This morning, would you like me to rehash last night’s episode (pre-episode?) of Top Chef Texas, which, like last week’s, boringly involved just paring the original group of 29 down to a much more manageable 16? Because, you know, I can get out my mandoline and start sawing away at that sorry bunch. Alternatively: Would you like me to recount that time I asked Alex Reznik, the Jewish contestant from Top Chef D.C., if he really stole Ed’s pea purée? Yeah, I thought so.
Last December, I meet Reznik at La Seine, a restaurant in Beverly Hills inexplicably not called “La Seine on La Cienega,” and named, perhaps, to attract Los Angelenos who warm to the thought of a river with water in it. La Seine is set to open in a week or two, and Reznik is acting as a “consultant” to owner Laurent Masliah—he estimates it’s a six-month gig. Nearly a year later, Reznik, a Jew who moved with his parents from Kiev when he was 4 and grew up in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, remains executive chef. And a year later—and this is a true victory in the restaurant biz—La Seine remains open.
Did I mention it’s kosher, and has a sushi bar? Yeah.
“It just so happens we’re going to be a kosher restaurant,” he tells me. He is wearing his chef whites and his trademark clear glasses, shaved pate, and spaced-out/maniacal look. His enthusiasm and general weirdness would be utterly familiar to anyone who watched the last, epic Top Chef season. “Kosher food is some of the best quality food we can buy,” he says. “Kosher chicken, kosher beef is amazing, because the process in which they kasher it—it’s so humane, because it has to be humane by biblical laws.” He rhapsodizes about his plans: “I was thinking: French; kosher; Asian. Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to create my food, which is California Clean, and I’m going to cook it with my French technique, add in some Asian flavors, my Jewish heritage.” It sounds like, well, exactly like what he did for the judges. “So, one of the dishes is like a pastrami-cured kanpachi,” he tells me. “The pastrami is a French technique—all you’re doing is preserving. I’m doing veal tongue. Corned beef, with a touch of miso glaze—just a touch, so it’s going to have that little sweetness, and I’m going to do it sous vide—I have my Cryovac, I have my motion circulator.”
But I’m stalling: You want to know about the pea purée, which the show famously framed as something he stole from Ed on an episode in which his dish was the winner.
“I’m gonna tell you this,” he says, knowingly. “Top Chef is an Emmy-winning show. It’s a great show. I love the producers, and I watch every episode. As far as the competition, it’s 100 percent dead-on—which means there’s nothing scripted. As far as who goes off and who wins, it’s based on flavor and the food of that episode.
“As far as the other parts and aspects of the show: look, they’re producers. They have editing equipment. Is it edited? Yes. Can they put words in your mouth? No. Can it be manipulated to create certain characters, to create certain scenarios? Yes. Did they manipulate my character and portray me in a negative light? Absolutely.”
Referring to an episode in which he is shown nabbing a piece of equipment before someone else—actually it’s Amanda Baumgarten, the other Jew—can get to it, he remarks, “Everyone was doing that.”
“I’m the last one to do drugs,” he continues, in reference to an instance in which he joked about this. “I don’t do drugs. I respect women a lot more than to ever get an escort”—a reference to another joke. “Don’t get me wrong: If that’s your profession, so be it, fantastic, I’ll respect you doing that as well.”
And: “I would never steal anything. So, when I was accused, after the fact, when I saw the show, it was like—‘Are you kidding me? Is this really an issue?’ ”
I ask, “What are we talking about here?”
He replies, “Pea purée. That became the largest controversy on the show. When I was watching, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ This wasn’t even a controversy inside that house. I don’t think anybody actually assumed I would steal something. I had no idea. When they show me walking out the door, not caring about it: It was manipulated to create a perception. Who would steal a purée of peas? It wasn’t like it was truffles or lobster or something that takes a long process. It was peas.”
Me: “It sounds like you’re saying that you didn’t do it.”
Alex: “Of course I didn’t do it. But it’s not that I didn’t do it—it’s obnoxious to contemplate, first, somebody stealing anything on the show, when you’re being followed on cameras; two … ”
Me: “… That was my reaction—how would they not know?”
Alex: “They film everything. There are cameras around you all the time. They tell me there’s no footage of me making it? Fine. I believe them, because I have to believe them. You ask any of the chefs what they think of me in real life? They’ll only give you positive answers. You don’t make it on that show and stay on that show for a long time without having talent. It’s an Emmy-winning show. They need to do this. I wish they had chosen someone else. They said, ‘How come you didn’t say you didn’t steal it?’ I didn’t think it was an issue! Look, it’s peas. At no time did I think it would be an issue. I mean, they’re peas. Who would steal peas?
“It was kind of a shame, because that episode I won,” he sighs. “The smoked salmon was what won. When you saw the judges it was like, salmon, salmon, salmon, salmon. But the way they edit the show, it was, pea purée, pea purée, pea purée, pea purée.” (This is basically true.)
At one point, I see flashes of the Russian in him, as when he explains: “There are very few Jewish chefs out there. Heritage-wise, our parents teach us: You don’t want to be a cook when you grow up, you want to be a C.P.A., you want to be a doctor.”
And he waxes philosophical: “My philosophy on Top Chef was I wanted to cook food I’d never cooked before. Unfortunately this wasn’t revealed on the show. I said, ‘I want to use this as an educational experience.’ I’m cooking with an amazing group of chefs. And what I don’t want to do is recreate dishes that I do every day. Which is not what wins, and that’s what I learned, in hindsight.
“The experience on Top Chef was one of the most stressful, but the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” he continues. “I got to meet an incredible amount of chefs. Everyone from Angelo to Kevin to Kenny, I have amazing relationships with them all, ongoing.”
He adds, “The only chef out in L.A. is Amanda. Just so happens, the Jewish contingency. We see each other all the time.”
Top Chef Texas, you have big, goofy shoes to fill.
Earlier: The Purloined Purée