Stop at 'Top Chef' eateries while taking in the star-studded sights

If you hang out in Hollywood, Calif., long enough, inevitably you’ll come across some action movie making going on, get free tickets to be part of a studio audience for live TV programming or maybe score an invitation to a world premier “after-party.”

In fact, all of those things came my way somewhat unexpectedly when I found myself surrounded by a gaggle of “cheftestants,” as they’re called, hoping to make the big time on Bravo TV’s culinary competition series called “Top Chef.”

In the interest of full disclosure, however, I’d best confess I’m not an avid TV fan — in fact, we cut our cable over a year ago and haven’t missed it yet, my philosophy being, “Don’t watch life, live it!” So basically, I didn’t have a clue when it came to cooking shows, other than knowing a bit about the renowned "Iron Chef" program that originated in Japan and became the model for so many others.

I was soon enough informed, however, that Bravo’s Emmy- and James Beard Award-winning TV series was known almost universally among America’s foodie set. In fact, it finished its 15th season of reality programming this past March, signaling its continued popularity.

Further, Bravo TV doesn’t just set up and then abandon its “cheftestants,” but rather brings back a few of its culinary alumni (I was disappointed they don’t call them “culumni”) for special events. It was one such event that I snagged an invitation to, allowing me to follow a delicious TV trail from the jazzy kitchens of Hollywood, to over-the-top Orange County, to the sunny shores of San Diego. The chefs I would meet were from the ninth, 11th and 13th seasons of “Top Chef.”

This edible odyssey got its auspicious start along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where more than 2,500 brass stars are embedded on both sides of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. The metallic, step-on-me pentagrams are dedicated to entertainment professionals, ranging from actors, directors, producers, musicians and theatrical groups to fictional characters like Mickey Mouse and Godzilla.

Hollywood legends

If that’s not reason enough to look down as you walk (other than at your cell phone), the hand, foot and paw prints of scores of celebrities have been immortalized in concrete in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in a tradition dating back to 1927. Today known as the TCL Chinese Theatre, it’s still a cinema palace where star-studded movie premieres take place.

A popular venue for the “after-parties” of many of these premieres is the Blossom Room of the legendary hotel, The Hollywood Roosevelt, located just across the street from the Chinese Theatre. In fact, the first two Academy Award banquets ever held were catered in this ballroom. The classic building itself was originally financed by movie mogul Louie Mayer, of MGM fame, and early cinema idols Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. In fact, many of Mayer's stable of actors and actresses were housed here, including Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Carol Lombard. Monroe was resident here for two years as her modeling career took off, and her first magazine photos were taken at The Roosevelt’s Tropicana swimming pool. Decades later, acclaimed British painter David Hockney would complete a multi-million dollar mural on the bottom of this pool.

A hotel with this much history just has to be haunted, and indeed there’s been no shortage of ghostly gallivanting. Guests and staff claim to have seen Monroe's ethereal spirit reflected in a mirror that originally was in her old Suite 1200, and many another apparent apparition has made itself known.

For my experience, the only spirits I encountered were alcohol-based in The Garden, a foliage-shrouded open-air courtyard bar at the fabulous Roosevelt. As our small band of food fanatics was consuming getting-to-know-you cocktails there, we got word that one of those notorious “after-parties” was about to begin in the Blossom Room upstairs. Better still, we got hold of some prized wristbands that allowed us entry.

I won’t mention the name of the film that had just premiered across the street that night, but here’s a hint: Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling had top billing. And although the frenzied gathering was too crowded with expensively dressed attendees to be sure, it appeared that of the three male stars, only Carell had actually shown up at the party. Everyone else inside the Blossom Room seemed to be someone hoping to be known, or hoping to see someone who was.

As a non-television watcher and only occasional moviegoer, I may have missed spotting many celebrities, but the next day I couldn’t miss meeting our first “cheftestant,” Executive Chef Dakota Weiss (Season 9), at her Estrella restaurant in West Hollywood. The colorfully tattooed Weiss attributed her early love for cooking to growing up selecting fruit from her mother’s organic orchard. As for the eatery’s open, breezy design, Dakota said she drew her inspiration from the now-vanished artistic community of 1960s Laurel Canyon, which included the bungalows of singers Joni Mitchell and “Mama” Cass Elliot.

Chef Weiss served us a luscious Peking Duck Cobb Salad, an innovative grilled cauliflower and roasted grapes lettuce wrap, a multi-grain and avocado salad, and a down-home baked short rib mac & cheese. While those were all memorable dishes, I’ve since heard that after our visit, Estrella drifted more toward family-style Italian fare.

Finding the views

With that hearty meal, however, we were steeled and ready for a climb into the Hollywood Hills, to see the Griffith Observatory (featured in the classic movie “Rebel Without a Cause”) and the notorious Hollywood Sign (you can look, but don’t touch!). We were guided there by an outfit called Bikes & Hikes as we made our way through elevated sections of Griffith Park.

That night we enjoyed comfort food at a barbecue spot in Studio City called Barrel & Ashes. Apart from their top-of-the-line chicken and ribs, there were surprise items like cornmeal, maple butter and green onion “Hoe Cake,” a Deep South favorite, and “Frito Pie,” an actual bag of Fritos ripped open and filled with typical taco toppings and sour cream.

Our accommodation in North Hollywood was at The Garland hotel, created by B-movie actress Beverly Garland, who starred in low-budget 1950s hits like “Swamp Women” and “Not of This Earth.” She was television's first policewoman, and later played Fred MacMurray's second wife in the TV series “My Three Sons.”

In The Garland’s Front Yard restaurant, we met two Season 13 cheftestants. Giselle Wellman, of Jewish-Mexican ancestry, became the youngest female executive chef in Los Angeles at the age of 26. Phillip Frankland Lee opened his first solo restaurant at age 25 and was named one of the "Best Young Chefs in America" by San Pellegrino, the sparkling water people.

Wellman told us that “Top Chef” is never scripted (something I’d doubted on other “reality” shows), but very competitive conditions and a strong theme were imposed at the start of each show. Frankland Lee commented that he went into each session “ready for battle,” but that his own toughest competitor was himself.

Before departing Los Angeles, we got a lesson in herbal infusions by Tom Kaplan, tea master at Hugo’s Restaurant. We also made a stop in Irvine, Orange County, to meet Season 13 chef Amar Santana from the Dominican Republic, and Beijing-born Shirley Chung (Season 11) at her Twenty Eight restaurant. Chef Chung called her cooking style, “modern American cuisine with a Chinese soul.” Santana said that his is, “expressing passion through food.”

Chung served us appetizing dishes like lemongrass hanger steak, vegetable tempura on green chili paste, and crispy skin trout, among a half dozen others.

San Diego scene

Then we were off to our upscale San Diego base at the hacienda-style Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa, located near the celebrated Torrey Pines Golf Course. That evening we grazed at the Galaxy Taco shop in La Jolla, accentuating the Mexican heritage in San Diego’s culinary scene.

Next day, we met our final “Top Chef,” Chad White (Season 13), at Little Italy Mercato, San Diego’s popular open-air farmers’ market. White owns a wood-fired craft pizza shop locally in La Jolla, and another restaurant just across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. He took me to a stall serving live, raw sea urchins, my least favorite edible creature.

I don’t even like getting close to urchins’ spike-covered bodies, let alone eating them, but White and many others consider these salt-water pincushions to be a delicacy. “Of course, it’s a matter of personal taste,” White conceded, “but I think the meat within is heavenly.”

Unconvinced, I wandered deeper into the market, admiring crafts, metalwork and candles, and enjoying samples of more familiar foods. It’s not that I avoid trying new things — I’ve been doing that for decades — but I also have limitations on what goes into my mouth, which I think is normal. I don’t do insects, for example, and I’ve only tried jellyfish once.

That evening, however, our group found dishes we could all agree to share during dinner at Juniper and Ivy, where yellowtail sashimi with shark sauce, kimchi-barbecued quail, and grilled swordfish are popular items.

Likewise, during brunch the next day at Quad AleHouse in downtown San Diego's historic Gaslamp Quarter, a majority agreed that eggs Benedict was the ideal choice. Across from Quad, a rainbow-colored, Victorian-era apartment building provided a neat contrast to the boldly modern style at San Diego's largest shopping mall, Horton Plaza.

A later stop brought us to Catalina Offshore Products, a local seafood company, where manager Tommy Gomes gave a cooking demonstration that centered on fish tacos. Inside other rooms of the complex, Gomes held up clawless lobsters, and “escolar,” which he called, “Perhaps the highest-oil fish in the sea. It’s popular as sushi.” True, but escolar is filled with wax-esters, a type of oil the human stomach can’t absorb, making the fish barely edible.

We ended up in a room with my nemesis sea urchins, or as Gomes called them, “One of the region’s most sought-after live food products.”

I cringed, and spent the next few days observing creatures that don’t get eaten by humans because they’re attentively kept for entertainment purposes in the major attractions of SeaWorld San Diego, San Diego Zoo and the sprawling Safari Park. The latter is a cage-free wildlife sanctuary located 30 miles outside the downtown area, where more than 3,000 animals freely roam.

The 100-acre zoo itself also houses thousands of rare and endangered creatures in Balboa Park, north of central San Diego. Close by, there’s an avenue of outstanding museums showcasing aviation history, art, science, and even antique fire engines.

My favorite attraction, however, is not in Balboa Park, but by the sea. Imagine being able to walk through five centuries of maritime history in a single afternoon, stepping inside ships that range from a 1542 Mexican galleon to a 1960s Soviet attack submarine.

The Maritime Museum offers that opportunity aboard heritage vessels such as the iron-hulled Star of India, launched in 1863 and considered to be the oldest active ship in the world. Anyone who remembers the 2003 Hollywood film “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which starred Russell Crowe, will instantly recognize the HMS Surprise, an 18th century Royal Navy frigate, which played a key role in the movie.

While some vessels like HMS Surprise and the galleon San Salvador are replicas, most are original. Being aboard, hearing the creaking of ropes and wooden fittings, touching the iron canons, and smelling the salty air makes you feel like a time traveler.

Having an average of 330 dry, sunny days each year, San Diego is perfect for outdoor activities. And as all of our Top Chefs pointed out, southern California as a whole continues to be a travel destination with a multitude of cultural, social and culinary choices that almost everyone wants to experience at some point.

Eugene resident Joseph Lieberman has visited 55 countries on six continents, written eight books, and published more than 700 articles. He can be reached at gone2oregon@yahoo.com.