That rapid clicking you heard last Wednesday evening was the sound of an indignant Middle Tennessee television audience seizing remote controls and reprogramming digital video recorders. Because when Padma Lakshmi told hometown hero Arnold Myint to pack his knives, legions of Nashville viewers lost their appetite for Season 7 of Top Chef.
In case you missed the unpleasantness, Episode 4's elimination challenge went down like this: Chefs divided into teams of two to create a breakfast befitting a Hilton Hotel. The winners of the challenge were declared safe, while the others proceeded to cook a lunch. The lunch winners then were declared safe, and the remaining teams went on to create a dinner that would determine which pair was eliminated.
After winning the previous week's grill challenge with his lamb kefta, Myint teamed up with Culinary Institute of America instructor Lynne Gigliotti. The pair lagged in the breakfast and lunch rounds, landing in a dinnertime sudden-death. Myint and Gigliotti undertook squid-ink pasta with pineapple-red curry mussels, an ambitious recipe that played to Arnold's strengths exploring Asian flavors, and to Gigliotti's alleged expertise in making pasta from scratch. But when the duo squabbled over when to start cooking the pasta, Gigliotti held her ground and waited — too long, as it turned out. Top Chef host Tom Colicchio praised the pair for "a great sauce, a really delicious dish." Then he added, "The only flaw was the pasta was somewhat undercooked." Blind to who engineered the great sauce and who botched the pasta, the judges' table sent both Myint and Gigliotto packing. Within minutes the local blogosphere was boiling with bitterness over Myint's elimination, and more than a few viewers were renouncing the show that betrayed their local-chef-made-good.
When the Scene caught up with Myint (and the omnipresent press representative assigned to him by Bravo network) two days after the episode aired, he sounded much more sanguine about his departure than did many of his fans. "How can I be bitter when I represented myself well?" the chef-owner of PM, ChaChah and Suzy Wong's House of Yum said. "I did nothing wrong. I brought really exciting stuff to the mix. My flavors were different. My approach was different. It doesn't have anything to do with my not being able to cook. It has to do with how the show fell."
For sure, Myint, 32, put his best foot forward for the competition, which taped in Washington, D.C., in April and began airing in June. Arriving at the competition with his Louis Vuitton knife bag, Myint jokingly told cameras that he prepped for his close-up by getting a facial and hiring a stylist. His playful shtick earned him distinctions such as "a cut-up in the kitchen" from Windy City Times and "compulsively watchable" from an NBC blogger.
More than simply establishing a TV persona, Myint self-prescribed a crash culinary curriculum. "Everyone blames desserts for their demise," he explained. So the alumnus of the Institute of Culinary Education apprenticed with Megan Williams at Provence Cafe & Breads in Nashville to hone his pastry skills. The effort paid off in Episode 1, when his kaffir lime and basil cake with palm sugar anglaise and "Myint" julep garnered honorable mention from Top Chef judge Gail Simmons in her après-show blogging.
Myint and his chef de cuisine Sebastian Silbereis also visited a farm in Paris, Tenn., "for a weekend of slaughter," during which they practiced breaking down Angus cows and Berkshire pigs. As by-products of the brief internships in pastry and butchery, ChaChah now bakes bread in house, smokes and cures meat for a charcuterie platter, and, Arnold says, "I have mastered the macaroon."
The child of Thai and Burmese parents, who grew up roller-skating in the aisles of his family's International Market on Belmont Boulevard and figure-skating competitively around the globe, Myint describes his food as "progressive and approachable cuisine that reflects me, my upbringing and my travels — a little out there but not untouchable." With the national exposure of Top Chef under his belt, Myint hopes to find a toehold in the entertainment industry, perhaps as a columnist or a television host, but not necessarily in a food-specific role. "Obviously, I went on a TV show because I want to be on TV. What I would hope now is the nation has a gotten a glimpse of what Arnold is and what Nashville is."
Had he taken home the $125,000 purse, he would have put it toward establishing a foundation with an international focus on children, education, food and the arts. He still hopes to channel his elevated profile toward creating such an organization. In the coming episodes of Top Chef, Myint is holding out to win the audience-elected honor of Fan Favorite, which would earn him $10,000.
As for rumors that Myint will return later in the season in drag as Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, whom he frequently mimicked during taping, he said, "I'm more than willing, if that's what the network wants to do."
For now, Myint is relieved that his outcome in the competition is finally public knowledge, after months of keeping mum. "The silence thing until now has been hard," he said. "The anxiety dreams — the postwar dreams — have been hard."
Despite all the knife-sharpening that went into the cut-throat battle for cash, a feature in Food & Wine magazine and a showcase at the Annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., Myint walked away from the Top Chef townhouse with a lot of camaraderie. "I've already been to L.A. to see Alex (Reznik) and Amanda (Baumgarten), and there will be a Top Chef wedding in Costa Rica July 18, and en route I'll be in Miami with Kenny (Gilbert) and Andrea (Curto-Randazzo) at Andrea's."
Myint mentioned no plans to catch up with his pasta-scotching teammate Gigliotti.
While we were speaking on the phone, Myint received a text from none other than cheftestant Kelly Liken, with whom he famously butted heads in Episode 2. The final edit of a challenge to create a school cafeteria lunch may have highlighted tension between the two assertive chefs, but Liken's digital message conveyed more collegiality.
"Your blog post is AWESOME," Liken wrote, referring to Myint's missive to fans on arnoldmyint.com the day after his final episode. "You're super-classy. I think all of your fans really appreciate it. Nicely done."
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