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Q & A with Harold Dieterle

Though Harold Dieterle found
celebrity as the first winner of Bravo’s Top Chef, his life-long culinary
experience has involved less glamour and more hard work. His Sicilian mother’s
home cooking ignited Dieterle’s fascination with food, propelling him
first toward a home economics class in middle school, and then as a dishwasher at The Marina on Fire Island. Realizing his growing affinity for the
professional kitchen, he traveled to Spain in 1995, garnering stages under the country’s most revered

Upon returning to New
York later that year, the Long Island-native began his formal
culinary education at the CIA. Chef positions at East Hampton’s Della Femina and the Upper East Side’s
Red Bar followed, and then in 2002 he
met Jimmy Bradley, owner of The Harrison.
Studying under chefs Joey Campanaro (of current Little Owl fame) and Brian Bistrong, Dieterle refined his skills as
sous chef until early 2004 when he took a sabbatical to Thailand. Southeast Asia awakened his penchant for the epicurean
exotic, which is evident in the culinary concept of his first restaurant,

Perilla’s menu is an amalgam of
Dieterle’s experiences with food, fusing traditional French and Italian
sensibilities with seasonal produce from both New York and the Far East. Skillet braised cuttlefish
is paired with guanciale,
water chestnuts, and garlic bread. Spicy duck meatballs share a plate
with Okinawa yam gnocchi and water spinach.
And smoked chocolate cake gets a lift from rhubarb chutney and Kaffir lime ice
cream. With this Greenwich Village restaurant,
Dieterle hopes to show New Yorkers, and the world, that his place is in the kitchen.

Status: Single/Married/Divorced
Serious Relationship

What did you want to be when you grew up?
Navy Fighter Pilot

What was your first job in food?
Dishwasher at a marina in Long Island.

How did you find out about Top Chef and what motivated you to audition?

A friend of mine in TV saw an ad and passed it along to me. I thought it might be fun… was I wrong.

Were you wary of the reality show factor?
Very…tried to keep my head down and not give them much to work with. I don’t make for an entertaining subject.

What was it like to win Top Chef?
It was a great honor.
Just hearing such positive things from judges you respect so much really justifies the hard work and stress we all went through.

Before Top Chef, you worked for Jimmy Bradley as the sous chef at The Harrison…what was your experience like?
Amazing, Jimmy didn’t really teach me much about food. It was made up by the
fact he taught me how to be a successful operator. I wouldn’t trade my
experiences there for anything.

Most chefs spend years in other people’s kitchens before going
off on their own to build a restaurant – what inspired you to take the
leap and open a restaurant of your own?

Well I’ve spent the
last 16 years working in kitchens; Yes, I am a young chef and still
molding my style. I have always wanted to open small place. It has been
my life-long dream.

You also met Alicia Nosenzo at The Harrison.  How did you two end up collaborating in opening Perilla in the West Village?
is one of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever met. We have the
same sensibilities on a lot of different things. She allows me to stay
in the kitchen and focus on the food, while she can handle all the
things that I don’t have a clue about. It’s really a great partnership.
I am very lucky.

The $100,000 prize for winning Top Chef is a drop in the bucket
when it comes to opening a restaurant.  How were you able to raise the
rest of the capital?  Any fans invest in Perilla?

A lot of
investors, friends and family. No fans. The Top Chef card certainly got
us a lot of meetings. Opening a restaurant is not the safest
investment. Being an unproven operator doesn’t make it any easier. We
managed though.

What was the inspiration behind the Asian-inflected menu?
Spent time cooking in Thailand. Love the food and culture. Cant say enough about the ingredients.

Perilla was recently reviewed in the New York Times…were you disappointed by his review?
was very disappointing. In fact I had to talk one of my cooks out of
taking a trip down to New York Times headquarters and going postal on
Uncle Frank. The entire staff here is doing a wonderful job and we all
feel the folks dining here are leaving happy. It was an honor to be
considered as a notable new restaurant opening in 2007. Hopefully he will
return again in the future and see things differently.

You’ve been getting quite a bit of press lately.  New York
Magazine came out with a piece on the “fifteen minutes” of it all in
which you were featured in a notably positive light.  What’s your
advice on how to convert the celebrity factor into real world success?

Work hard towards your goals. Stay grounded. Surround yourself with the same people before you get your fifteen minutes.

It’s nearly impossible to get a reservation at Perilla.  What’s your take on the allure?
Good food, good service. Were not trying to reinvent the wheel. Trying
to be accessible to our neighborhood folks and destination diners all
at the same time.

What’s the story with the pencil behind your ear?  Superstitious chef?
Yes…everyone should have a good luck charm.

What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now?
Roasted Duck

What’s your least favorite dish (and yes, you must pick one)?

Other than some dishes that we can now refer to as signatures –
the duck meatballs, raw yellowtail and braised cuttlefish – you’ve
significantly changed the menu.  Do explain…

I like to
change an item or so every week. Those changes are market-driven. Also,
I change about 90% of the menu with the change of season. Try to keep
things interesting.

You recently added brunch to the menu; What compelled you to add
more on your plate, so to speak, and what are your favorite dishes on
the brunch menu?

I’ve never cooked brunch before in NYC.
I feel like I have some really fun brunch items and it’s another chance
for me to cook duck. The spicy duck burger is dirty.

What is your junk food of choice?
Anything in a Ben & Jerry’s container.

Other than your own, what’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?
Tia Pol, Anissa, Little Owl, Abbocatto, Daddy O’s late night

What culinary trend do you most embrace?
Green market driven, agricultural sustainability

What trend do you wish would die already?
Test tube cooking

What’s next on the horizon for you?  Any new ventures or restaurants in the works?  Spill the beans…
Just figuring out tonight’s special and what I’m cooking for brunch on the weekend.

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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