When we last left “Top Chef,” our hometown hero Shota Nakajima came, oh, so close to being coroneted but lost in a controversial battle to bad boy Gabe Erales of Texas in the season finale last summer. Some local fans lamented if any other Seattle cook would ever get that close to smelling victory again on America’s most popular reality cooking TV show.
Guess what? We have another hometown boy competing on season 19 of “Top Chef” in Houston, premiering Thursday on Bravo at 8 p.m.
Step on up, Luke Kolpin, a 2004 Roosevelt High graduate with an imposing résumé that includes kitchen work at the storied Canlis and eight and a half years at the world famous Noma restaurant in Denmark.
Kolpin, who returned to the Northwest last year to plan for the opening of his own restaurant (more on that later), is very good at keeping a secret. His friends were all floored to hear their tattooed buddy had sneaked off to Texas last September to compete on the show.
In a phone interview with The Seattle Times last week (with folks associated with “Top Chef” on the line to make sure he didn’t spoil any plot), Kolpin kept mum on whether he made it as far as the last Seattle contestant or if host Padma Lakshmi disposed of him early on with her signature “please pack your knives and go.”
None of the other 14 contestants, though, can flex that they were a sous chef at Noma, which is often cited by many glossies and awards as the world’s best restaurant.
But Kolpin hints his time at Noma didn’t give him a big advantage under the limelight. Kolpin, who had immersed himself in all thing vegetables and Nordic cuisine while in Denmark, felt like he was in a foreign land in his home country when he competed on “Top Chef,” where the kitchen battles entailed ingredients or themes such as Tex-Mex, barbecue and alligator meat.
“You are thrown in and asked to [cook] with things you have not cooked before,” Kolpin said.
At Noma, where perfection is expected, “I probably messed up everything in the world. [But] you have a chance to redo it and make sure you get it right” before the dishes get sent out to diners, he said.
But on the cooking competition, “there’s no do-over,” the 35-year-old Seattle resident said.
Viewers will see a familiar face on the show this season: last year’s “fan favorite” according to the “Top Chef” poll, Seattle’s Nakajima returns as a guest judge, where you will hear plenty of the affectionate giggles that made him the “Top Chef” darling. “It’s a lot of fun being on the other side and not competing,” said Nakajima. “It’s not as stressful. I remember what it was like competing. It’s extremely tough.”
Nakajima, who’s been juggling running his fried chicken joint Taku on Capitol Hill while opening a teriyaki spot in Cle Elum, recalls meeting Kolpin five years ago at a dinner function, and the two still get together to banter about the industry. They cooked together at an umami-themed fundraising dinner for Overlake Medical Center last year.
“It’s hard to find people in the industry who are talented and who don’t have ego,” Nakajima said. “He’s a stand-up guy that I can carry a regular conversation with. I have a lot of respect for him.”
While “Top Chef” has played up the sexy angle of Kolpin working at one of the world’s most famous restaurants, the contestant counts himself as a Seattleite to the core. He grew up in Queen Anne.
After he was diagnosed in first grade with dyslexia, Kolpin felt more at ease working with his hands and communicating verbally, which is why he was partly drawn to the restaurant world, where he could also do what he loves most: eat. He snacks so much, his buddies nicknamed him “Lunchbox.”
After graduating from Roosevelt High, he enrolled in Shoreline Community College and then transferred to the culinary program at Seattle Central College, where he juggled classes and shifts at McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant in Lake Union.
Then in 2008, he landed at Canlis, where co-owner Brian Canlis recalls that Kolpin was a talented cook who “was in line to get promoted to sous” chef before he left in 2009. “We remember him fondly and miss his incredible hard work and talent,” Canlis said in a text message.
Kolpin then worked at the now closed Fresh Bistro in West Seattle, an ambitious restaurant that drew many young guns who wanted to experiment in the kitchen. Still wanting more, at the age 25, he crossed the Atlantic to take on the much-coveted internship at Noma, where he rose to become sous chef before returning home.
When he’s not frequenting Revel, his favorite restaurant in Seattle, Koplin strolls in his old stomping ground with his 13-year-old pit bull, Kona. “It might take us 45 minutes to go around a block,” he quips.
He’s living with his parents on top of Queen Anne while he looks for a space to open a vegetable-centric bistro. Veggies are more versatile and interesting than working with a steak, the chef said.
“My cooking style — vegetables first and then what would be nice to go with it,” he said. “I really like the idea of vegetables and the endless possibilities of cooking with them.”
No restaurant space speaks to him yet, but he knows he wants the restaurant to either be in Seattle or within an hour or two from his hometown. “The Northwest feels like home. It is a place I want to spend my time,” he said.
Check out the trailer for the new season of “Top Chef” here. You can catch Kolpin on Thursday, March 3, on Bravo at 8 p.m.