Louis Maldonado's 'Top Chef' experience

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

1/2 pound bacon, sliced or in a slab

2 yellow onions, skins removed and cut in half

2 sheets kombu

3 bunches scallions, thinly sliced on the bias

6 packs beech mushrooms, clipped off the cluster

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Roast chickens for about 2 1/2 hours or until a very dark golden color. Remove and add 2 cups water to roasting pan. Pour all contents into a 12-quart pot, add the bacon, onions and kombu and fill the pot with cold water. Do not bring to a boil, but let simmer for four hours. Strain the liquid into another pot and slowly reduce to 4 quarts.

Take the reserved chicken legs and sear in a pan on the stove with a bit of oil. Put the legs into the simmering chicken bouillon and slowly poach for 1 1/2 hours. Remove carefully and pick the meat off the bones. Add the bits of meat back to the bouillon and keep warm.

Add the scallions and beech mushrooms to the broth and simmer for 6 minutes. Ladle the bouillon out among 6 bowls.


"I have spent a lot of time perfecting roasting a chicken," Maldonado said. "I really love the flavor and the technique of cooking birds."

Herb Roasted Chicken, Pickled Golden Raisins, Chicories and Green Garlic

Makes 4 servings

1 5-pound chicken, trussed

400 grams kosher salt

4 liters water

1 bunch thyme

1 head garlic

1 bunch tarragon

1/4 pound butter

3 bunches mixed chicories, separated into leaves

1/2 pound green garlic, cut into 1-inch batons

8 tablespoons olive oil

For pickled golden raisins:

2 cups golden raisins

1 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup sugar

2 cups water

For the chicken: Mix the water and salt and whisk until fully incorporated. Add the chicken and let sit in brine for 3 hours in the refrigerator. Remove from brine and let dry for 36 to 48 hours.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat a large saute pan or cast iron skillet, add 4 tablespoons oil, and start to sear the chicken, breast side first, rotating to get all the sides golden. Add thyme, garlic, tarragon and butter into the pan and put into oven. Baste every 15 minutes for 2 hours, remove and let rest for 20 minutes before carving.

Saute the green garlic in olive oil until tender and then add the chicories. Lightly wilt and season with salt.

For the pickled raisins: Bring everything to a boil and slowly reduce until the syrup is dry and glazes the raisins.

To finish: Carve the breast of the chicken first and cut into four pieces. Cut the chicken legs off and cut the legs in half. Serve each person a piece of breast and leg, garnish with the pickled raisins, green garlic and chicories.


"I asked our pastry chef at Spoonbar to fluff and lighten up the usual cheesecake, which was too dense," he said. "We're really proud of the final product. It has almost a souffl?like texture."

Japanese Cheesecake with Cocoa Nib Crumb and Yuzu Curd

Makes 6 servings

For cheesecake:

150 grams cream cheese, at room temperature

150 grams white chocolate

4 eggs, separated

1/4 cup sugar

For yuzu curd:

1/2 pound butter

8 ounces yuzu juice

12 egg yolks

6 ounces sugar

- Cocoa nibs, for garnish

For cheesecake: Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Prep a 6-inch spring-form pan with parchment around the sides, extending the top of the pan by 2 inches, and spray with cooking spray.

Melt the chocolate over a water bath, add in cream cheese, and melt until smooth.

Place the egg whites in a mixing bowl and whip until frothy, slowly add in sugar, and continue to whip to firm peaks.

Add yolks to cream cheese mixture.

Fold a third of the egg whites into the cream cheese mixture, then fold the rest in until completely incorporated. Do this lightly, being careful not to deflate the whites too much.

Pour into pan and bake in a water bath at 300 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 250 degrees and bake for 15 minutes, then turn oven off and bake another 15 minutes.

For yuzu curd: Melt butter in a large, heatproof bowl over a water bath. Add yuzu juice, yolks and sugar. Whisk until completely incorporated, and the whisk leaves drag marks.

To serve: Spread yuzu curd on a plate, serve cheesecake on top with a sprinkle of cocoa nibs on top.

Strain immediately through a chinois. Lay plastic wrap over the top of the curd while cooling so it does not get a skin.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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