Though reality TV fare may leave a bad taste in the mouths of some, even the most ardent objectors must admit that Bravo’s Top Chef offers a fresh take on a stale genre. For the most part, the show dispenses with griping and cattiness and instead focuses largely on pure culinary competition. Last season, the competing chefs trekked up from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara for a special Valentine’s Day-themed cook-off hosted by our own Epiphany restaurant. The episode featured host Padma Lakshmi noting that in addition to being a popular vacation spot, Santa Barbara was ever upping its foodie credentials.
It stands to reason, then, that a city which so many talented chefs call home would eventually yield a contestant for a show that has dethroned Iron Chef as TV’s premiere cooking competition. Clay Bowen-a Columbus, Mississippi native who has worked as a sous chef at the University Club since February 2006-is among fifteen contestants introduced on the show’s third season premiere, which aired June 13. Bowen, who previously worked at Epiphany, said his experience at the University Club went far to prepare him for the varied cooking challenges he faced on Top Chef. “The menu changes constantly at the club, so I’m always doing new things, always doing creative things,” he said.
Though neither Bowen nor the Bravo publicist listening in on the call would drop details on the outcome of this new season-particularly how far a certain Santa Barbaran makes it on the show-Bowen happily shared his thoughts on the show in general. “It’s an incredible experience,” he said. “Just to be selected alone is an honor.” Bowen said he watched the two previous seasons of Top Chef and became a fan. When the third round of auditions came around, Bowen responded with the “what the hell?” mindset that seems to get most to apply for reality shows. “Somehow, things went my way and they selected me,” Bowen said modestly.
What Bowen brings to both Top Chef and the Santa Barbara cooking scene is a strong background in southern and Cajun styles, which he fuses with fancy eats-truffles and foie gras, for example. His signature dish exemplifies this mixing of down-home with high-end: Braised ham hock over an edamame succotash, with sauteed mustard greens, and a maple bourbon glaze. Bowen credits his family with his southern cooking know-how. “Out here in California, it’s something that hasn’t really been tapped in to: It’s something you have to have naturally in you. I’ve been to a few places around here that do that style-and I’m not going to name names-and though they do a good job, they don’t have it in their blood. It can’t be taught,” he said.
In general, however, Bowen has nothing but praise for the Santa Barbara food scene. “I’d say it’s top-notch. We have one of the best farmer’s markets we could encounter with the type of weather we have and the access to local farms and the seafood,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a better place you could be a chef.”
Top Chef airs on Bravo at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays. Aside from visits to the University Club, Bowen can be contacted for private affairs through his MySpace page, at myspace.com/bclayb or by emailing him.