Dining with Our New Top Cheftestants: Amanda Baumgarten

Everyone across the country can watch the cheftestants on Bravo’s Top Chef challenge themselves with new creations every week, But we in Los Angeles have the advantage of enjoying the cooking of several of those Top Chef contenders, and even winners, in person. As Top Chef Michael Voltaggio announced his departure from the Huntington Langham hotel after July17 (to pursue his own restaurant), I decided it was time to get a jump on the next wave and visit the two Los Angeles-based cheftestants for this new season.

My first stop was at downtown’s venerated Water Grill, where Amanda Baumgarten has just come aboard (only three weeks!) as sous chef. For those who don’t know it, Water Grill (jewel in the crown of the King Signature Group) is one of LA’s landmark eateries, winner of awards and accolades from Wine Spectator, Zagat and many others. In an elegant but lively art deco/streamline room, they are best known for their top-quality raw bar, featuring as many as nine different oysters at a time, live sea urchin, and other fruit de mer from around the world.

Chipper and cheerful, LA native Baumgarten might seem more green than her résumé reflects: before coming on Top Chef, she worked at two Michelin-starred restaurants in London before returning home to cook at Melisse, Joachim Splichal’s Patina and Paperfish, and most recently with Ben Ford at Ford’s Filling Station. In fact she reveals that when the economy forced Ford to cut staff, “as a consolation prize,” he recommended her to Top Chef’s producers.

After she passed the audition, Amanda says, “I went through my copy of LaRousse [Gastronomique], did a couple of ‘mystery basket’ dinner parties, and did a lot of yoga,” to prepare. She’s prohibited from saying much about the experience of filming the show now, but says the experience “helped me work at a higher level. And I learned my way around Whole Foods really well!” Of the judges, she says “They are very critical, and they’re right on.”

Water Grill's decadent Lobster Roll with Fries (yes, they're ginormous)

At Water Grill, there’s a different challenge—to present the ocean’s best products as best as possible, while being responsible in sourcing and sustainability. “We’ve been raping the oceans for so long,” she says sternly, “It feels good to honor the product.”

In conjunction with Top Chef, Amanda and Executive chef David LeFevre (with yours truly, below) are producing specials tied to each episode’s theme, available from the Wednesday air dates through Fridays each week she stays on the show. Starting tonight, they will have a “surf and turf” duo of dry-rubbed BBQ Niman pork ribs and diver scallops in a Noilly Prat marmalade.

P.S. The restaurant currently offers free corkages if you want to bring your own bottle.

Next week, we’ll visit cheftestant Alex Resnik at his resident restaurant, Café Was (which is also presenting special Top Chef viewing dinners every Wednesday, including tonight).

Water Grill is located at 544 South Grand, 213.891.0900