The story of a reality show star who knows how to make his 15 minutes last.

By Krista Golia

Courtesy of Dave Martin

On the last challenge of the reality cooking show, Top Chef, finalist Dave Martin made a horrible mistake: He forgot to assemble one dish. There were 37 seconds left on the timer and an executive producer was on her way to collect the contestants’ final dishes to be brought to the judges’ table. When she got to Martin, he could only stare as she asked, “Where’s your third dish?”

Martin describes this as his “fatal flaw,” like in literature, in his crusade to be crowned the first Top Chef. “I knew right then that I had just lost,” he says. “ I just lost the whole game.”

Martin was a contestant on Bravo’s 2006 premiere season of Top Chef where he survived eight challenges and was on his way to fulfill his culinary dreams, when he was eliminated. The season had been marked by restaurants wars, heated arguments and all-out-culinary mayhem, as 12 chefs from all over the country competed. They were fighting for $100,000 in grand prize money, a feature in Food & Wine magazine, a fully stocked Kenmore kitchen and a place at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo. With his infectiously sincere personality, his constant humor and his signature cooking style of layering ingredients, he gained reality show fame as “the I’m not your bitch, bitch guy,” “the truffle mac guy,” or “the blonde guy from season one.” Unbeknownst to him this notoriety would keep opening doors long after he was told to “pack his knives.”

Martin was not always keen on the idea of pursuing his culinary passion. He grew up immersed in the culinary arts at his California home. His dad cooked Southern specialties like chili, while his mom made everything from cakes to cookies, from scratch. When he went to college, at the University of Redlands, in Redlands Calif., he decided to study English rather than pursue his passion. He recalls making the decision, at the time it was easy. “I don’t want to be chef,” he recalls saying. “Because you can’t make any money.” Martin admits his main goal was to become a successful businessman. He kept up his culinary interests in college by cooking in the dorm rooms, running the on campus snack bar and bussing in restaurants.

Post college, Martin found himself in the technology recruiting industry. In 2000, Martin’s plans of success were crushed when the market crashed. He took that as a sign that he needed a change and “pursue my passion,” which was something he had put aside. That was exactly what Martin did. Although he was already in his mid 30s by this point, Martin applied to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles where he was French trained and also opened his own catering business, something he still dabbles in. Fresh out of school, Martin took a corporate chef position for two months, at a big family- owned restaurant, but that “just didn’t fit.” He then took over a bistro in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Wanderlust struck again and a year later, Martin was on Craigslist looking for chef jobs when he came across an ad that read “from the producers of Project Runway” and immediately was interested. “I love reality TV,” he says. “It’s my favorite genre.” So he sent in his resume, was called back the next day, and was surprised by Bravo TV executives at his restaurant in Manhattan Beach where they asked for a five- course tasting meal. He remembers them leaving him with one simple message: “We’ll get back to you, but welcome to Hollywood.”
What followed was a whirlwind of phone calls and the Hollywood string-along. It paid off though when Martin was cast and flown to San Francisco. “I had watched reality shows so I had kind of known the formula, but being on the back end was a little different,” he says. The difference being a first-hand experience of a grueling competition filled with conflicting personalities, constant criticism and little time alone.

In one challenge, “Restaurant Wars,” the contestants had to prepare for an opening night and Martin reached his breaking point. He had worked with his arch nemesis Tiffani and after she proclaimed that she carried the team, he couldn’t take it. “I don’t like attitude and I don’t like bullshit,” he says. “I went up to one of the execs, and told him I’m done.” After some coaxing Martin stayed, which turned out to be a very good decision. During elimination, Martin turned to Tiffani and let his frustration out in the simple phrase, “I’m not your bitch, bitch.” That moment has been memorialized in popular t-shirts.

It was also a learning moment. “I learned a lot about myself on the show,” he says. “The biggest thing that I’ve learned is to embrace the cuisine I like, which is upscale comfort;” cuisine which includes dishes such as truffle mac n’ cheese. He admits that cooking among tough competitors had originally caused him to believe otherwise, but in the end he says, “It’s okay to be you, and cook what you cook, and cook what you know, versus trying to do things that aren’t you.”

Martin ended up at the competition’s finale, before he was eliminated for hearing the challenge directions wrong and only cooking two of three dishes. “When it comes to rules, there was a dish missing,” he says. “I made a mistake.”

After the show ended, he began receiving calls from restaurants with various offers. He stayed in California for a year before New York Southern style restaurant, Lola, offered to move him to the city to cook for them, which he describes as a “good” change. After that, Martin became executive chef at Crave on 42nd, but that didn’t fit, so he decided to move on. Martin describes himself as a, “social chef,” someone who works inside and outside the kitchen, with both the food and the patrons. He couldn’t find that at any of the restaurants so he began to self manage and build his own brand.

Since then, Martin has put out two self-published cookbooks; a self-marketed line of barbeque sauces and rubs and is working with various charities. He also teaches at The Culinary Loft and the French Culinary Institute, both of which are located in Soho.

Now he’s 46, living in Long Island City, N.Y. and on this particular day in mid-February he’s decked out in plaid pajama pants, a blue t-shirt and his signature blue Crocs. His hair is a lighter blonde than it was on the show; he still has his stocky built and somewhat nervous tick but the same personality. The New York City skyline is visible from Martin’s kitchen window, something he seems prone to looking out of. “With my friends, I’m the washed-up reality star, but at the end of the day we’re five or six years out and look what I’ve done since then,” he says. “I really have done a lot.”

Anthony Brambilla, Martin’s college roommate, agrees. “He’s doing it all on his own, he’s a hard working guy,” he says. “ He’s working twenty-four seven.” As for whether or not Martin’s changed since his reality fame, that’s something Brambilla laughs at. “Dave has been Dave since the day I met him,” he says, which was over 20 years ago.

Last year, Martin helped raised over $50,000 for different charities like Make a Wish, Ronald McDonald House, and 4Good Productions. He still gets work on the culinary circuit, as a freelance chef as he recently participated in the 2011 Sobe Wine and Food Festival in South Beach, Fla. Martin is also executive producing a pilot for a new cooking reality show. “It’s a real positive spin with a cooking component, but also educational and fun,” he says. “Not for Food Network for goodness sakes, no thank you.” Bravo is a contender though.

In terms of his well received “Truffle Mac n’ Cheese,” Martin has seen it in restaurants from New York City to Napa, Calif. According to his official website, the “I’m not your bitch, bitch,” t-shirt is one of the top sellers on Bravo’s website and has sold out numerous times. The tagline is also something that gets yelled at Martin when someone recognizes him on the street, which seems to be “always positive.”

Martin seems to have defied the odds of the expected short-term-fame life of a reality star. “I think my ‘15 minutes’ is up,” he says. “But I’ve created my next fifteen by having cookbooks and rubs, and products that I’m generating.”

He adds with a laugh, “I’m D-list. But it’s better to be D-list than no list.”