'Top Chef' shines its spotlight on New Orleans this season

Two New Orleans chefs will feel the heat in the new season of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

Season 11 not only will be set in the Big Easy, but will feature Michael Sichel, executive chef at Galatoire’s, and Justin Devillier, chef/owner of La Petite Grocery. The two nabbed the last spots on the show during a recent digital video series, “Padama’s Picks,” on BravoTV.com. “Top Chef” judge and host Padma Lakshimi picked Sichel and Devillier from 10 competing south Louisiana chefs.

“I was representing the grand dame restaurant, Galatoire’s,” Sichel said Monday. “It was a joint win, myself and a friend of mine, Justin Devillier. ... It’s a city with a lot of philanthropic events. We all contribute toward the charities, so I’ve known Justin for some time. We obviously got to know each other a little more over the duration of the show. When I did see him come into the kitchen for ‘Padma’s Picks,’ I was excited.”

In the final round of the online series, Sichel prepared a healthy curry soup, enhanced with fish broth, lemon juice and seared scallops, finishing off with a tapenade and spinach puree.

“It was our first experience as competitive chefs doing a 30-minute challenge with the ingredients that ‘Top Chef’ let us use, but we didn’t really know; we were all new to this game, and we didn’t know what we were walking into. It was definitely a mystery cooking experience.”

Devillier, meanwhile, created a summertime corn soup, light and brothy, to secure his “Top Chef” spot.

“I expected a challenging group of chefs, and there was definitely a very good talent pool,” Devillier said last week. “I expected fierce competition, and as you’ll see, that’s what it is.”

As in past seasons, the 19 chefs will compete against each other in two culinary challenges each episode. They’ll be critiqued by lead judge Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Hugh Acheson and New Orleans’ own Emeril Lagasse.

In addition to these professional chefs and notables from the food and wine industry, the contestants will also prepare dishes for a handful of entertainers, culinary stars and celebrity judges including Jon Favreau, Lea Michelle, Anthony Mackie, Questlove, Leah Chase, Paul Prudhomme, Jaques Pepin, David Chang, John Besh, Eddie Huang, Kermit Ruffins and Dr. John.

One or more contestants will be eliminated each week, and the winner gets $125,000. The episodes were shot at various locations in New Orleans this summer.

Sichel and Devillier took differing roads to becoming chefs, but both ending up living in and loving New Orleans.

“When it came to the profession, I stumbled upon it.” Sichel, a native New Yorker, recalled. “I got in the restaurant industry after college by being a bartender. And it just seemed like I was destined to be in the kitchen. So at the end of the day, I just stumbled upon it but it was the best thing I ever stumbled upon in my life because at that moment I knew exactly what I was meant to do.

“My career took me a lot of places. New Orleans is my last stop. I found New Orleans about 12 years ago. I came here via an ex-wife, and I’ve re-established myself, newly married, and I’ve just got a beautiful home here and I love being a part of this city.”

Sichel had his own restaurant, Indigo, in the city before Katrina.

“It was a great spot and I lost it during the storm. I became a hired gun as I call it, just a chef. I’ve jumped around to a couple of spots and when I found Galatoire’s, once again stumbled upon an opportunity, and I just couldn’t be happier. It’s like I’ve found the perfect situation for me and my career and my life.”

Sichel also found the “Top Chef” experience a positive one.

“It was a grand experience honestly, because it’s something outside of the bag of tricks I’m used to. I got to meet a lot of great chefs with great talent. For me it was like I was at school all over again.”

Devillier found cooking for culinary greats like Lagasse and Besh very rewarding.

“These are guys that I have a lot of respect for, so for me, it’s obviously awesome when you get to cook for people you look up to, and I enjoyed it a lot,” he said.

Devillier is a self-taught chef, with his love of cooking a spin-off of his love of the outdoors.

“I did a lot of spear fishing growing up (in California), and at one point, my mom told me that I had to start cooking my own fish, and it kind of took off from there. I started cooking professionally at 16, and really got serious with it at 19.”

Louisiana is a dream location for a chef, Devillier said.

“I love cooking Gulf seafood and shellfish. It’s seriously one of the reasons that’s kept me in New Orleans so long. Every day I get Gulf shrimp that are bigger than my hand. We’re very lucky to have that.”

‘Top Chef’

WHAT: Reality cooking competition series.

WHEN: 9 p.m. Wednesdays.

CHANNEL: Bravo (cable Channel 50 in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, cable Channel 40 in New Orleans).