The reviews haven’t started rolling in yet for the Marrow, Harold Dieterle’s third restaurant to open in New York’s West Village, but the chef already feels like he’s won one battle with the food critics. Namely, that this time around the preliminary press about the place has measured its success—and Dieterle’s—in relation to his other restaurants, Perilla and Kin Shop, rather than his other claim to fame: winning the first season of Top Chef.
“I want to be a respectable chef, first and foremost,” says Dieterle. “Not that the show takes anything away from that. It’s just that for me, being a restaurateur is more important than being on television.”
This shift in perception—from reality-TV star to seasoned New York chef—is well-deserved, and it’s particularly meaningful as Dieterle tackles such a personal project with the Marrow, where the family tree-style menu pays tribute to his two ancestral cuisines: German, from his father’s side, and Italian, from his mother’s.
But long before he was cooking duck-and-pretzel dumpling soup and sauerbratened lamb ribs, Dieterle got his first taste of kitchen culture while washing dishes after school in his teens. “I was a pretty terrible student student in high school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I took a Home Ec class to meet girls, and that’s where I found my focus.” From high school, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, back you went there because you wanted to become a chef, not a brand.
For a while after graduation, he stuck to Long Island, where he grew up. “I did my internship on Fire Island and had such a good time there. I could have seen myself easily living there the rest of my life. I was there in shorts and a t-shirt cooking 200 covers a night with a pair of tongs in my hands. “
Eventually, ambition (and some lingering student debt) drove Dieterle to Manhattan, where he hooked up with Jimmy Bradley, owner of the Red Cat and the Harrison. Dieterle worked at the Harrison under Joey Campanaro and Brian Bistrong until in 2004, when he took a life-changing sabbatical to travel through Thailand. Returning in 2005, he decided to answer a Craigslist ad calling for people to compete on an unknown new cooking show, Top Chef. His first place finish changed not just his own career trajectory, but arguably that of the many contestants who followed in his footsteps.
While appreciative of the doors the show has opened for him, Dieterle remains a little ambivalent about its broader effect.
“A lot of the people going on shows these days are doing it to get out of the business—to get a show, to get an endorsement deal, to not have to cook any more. That was never my game plan.”
Here, Harold Dieterle takes us from Bangkok to Babylon (well, West Babylon, Long Island, at least) as he breaks down the dishes that shaped him as a chef.
This interview has been edited and condensed.