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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Preeti Mistry of 'Top Chef' Season Six: The SFoodie Interview

Posted By on Wed, Aug 26, 2009 at 9:00 AM

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We were worried when local girl Preeti Mistry turned to her three colleagues last week during the first Quickfire Challenge of Top Chef Las Vegas -- a mise-en-place battle for which she'd have to open 15 clams before others on her team could move on to other tasks, including trimming a rib eye. Mistry said, "It's the same as an oyster, right? Clams?"

Virgin clam-shucker Mistry, an executive chef at Bon Appétit Management Company who runs Charlie's Café at Google in Mountain View, fell so far behind that her team never recovered.

"I wanted to do the beef," Mistry told SFoodie. "After all, I was the sous chef at Acme Chophouse when I applied to be on Top Chef -- Traci des Jardins suggested it to me, and when Traci says something, you listen! I gave it a shot, and when I made it, Fedele Baccio, the CEO of Bon Appétit, was really supportive."

As for the clam debacle, Mistry said it really wasn't as bad as it seemed -- Bravo's edits made it look worse than it was. "I did get through them all," she said. Mistry's now back at work, overseeing more than 2,000 meals a day at Google. During our phone talk, she was interrupted by a cook with a bowl of posole for her to sample.

In addition to Charlie's Café, she supervises the pastry for the whole Google campus, the catering, and a vegan juice bar called Slice. The 30-year-old chef looks like a teenager and rocks a faux-hawk. She was born in London, has Indian heritage, and grew up in the Midwest. "I was pretty much totally ready to get out of the Midwest when I turned 18," she said. "I originally wanted to go to New York, but visited S.F. with some friends in the spring of 1996 and fell in love with the city. The food, the sunshine, the gays, the overall diversity and the feeling of living in a big city that still kinda felt like a small town. I moved to San Francisco that summer of 1996 with my new girlfriend, now my partner of over 13 years."

Mistry worked for Frameline, S.F.'s LGBT film festival, but loved to cook. After September 11, 2001, she decided to follow her heart. "I'd been working in film and everyone said I should be a chef. I'd thought about it, but was scared. But on that day, the only thing that felt right was to go into the kitchen and start cooking. So I did, and I haven't stopped since."

When her partner got a job that took her to London, Mistry attended Le Cordon Bleu, from which she received the Grand Diplome. "It was all those other wonderful things that brought me to S.F., but when I moved to London to go to Le Cordon Bleu, it was the long growing season, fresh organic produce, and plethora of artisanal producers that brought me back to the Bay Area."

Her worry that she wouldn't find produce in Las Vegas as fresh as the stuff in the Bay Area was not unfounded. "At times it was very frustrating, coming from California," she said. "Most of the produce came from California, so it had traveled for at least a day and a half."

Asked if she's known the two other San Francisco contestants (Mattin Noblia of Iluna Basque and Laurine Wickett of West Coast Catering) prior to Top Chef, Mistry said she'd heard of Noblia's place. "But when Laurine and I saw each other, we said 'You look familiar,' and it turned out that in the late '90s she had a little café in the atrium of the Dolby Building, near my office, and it was our lunch spot for things like fancy flatbread sandwiches."

They bonded right away. "We knew a lot of the same people and places. I live in SOMA, she lives in Dogpatch, we had a lot of stuff to talk about." As for the other contestants, Mistry praised both Art and Ashley. "Later you'll see me and Ashley kinda getting into it, which I'm sure they played up in the editing," she said. "Art and Ashley are in love with each other, in the sweetest possible way. Eve is lovely. Hector is the sweetest guy possible." Mistry said she enjoyed the competition, and thought it seemed clear that the Vegas cast was the most talented group of chefs in the show's history. "I don't think until you do it you can understand how intense it is."

Has it influenced her cooking? "The thing that influenced me the most was the decision to push myself even harder," Mistry said. "This is kind of like being the valedictorian of your class, and then you're in a class with all the other valedictorians, who are doing all these amazing things. It opens you to a whole new level of challenge. Once you reach the level of executive chef, it can be isolating, all of us working long days in our separate restaurants."

Mistry's favorite places in the city include Zuni and Pizzeria Delfina. She loves the sea urchin and smoked bluefish salad at Anchor & Hope, called Kitchenette "fun," and likes Custom Burger and the sliders at Acme Chophouse. "Nopalito has been an awesome change," she said, "eating Mexican food and not feeling overstuffed when you come out." She thinks Michelle Mah's Midi is "totally awesome," and thinks Mah herself is fabulous. "I had an uttapam at brunch at Dosa the other day with two fried eggs that was wonderful," she said.

We were careful not to ask Mistry how long she lasted on the show -- she couldn't (and wouldn't) have answered us, of course. But freeze-framing during Bravo's quick cuts of upcoming episodes made us nervous when we didn't always spot her faux-hawked head. We'll be tuning in tonight to cheer on the hometown girls. And boy.

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Meredith Brody


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