Takashi Yagihashi and Art Smith
The masters are back! “Top Chef Masters” returns for a fourth season Wednesday, with 12 chefs competing for prize money to benefit the charity of their choice. Takashi Yagihashi and Art Smith are proudly representing Chicago restaurants, and it’s a return of sorts for both. Yagihashi made a guest appearance on a Vancouver-set episode of “Top Chef: Texas” and also competed on an episode of “Iron Chef” that aired earlier this year. Smith, known for his legendary fried chicken and his gig as Oprah’s chef, appeared on the first season of “Masters” in 2009. Since then, he’s dropped more than 100 pounds and opened Lyfe Kitchen, a health-centric eatery in Palo Alto, Calif. that he hopes to bring to Chicago within the next year or two. We talked to both chefs in advance of the season’s first episode, which airs 9 p.m. Wednesday on Bravo.
Chef at: Takashi in Bucktown and Slurping Turtle in River North
His charity: Red Cross for tsunami relief in Japan. “It’s already more than a year ago, but I think going back to the normal life [is] going to take 10 years, some people say.”
On his change of heart about the show: “I hesitated about getting into the food competitions. Everybody [has a] different style ... so how can you make a decision of who win[s], who lose[s]? I always think that way … but I changed my mind, that this is a good opportunity to [have] fun. And I think, let’s not be too serious, let’s have fun. If I think that way, then I decided, let’s do it! Of course it’s a competition still, I work very hard and I’m serious, but I really have a good time.”
On the difference between “Iron Chef” and “Top Chef Masters”: “I think I could say ‘Iron Chef’ is more straight-forward. … ‘Top Chef Masters’ is totally different. ... Of course, you have to have experience and, let’s say, technique, like knife skill[s]. But more, you have to have instant creativity. You don’t have so much time to think about it; you have to move right away. That’s a really tough thing to do.”
On splitting time between his restaurants: “The same thing if you had two babies, twins. They need a lot of attention and direction, too. Takashi, in December, it’s gonna be five years. Little by little, by year by year, we’re getting a very strong team there. So that’s why we decided to open Slurping Turtle, because I can spend a little more time [there].”
On his “Top Chef: Texas” guest appearance: “That challenge was really, really fun. Somebody go into the kitchen first, find the ingredients and starting the cooking. You cannot communicate with the second person. Second person take over the cooking then I’m going back to kitchen again.”
On camaraderie with the other chefs: “You guys might thing we are [enemies] … we have to do what we have to do, and I want to be better than someone else, of course we do. But [at the] end of the day, we get together have a dinner together and have a drink together and we celebrate that moment. We have made a lot of new friends now.”
Chef at: Table Fifty-Two in the Gold Coast; Lyfe Kitchen in Palo Alto, Calif.; Art and Soul in Washington, D.C.; Southern Art and Bourbon Bar in Atlanta; Joanne in New York
His charity: Common Threads, the after-school cooking program for underprivileged children that Smith started with his husband Jesus Salgueiro.
On why he’s returning to the show: “I think that being able to show America how a formerly obese chef could turn his life around, his health, and then the other thing was, I married Jesus. I had one of the largest gay weddings in America. Being proud of being a gay American chef and I think a gay American healthy chef, that and just the sheer fun of it. … There’s always funny gay contestant in the mix of every reality show, did you ever notice that?”
On why he doesn’t have an advantage: “Every time there’s a challenge, it truly is a new challenge and no one knows what to expect.”
On his weight loss: “There’s something funny about the ‘big fat chef.’ I had played into that character where I just thought that was part of my persona. But what happened was, something ugly called diabetes came upon me and I realized, all fun and games, that ain’t fun and any game, and I had to do something about it. I had some rough times when I thought I was going to die. So I went on this major health kick and lost over 100 pounds. … When you feel good about your health, there’s nothing that even remotely comes close to tasting that good.”