At 25, Eli Kirshtein of Midtown’s Eno restaurant is the youngest cheftestant in Top Chef’s
accomplished lineup this season. An Atlanta native, Kirshtein’s first
cooking job was at Buckhead Diner at age 16. From there he attended the
Culinary Institute of America and spent time in a number of top-notch kitchens, from New York’s Le Bernardin to Atlanta’s Joël. He worked with Top Chef
alum Richard Blais for six years, and the two chefs remain
close—Kirshtein was best man in Blais’s wedding and is godfather to his
daughter. Advice from this particular mentor—season two’s
runner-up—came in handy when Kirshtein was selected to compete on
Season Six in Las Vegas. We’ll have to wait until the show airs on
August 19 to see how he fares in challenges, but he recently took a
break from the kitchen to talk Top Chef with Sara Levine.
When did you get into watching Top Chef?
started watching Season One, and then I had a good friend on Season Two, Marcel. He did really well. Hung [winner of season three] is also
a buddy of mine. And then of course I watched when Blais was on—I was
the best man in his wedding, I’m godfather of his kid. It’s one of
those things where previously I had never seen brilliant
executive chefs on the show and never thought it was a great career
step, but then I saw what it did for him. I didn’t watch Season Five
because I had bad feelings about what happened to Blais on the show.
What advice did Blais give you before you went to Vegas?
gave me a little advice about just how to keep myself mentally calm,
support myself, how to work with others. It was more philosophical
stuff than actual clues about how to do the challenges.
Did you do anything to prepare or practice before the show?
did some prep sessions over at the Flip kitchen with Blais. He’d give
me Quickfires and things like that. The other owners of Flip were there
too, and we’d see what we could come up with.
Did the three Atlanta chefs bond while competing?
When we got there, I knew Kevin [Gillespie], he and I are great social
friends prior to the show happening. I’ve known Hector [Santiago] for a
long time, too. We’re all previously
friends—two weeks before going we’d done events together even. There
was definitely camaraderie. Kevin and I worked together at Two Urban
Licks, so we can relate back to going through the war.
Were there any non-local chefs this season who you knew prior to the show?
There was a lot of two-degrees-of-separation there. One guy, Mike Isabella, was chef
de cuisine at Kyma before going to D.C., so he knows a ton of people
from Atlanta. Jennifer [Carroll] from 10 Arts in Philadelphia, I worked
at Le Bernardin for a little while and she was a sous chef there.
Was there fierce competition and drama, or did the cheftestants generally get along?
I would say that across the board everybody was very professional, gentlemen and gentlewomen. We stayed out of drama, we were all in it together. We wanted people to win and lose based upon the food, not drama or trickery.
How’d you feel when you learned you’d be competing in Vegas?
was really excited by the whole thing. I heard rumors through the
grapevine of possible cities—Philly, Atlanta, Vegas. I thought Vegas
was a really exciting prospect because of the food culture. I’d never
been. It’s a cool town, totally service industry-oriented. The
concentration of money and fantastic restaurants, casinos, art and
entertainment…it’s great to visit but I wouldn’t personally want to
Are you excited or nervous to see yourself on national TV?
excited. The commercials started airing, so I stayed up late with my
girlfriend waiting for a commercial to come on. I watched an episode of
Miami Social, which was pretty much the worst thing that’s ever
happened to me in my life. But I did get to see a commercial. We
freaked out because it had me talking for like two seconds! My
girlfriend jumped out of bed.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you won the show and were crowned Top Chef. What do you plan to do with the 100K?
Just get my ducks in a row, sort out all of my personal affairs, take a little time off. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can open your dream restaurant for 100K.