Healdsburg chef Louis Maldonado, of Spoonbar and Pizzando, can finally talk about what it was like competing on Season 11 of Bravo's popular TV show, "Top Chef," now that it's over.
And although the top prize eluded him — Nicholas Elmi snagged that in the Feb. 5 finale — the 32-year-old chef can still hold his head high.
"I didn't get money or cars," Maldonado said during a recent demonstration dinner at Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg. "But I won the hearts of everybody."
After getting eliminated halfway through the series, Maldonado calmly clawed his way back into the final four, winning a record eight challenges in "Last Chance Kitchen," where eliminated contestants go for redemption.
For eight weeks, he turned up the heat in the one-on-one challenges, coming up with the kind of clean, flavorful dishes that have put Spoonbar at the H2Hotel on the map.
During that time, the chef not only bonded with judge Tom Colicchio but beguiled viewers with his calm demeanor, broad smile and aw-shucks humility.
The young chef, who has worked at The French Laundry in Yountville and helped snag a Michelin star for Cortez in San Francisco, also brought home an extra splash of self-assurance.
"I often feel like my strength is my ambition, but is there the skill to pull it off?" he said. "After the show, I got a lot more confidence about that."
Thrown into the summer heat of New Orleans, where the show was filmed, with 18 other contestants, he also transformed into a bit of a social butterfly.
"The show brought out the social part of me, and I reacted to it," he said. "I told myself, 'This is a good thing. Don't fight it.'"