A New York City chef sharpened his knives with the best of them for 11 scorching rounds on Top Chef and loved every morsel

By Alexis Brown

When Dale Talde waltzed in late to the Top Chef Season 4 audition room as the last applicant for the New York City open calls, he had already mentally cast himself in a role. Talde correctly predicted the reality producers would be looking for contestant “types” such as “hard-core and tattooed,” flighty and annoying, and young and cocky. He chose option number three.

“I was pretty deliberate about the message I was sending to people,” Talde said. “I wanted to be that brash young guy from Chicago, now living in New York City making a name for himself.”

Talde was so confident about both his cooking ability and his TV-friendly personality that he didn’t even bring a resume to the first audition. That cockiness resulted in a callback within minutes. After a series of subsequent interviews, he was selected as one of the 16 contestants. His food would face harsh criticism from judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and a slew of guest chefs until the day Talde would pack his knives and go home.

As Talde would discover, the idea that a reality show would change his life was a mere misconception. The competition with other highly skilled chefs was what made the experience worthwhile.

The now 31-year-old chef received his training at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in Chicago restaurants Spring, Kevin, Naha, and Vong’s Thai Kitchen before moving to New York City.

Talde landed at Morimoto, but quickly hopped over to Buddakan, a modern Asian restaurant where he remains the sous-chef. He had only cooked there for a few months before he headed back to his hometown of Chicago to film the show for several weeks in September 2007. Talde came equipped with a keen technical ability in the kitchen and a unique Asian-mixed-with-Midwestern cooking style.

Top Chef, for Talde, was all about the competition. Granted, he outlasted 11 of the 16 other contestants, but he still insists he was the best chef in the kitchen. A dish of sub-par short ribs did him in during “Restaurant Wars,” an episode of the show when two teams of chefs created restaurants and served a dining room of guests throughout an evening. Until those last few weeks, Talde supplied stiff competition for the other chefs.

He also supplied drama for the TV audience with his outspokenness. “I was quick to let you know when things weren’t right,” said Talde. “I was not very easy to work with, and that’s great on TV.”

The dramatic climax occurred on the episode where the judges deliberated his impending elimination. Fellow teammates Lisa Fernandes and Spike Mendelsohn were whispering their complaints to one another in the waiting area when Talde, surrounded by empty beer bottles, called out, “If you’ve got something to say to me, then say it. But I’m not talking to you.” A palpable tension filled the room as Talde rattled off a round of swears directed at the two chefs, whose cooking abilities he claimed were inferior to his own.

But consider the bits Bravo pieced together from the 20-hour a day shoots for 42-minute episodes divided between 16 contestants. Was this the real Talde?

“It was a proper characterization of me three years ago,” he said. “Anger management issues? Yes. Do I tend to drink a little much and get dramatic? Yes. Do I push hard and do I love food? Of course, I do.”

And that makes Talde a typical chef. “Chefs love too much,” he said. “They love to drink too much. They love to eat too much. They love women too much. They work too much. They’re creatures of excess, and I think that passion could be good or bad.”

Talde laid low at his parents’ house in Chicago for a few days after he left the Top Chef house, asking them not to talk about the show, before returning to New York City. He admits he’s a sore loser and maintains that he cooks just as well, if not better, than the chefs who lasted longer.  But with the time to reevaluate came an insight to recognition of TV chefs.

“It really put things in perspective,” Talde said. “At the end of the day, I’m still doing the same thing. You have to manage your expectations when you leave the show. Am I going to make this the backbone of my career?”

Stephanie Singer, a reality show casting director who worked on MTV’s The Real World and ABC’s Wife Swap, described the same trends for reality stars returning to normalcy from the limelight.

“Some fall back into a hole,” she said. “Others get a taste of it and ride the wave as long as possible.”

For Talde, being a character on TV could never have brought the fame he continues to seek in the culinary world. He insists such regard is reserved for highly established chefs who own their own restaurants and produce the highest quality food.

“Fame to me is success in what you do,” said Talde. “And I’m not a chef yet, so there’s no fame attached to my name. I don’t like the word fame. ”

Recognition is perhaps a better term. As soon as the night of March 2008 premiere, for example, a group of Top Chef fans sited Talde in a bar and expressed their fascination. But now, while he gets offers every so often for Bar mitzvahs, cooking expositions, and the like, he is rarely identified as a Top Chef contender.

Talde walked into a busy Starbucks on the Lower East Side without a single head turn in his direction. Recounting his experience and fidgeting with his DQM hat every few minutes, Talde explained his focus on moving beyond Buddakan and opening his own restaurant with or without recognition from competing on Top Chef.

“Now it’s about trying to get my career going,” he said.