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.'"
We caught up with Maldonado at Spoonbar a few weeks after his son, Benjamin, turned 5. The chef lives in Healdsburg with his wife, Sarah, while his parents and sister live in Ukiah.
Q: How did your stint on "Top Chef" come about?
A: They contacted me on Jan. 24, 2013. I had talked to them before about being on the show. This time, it felt right. We did some talking.
I had four months to pull myself out of the (Spoonbar) kitchen, and the team got really strong. ... The whole kitchen pushed for me to do the show. I left the last week in May and came back the middle of July.
Q: Which contestants did you connect with?
A: Carrie (Mashaney) from Seattle. She's coming out to do Pigs & Pinot in March. Shirley (Chung) and I got really close, being the last two to get eliminated. ... We are all still texting every day.
Q: What was the biggest challenge?
A: The hardest part was not having the access (to good ingredients). I'm from California, and we kind of created that whole thing. The weather was tough. It was so humid. Everything was air-conditioned. I got really tired of the heat and the air-conditioning.
Q: During the first half of the series, you kept a low profile.
A: I don't beat my chest to get the spotlight on me. It naturally happens. It takes time and patience. I stay quiet and let things happen.
Q: What happened during the eighth challenge, when you were first eliminated?
A: I did a Slow-Cooked Pork Leg with Corn Grits, Mushrooms, Onions and Popcorn. Nobody could get past the popcorn. I was actually really happy with what I did.
Q: Why did you do so well on "Last Chance Kitchen"?
A: It was one-on-one, just cooking, and my personality came out through the cooking.
Q: What was your worst "Last Chance Kitchen" challenge?
A: The beignet challenge, with Stephanie (Cmar). It was the one challenge where I was not as focused.
Q: What was your best "Last Chance Kitchen"?
A: "Skin and Bones." I did vegetables cooked in pork fat, then built it from there. Tom said it was the best dish of the summer.
Q: Where do you go from here?
A: I'm doing what I want now. Spoonbar is a dream I've always had. ... It's not necessarily built for locals, but it's really morphing into a restaurant that supports what Healdsburg has. By next year, we want to be 100 percent local, with (ingredients from) Front Porch Farm and Mix Garden.
Q: You do modern American at Spoonbar, and Italian at Pizzando. What about comfort food?
A: I have a need to do a restaurant with the burger and the fries. ... The food will be beautiful, just like it is here. Spoonbar is the mother ship, but these singular restaurants do really, really well.
"This bouillon dish is on the tasting menu at Spoonbar," Maldonado said. "It's a really flavorful, fortified broth ... then you cook the chicken legs in the broth, and add mushrooms and scallions." Kombu can be found at Asian markets.
Chicken Bouillon with Smoked Chicken Leg, Scallions and Beech Mushrooms
Makes 6 servings
3 whole chickens, with the legs removed