The new season of “Top Chef” (debuting Wednesday on Bravo) might have been filmed in New York, but that won’t stop Chicago from trying to capture the top toque two seasons in a row. Though we’ve lost home-field advantage, hometown girl Radhika “Rad” Desai, executive chef of Between Boutique Cafe and Lounge, is determined as ever to represent and pick up where Stephanie Izard left off. We caught up with her to see who she is and whether she’s fit for the challenge.
Q. What’s the best Chicago-related advice you’ve given or received?
A. I had lunch with [Rick Bayless] and my executive chef when I was working at Vermilion. He told us that Chicago has something for everybody: different tastes, cultures and styles. As a chef in this city, if you just do what you do and do it well, you will find your niche.
Q. If I were to come to Wicker Park, where should I eat?
A. I’m a big fan of Rodan, Vintage Wine Bar and Mac’s. Rodan [1530 N. Milwaukee] is a hip lounge with a menu that has Asian and Latin flavors blended together very well. Vintage [1942 W. Division] is a small wine bar with a simple, well executed menu. Mac’s [1801 W. Division] is a pub with surprisingly good bar food.
Q. You’re from Cincinnati, home of the famous chili. You have a favorite chili parlor?
A. If I had to pick one, I’d pick Gold Star because it’s the one I always went to with my family.
Q. You worked as a park ranger in Death Valley, Calif. Any wild animal attacks?
A. Death Valley was an interesting experience. I didn’t see any animal attacks, but there were giant snakes that would lie in the middle of the road. They were 10 feet long and you had to wait for them to cross. So a good bit of my time there was spent sitting in my jeep waiting for huge snakes to move.
Q. What would we be surprised to know about Between Boutique Cafe and Lounge?
A. All the interior decorations are imported from China, where the co-owner, Lulu, was born. The red string curtains, the hanging feather lamps, the orange wall designs were all handpicked from China to give the place an authentic, exotic feel.
Q. What influenced your decision to go on “Top Chef”?
A. I’ve been a fan of the show from the first season, and last season as I watched the show I started thinking more often what I would do for each of the challenges. I had made it to the level of executive chef and had my name in the press a bit, so I thought I was ready to show the world my flavors. My boyfriend and family gave me a lot of encouragement to go for it, and here I am.
Q. I know you can’t say whether you won or lost, but did you make plans for the prize money just in case?
A. I would love to own my own restaurant, but one of the things I’ve always wanted to do is write a cookbook with dishes from around the world. A hundred grand would go a long way covering traveling and research expenses.
Between Boutique Cafe and Lounge; 1324 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago (773) 292-0585