) … and it’s really obvious that you’re charming. So do you ever feel like you want to go into TV? I think I read in an interview soon after you left the show that you wanted to develop some TV shows. Do you have anything in the works?

RS: First of all, food is first and foremost. And this restaurant is my main priority, and working here and developing other concepts and looking at all the things possible to grow with these guys will be phenomenal. I’ve had offers, and I’ve flown down (to LA) to check out some stuff, but I want to make sure the brand and who I am here stays true. And I want people to be able to come talk to me non-stop all the time and stop me on the street.

As long as the show’s concept that comes to us is something we believe are who we are then I’m totally fine with that. But I’m also not sitting there and pitching a show to anybody. I’ve had people come to me, but my main priority is not to do a TV show. I’ve turned down some really good offers. This career to me is about longevity and having a career for the rest of my life.

My main goal coming back from the show is not being a has-been or a five-minute TV star and that’s it. And we’ve really exceeded that and have done well with it.

SG: How do you think you’ve been able to stretch our your 15-minutes?

RS: I think if you’re out there in the right way. We’ve been called a gazillion times. … We really work together as a team (referring to his publicist who was sitting in on the interview) because I honestly couldn’t have done it without my friend, first and foremost, and then a great publicist. I mean, what’s been great is, OK, the American Heart Association comes to us. What is important about the American Heart Association? Are you just going up there just to do it? And we’re not. It’s something that’s near and dear to her, and I had it in my family and so on. Doing things that are near and dear to us and helping charities have been the best part about doing “Top Chef.” …

SG: You seem really passionate about helping charities. It really seems like it’s something you really want to do and not just because people ask you. Where does that come from, this wanting to help? I’m sure a lot of chefs get calls all the time. For you it seems almost like a passion.

RS: Wow, you’re actually going to get this out of me and I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody. … I had colon cancer when I was 8. And I remember my family being super poor, and I’ll never forget my dad working double (shifts) and my mom working doubles and us having to drive down to Fresno and I had to do all these scans and blood transfusions and so on. I’ll never forget my dad waking me up one night when I wouldn’t take my medications, and my mom cried and called my dad and said, “hey, Ryan’s not taking his meds,” and I didn’t know what was happening at the time because I was 8. Anyways, he says, “it’s not your time.” And to have that and to see my parents breaking their backs and doing whatever to take care of a half-a-million dollar doctor bill we had to keep me alive. I was 8 years old, I just turned 29. That was 21 years ago that I wasn’t supposed to be around. And to see that, and to see my parents doing anything and everything. And all I have to do is cook for somebody to raise money to have another family take care of their child, why not?

I’m not doing this for any other reason but to help people, and that’s the best thing that’s come out of “Top Chef.” The friendships that we’ve gained from this and the charitable actions that we do, it’s phenomenal. It’s not about money, it’s never about money. Trust me, check my bank account.

SG: So what’s in store for you? Do you have projects coming up?

RS: Oh, besides a gazillion charities to do? We’ve actually launched, finally, it’s taken a year since the show, the Web site is almost up, Ryan Scott to Go is just a private little catering company that I do that’s basically I can go to somebody’s house and do little team building and so on. The logo just got finalized today. It’s going to be all online. I just finished getting all the paperwork from the city. It takes a lot of work. Since the show aired, it’s taken me a year to get the license and everything else.

… We’ve got another show we shot with Bravo that airs in February, it’s going to be great. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but watch for it, it’s great. I can’t say yet.

SG: Oh, is it some kind of Bravo “Top Chef” reunion?

RS: I don’t know. [[He’s faking ignorance right now in case you can’t tell.]] But it has my name on it. It’s has to do with something like that. That will be on and there are so many different things that have come our way. San Francisco is our home, it’s where I’ve been almost eight years and I’m not leaving. So it’s finding the best way to work through what’s going on right now and finding the best results and what will work, and Mission Beach is succeeding and hopefully we can keep going strong and we’ll go from there. There’s definitely things in the burner. I’m always looking for other things to expand and make a name for, but also be very smart about it. I know my demographic and I know my clientele and I’m going to stay in those confines.

We chat a bit more about where he gets his energy and he confirms, because I know you all want to know, that he’s currently dating someone. Throughout the interview, he had his Blackberry beside him with the light blinking as he constantly gets e-mails.

Mission Beach Café, Chef Scott and his partners just launched a new quarterly dinner to help raise funds for a local non-profit.
For the first dinner in November, a five-course, prix fixe dinner will benefit Creativity Explored, a Mission neighborhood non-profit visual arts center. The Nov. 19 dinner starts at 5:30 p.m. and costs $75 per person (not including alcohol, tax and tips). To reserve, call 415.861.0198, ext. 2. If you can’t make it for the five-course dinner, you can just dine at the restaurant every Wednesday nights between 5:30 and 7 p.m. and 15 percent of your food tab will be donated to Creativity Explored.

After the interview, I snapped some photos of Chef Scott outside the restaurant and he showed me his colorful pink argyle socks. Turns out, they belong to fellow Season 4 cheftestant Jennifer Biesty (who’s also from San Francisco). She leant them to him in the episode where they had a neighborhood block party and Chef Scott got all wet when he was dunked in the dunking booth. So Jennifer, if you’re wondering where your socks are, you know whom to call.

Special thanks to Chef Scott for taking the time out of his busy schedule to chat with me. And you can check back on this blog every Thursday night when I’ll be posting, yet again, my recaps of the new “Top Chef” season.

Mission Beach Café, 198 Guerrero St., San Francisco. PH: 415.861.0198,

“Top Chef” Season 5 premieres Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central) on Bravo TV. Check your local listings.


Mrs. said...

Chef Ben why are you not doing interviews (and photographs) like this for a living? You're so good at it! Loved this (and the photos).

Chef Ben said...

Thanks Mrs. L. Like I said before, if someone paid me, I'd be doing it in a Top Chef minute. ;-)

Carolyn Jung said...

Fun interview. I met Ryan this spring at a food event. Just like in your interview, he seemed pleasantly down to earth and self-deprecating. Nice to see that fame apparently has not gone to his head.

foodhoe said...

I agree, that was a fun read! You must have brought a recorder or else you know how to do some serious shorthand. Great pictures too Chef Ben... did you try any of the food, or is that for another day?

Chef Ben said...

Foodhoe, I haven't been to MBC since Chef Scott took over, and I met with him in between service when he had a break from the kitchen. But I definitely will be checking the food out down the road, it all sounded good and I've heard some good buzz about brunch.