By now, pretty much everyone (at least in Seattle) recognizes Robin Leventhal as the lovable underdog from Top Chef season six. Most recently, Leventhal is making local headlines as the chef who was abruptly asked to pack her knives and get the hell out of Stopsky's just months after accepting the head chef job at Mercer Island's new Jewish deli. It was late March that the announcement made the Most Popular Stories list on Voracious--a that sign people were happy to see her land such a seemingly great gig post-reality television. Legal obligations are forcing Leventhal to keep her mouth shut at this time, but in this week's Grillaxin, she does reveal why her departure from Stopsky's is a blessing in disguise and what lies ahead for her (hint: it's not working in someone else's kitchen, that's for damn sure!).
Photo by Julien Perry
SW: Has it been difficult fielding the question "What happened with Stopsky's?"
Leventhal: I avoided it at first. I did not face people for a while. Of course, it's emotional. I feel very connected [to Stopsky's]. I have close friends who are still there. Helping to jump-start that business was a beautiful process, and I want to only leave beauty behind from that experience. So answering that question was a challenge initially because I had so much emotion connected to it. Now I'm really in a place where I feel empowered and positive, and I want to move forward and only celebrate the goodness.
How are you feeling, in general?
I'm an optimistic person. I always see this sort of thing as opportunity. Change always is a good thing, and so to me, this situation really kind of forces me to rethink the direction in my life. Working 100-hour weeks for somebody else at the end of the day doesn't service me. I don't live for a paycheck. I work for personal satisfaction and accomplishment.
Obviously, I've learned to make amazing pastrami, and I thank (the owners) for giving me those opportunities, but is pastrami what I want to define my life by? Right now, I have an opportunity to turn this into, at my age, kind of a median. Being 45 years old, I'm not a line-cook anymore. Recipe development is great, but in my heart, I know that I don't want to run someone else's kitchen. It's finding what the right path is for me, so what I feel right now is a sense of opportunity and discovery. I also feel really blessed that I have the summer to mediate on what those paths are.
It's been two years since you were on Top Chef. Are you still happy with your decision to do the show?
What have the last two years been like for you?
The first year was really intense coming back, because it was so much about the social media and the PR and engaging the fans. I spent a lot of time making sure that I communicated to people who reached out to me and I wanted that message to be from the heart. The second year, this last year, has been more of a balance. Having that experience has really shown me how the exposure can propel me forward. I think it's opened up doors. It's offered me some opportunities that probably wouldn't have come to me had I not done the show. I know that experience has served me well and will continue to do that.
How would you describe your career since you left Top Chef?
Career and community are such interwoven pieces for me. I spend so much time donating my services to events. It's really wonderful to be able to offer my skills to my community that have garnered national recognition, and I can help give back because of that experience. It's very much about how meaningful my life is and less about how full my bank account is.
You know, I will say this: I never once was interested in doing anything molecular-gastronomy before I went on Top Chef. Now I am so open to new techniques very much balanced by my cooking style, which is always going to be about comfort food--honest and genuine and from the heart.
Your background is art (Leventhal earned her Masters of Fine Art degree from the University of Michigan). In your next venture, will you be incorporating more of that?
I very much want to transfer all of that excitement about the beauty that's around us and make something that will connect to people in a non-pretentious way. Sort of like with my comfort food, I want to approach ceramics in the same way. When I was getting my MFA, I was making these one-of-a-kind sculptures that were sort of bigger than life. I want to evoke people's sense of discovery. Whether that can happen by just picking up a coffee cup on the table or reaching into a salt cellar, that's sort of the direction I want to move in right now. I'm thinking about how food is connected to table and how clay is connected to that experience. My hands are the vehicle for all of that.
What is it about ceramics that excites you?
When it comes down to it, it's about connecting life experience through my hands. My hands have always been my vehicle for getting the pleasure and the beauty and my sentient feelings out. Making something to be able to give to someone has always brought me great pleasure.
Crave closed in September 2008. Do you have dreams of re-opening?
I was really excited when Skillet Diner opened on 14th and Union. After eating there a couple of times, I realized they finally replaced Crave. Still to this day, people beg me to reopen it. They miss it. And it's so endearing to me and a piece of me is like, 'I have the sign in my garage. Why don't I turn around and open it? I still have my business license. But the reality is I can't go back and do what I've already done. I could take the Crave name and brand and revive it, but do I want to be running a restaurant right now? Again, I have a great opportunity to re-evaluate my life and answer those type of questions.
Do people still recognize you?
All the time. Most people who reach out to me, it's because they identified with me and appreciated my experience on the show. So I'm always touched and endeared by any fan who approaches me, and it's great to be seen for what it was, which was me really struggling to put out the best food I could at the time and dealing with adverse situations. People really identified with that, and that I can be proud of.