Brava to you, Bravo!
The only good thing to be said about the loss of Project Runway from our weekly TV regimen is that its conclusion signals the start of our favorite reality cooking competition, Top Chef. For the number of lesbians who consider themselves gourmands, and the rest of us who just love a fine reality TV catfight now and then (remember: “I’m not your bitch, bitch!”), Top Chef delivers on the drama, paired like a fine wine with the heat of the kitchen.
On the homo-front, Top Chef has always represented: season one brought us the bisexual everyone loved to hate, first runner-up Tiffany Faison. In season two, GO found a covergirl in footballing foodie Josie Smith-Malave. And there was that stint with Miami’s Sandee Birdsong in season three (Sandee, we hardly knew ya!). Pretty good track record, right? But wait, there’s more. With season four, which begins on March 12 at 10pm, Bravo, which could arguably be called the gay-friendliest network on television, has truly outdone itself. The new Top Chef lineup features three out lesbians, making the odds for a lady-lovin’-lady to cook her way to the coveted title (plus a not-too-shabby $100,000 in startup funds to open a restaurant) higher than ever. That’s certainly a recipe for sweet success.
A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen
“Being a woman in the kitchen is difficult, but being a lesbian in the kitchen is even more difficult,” says Lisa Fernandez, one of this season’s three Top Chef contestants who bats for our team. The 27-year-old resident New Yorker earned her BS in food service management from Johnson & Wales University. She specializes in Asian cuisine, and has worked at Asia de Cuba and Rain. “I was so excited when I found out I wasn’t the only lesbian [on the show],” she says.
So who are our other hopefuls? Jennifer Beisty, 35, is the executive chef at COCO500 in San Francisco. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and has worked abroad in Paris and London.
And last but not least is none other than Beisty’s girlfriend (you read that right) Zoi Antonitsas. The 30-year-old, self-taught chef dotes on simple, rustic cuisine and fresh, local ingredients. She currently works as a restaurant consultant in the Bay Area, where she and Beisty live.
The couple met in 2000 when Antonitsas was hired at Bozu, where Beisty was the chef de cuisine at the time. They first auditioned together for Top Chef a few years back, but this time around, the network called back. “Some people think we had an advantage by having each other on he show,” says Beisty. “Although it was great having each other’s support, often times it was distracting and difficult. Trying to compete and win is hard enough without having to beat the one person you admire most.”
“We’re in a relationship, but we’re both on the show to win,” says Antonitsas. “We’re looking at each other both as girlfriends and as competitors.” Beisty adds, “We’re both super talented, so it’s a win-win situation in the end. We feel really honored to be representing the community this way. In this industry, people are much more used to seeing gay men than gay women.” The couple hopes to skewer that convention on Bravo this spring.
Fernandez agrees: “I’m excited to show people in New York City and all over that you don’t have to be a tall, skinny, glamorous, heterosexual female to be a role model. I can’t wait to see how I come across on TV, how my food looks, and what the judges say behind our backs.”
Increasing Lesbian Visibility on Reality TV
Last season more than two-and-a-half million viewers tuned in to each episode of Top Chef, and those numbers are expected to rise in the new season, which takes place in Chicago. The impact of showcasing three talented, out lesbians on one wildly popular show is, as yet, unmeasured, but it will likely be lasting. “Having this many lesbians on the show proves that we can cook just as well as anyone else, regardless of gender and sexual orientation,” says Fernandez.
While Bravo is no stranger to gay-friendly programming (including Project Runway, Shear Genius, Queer Eye and Workout with Jackie Warner), this is the first time the network—or any other, for that matter—has cast three lesbians on a single, non-gay-specific reality show. So, how did it come to be that cable television’s number one food series is veritably one of the gayest shows on Earth?
Antonitsas, Beisty and Fernandez are following in the footsteps of many lesbians who have blazed their own trails on reality television. How far we’ve come since the days when Genesis Moss introduced the term “lipstick lesbian” to America on Real World: Seattle in 1998. How excited we were, when we first watched Kim Stolz, the outspoken girl with boyish good looks, shake up America’s Next Top Model back in 2005. How amazing when on American Idol… oh wait. Well, maybe the most-watched show in the galaxy hasn’t quite tapped the Michfest crowd for the next big thing (as far as we know!), but with this seeming trend of lesbian visibility rising at such a steady rate, it shouldn’t be long before mainstream reality TV crowns one from our own ranks.
Do We Have a Winner?
So, any hints from the Top Chef judges as to who’s got the edge? Tom Colicchio of Craft restaurants, who has been a judge on the show since it premiered in March 2006, says, in perfectly vague terms, “This season, the chefs bring a diverse wealth of talent and skill to the table that we’ve not seen before.” Colicchio will be joined once again by the lovely and discerning Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons of Food & Wine magazine, along with Queer Eye’s Ted Allen.
Only time will tell which one of the show’s 16 chefs will come out on top; the contestants are sworn to secrecy. In the meantime, Fernandez is working to open an Asian-inspired restaurant in New York City. When she’s not planning her restaurant or preparing her signature pad Thai, Fernandez, who is in a relationship, likes to rock Snapshot at Bar 13.
Beisty and Antonitsas are enjoying their newfound celebrity status in San Francisco. “We’ve been invited to be auctioned off for a GLAAD fundraiser in the spring,” says Antonitsas. “Our donation will be a dinner for 10 people. We are so happy to be a part of such a great organization.” The couple loves to cook for each other and throw dinner parties for friends. In these situations, “whoever’s inspiration it was gets to play chef, while the other preps, tastes and keeps the wine glasses full,” the couple explains.
Speaking of wine glasses, ours are raised to our three sisters on season 4 of Top Chef. Cheers, and may the best chef win.
The premiere episode of Top Chef: Chicago airs on Wednesday, March 12th at 10PM/ET on Bravo. To learn more, and to meet the girls and the rest of the cast, visit bravotv.com.