If you can't stand the heat, goes the old saw, stay out of the kitchen. And no kitchen is hotter than that of Bravo's Top Chef, where talented cooks compete in culinary challenges that in past seasons have ranged from making vending-machine haute cuisine to planning a full Thanksgiving dinner for the Foo Fighters and their entourage. Unlike singing, modeling, or fashion design, the culinary world isn't always welcoming to gays and lesbians, but Top Chef has welcomed queer competitors almost from the start. In fact, it seems to be upping the ante with each succeeding season.
Couple Zoi Antonitsas and Jennifer Biesty went whisk to whisk in season 4. Last year, three out contestants -- Patrick Dunlea, Richard Sweeney, and Jamie Lauren -- formed their own "Team Rainbow," though all turned in their knives before the finale. And gay chefs Anita Lo ( an Advocate contributor ), Elizabeth Falkner, and Art Smith popped up on this summer's Top Chef Masters .
Season 6, which debuted August 19 and takes place in Las Vegas, features another queer trinity: gay gourmand Ash Fulk and lesbian chefs Ashley Merriman and Preeti Mistry.
Fulk, 29, a self-taught chef who grew up in California, now lives in New York and works at Trestle on Tenth in the übergay Chelsea neighborhood. "I kind of fell into cooking," he admits. "My ex-girlfriend was working at a restaurant and they needed a prep cook. I just sort of kept coming back to it.Èd; He ditched the girl but stayed in the kitchen. He describes his cooking style as "California cuisine with an Asian influence."
Merriman, who hails from the aptly named Center Sandwich, N.H., attended the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and is now the executive chef at Seattle's Branzino restaurant. The 32-year-old says her food is "robust."
"When customers leave my restaurant I want them to feel like they got beat in the face with a stick of butter," Merriman says. Her first experiences in the kitchen were as a child, tagging along with her waitress mother. "When I was little we were on welfare. I would go to the restaurant with my mom because we couldn't really afford daycare."
Mistry, 33, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London, is now the executive chef at Google's headquarters in California. Her approach to cooking is influenced by her Indian heritage, classic French training, and San Francisco-born belief in using fresh, local ingredients.
"I don't like to use anything out of the box," Mistry says. "I'll make my own masala, toast my own sesame seeds. That's how we did it at home." It was her mentor, Traci Des Jardins of Acme Chophouse, who encouraged her to apply to be on Top Chef. "She's always been a big influence," Mistry says. "If she tells me to do something I do it!"
While Mistry relished being on the show, she says she wasn't the biggest fan of Sin City. "What's that line from 'Men on Film'? 'Hated it!' Las Vegas has a lot to offer to people from smaller towns. But for someone who lives in a big city with lots of restaurants, gay life, and shopping, there's a lot to be desired."
All three chefs have excelled in the field, but do they face homophobia in the macho-dominated world of cooking?
"I've never experienced outright discrimination, but there have been moments -- I know every Spanish word for 'gay,'" says Fulk. "But I try not to take things too personally."
Mistry believes talent ultimately wins out. "The wall hasn't come down yet, but the kitchen is a meritocracy," she says. "It's about what you bring to the table that determines how you're treated."
The "cheftestants" got along well enough, but viewers shouldn't expect another Team Rainbow.
"We're all professionals and there was camaraderie among everyone on the show," says Fulk. "I became close with Ashley, but not because we were both gay."
Mistry jokes that the bond between Merriman and Fulk was even stronger than Fulk admits. "Ash and Ashley are in love even though they're both gay," she says with a laugh. "I didn't want to get in the middle of their love affair."
Was Mistry surprised that there was a sizeable gay presence this season? "Not really," she says. "I was more surprised they took two girls that look like boys."
Is the show's growing queer contingent just coincidence or is Bravo intentionally giving its hottest franchise a queer eye? Fulk doesn't think there was an ulterior motive. "I can't speak for what producers were thinking, but all the chefs brought their A game," he says. "They were chosen for their talent."
Bravo veep Andy Cohen concurs. "While I am always amazed at the seemingly high ratio of lesbians in the kitchen," he says, "we judged the chefs on their merits and abilities, not by their sexuality."