“There’s no way—no offense—but a girl shouldn’t be at the same level that I am.”
That was Mike Isabella, celebrity chef and successful restaurateur, making his debut on the show that would make him famous. Bravo’s Top Chef, to kick off its Las Vegas–set Season 6, had pitted its new group of contestants against each other in a mise-en-place relay race; Isabella, shucking clams, had looked over and realized to his great indignation that Jen Carroll, a sous chef at New York’s iconic Le Bernardin, was doing the work more quickly than he was.
Top Chef is a simmering stew of a show—one that blends the pragmatic testing of culinary artistry with reality-TV sugar and reality-TV spice—and Isabella quickly established himself as Season 6’s pseudo-villain: swaggering, macho, quick to anger, and extremely happy to insult his fellow contestants, including Carroll and, soon thereafter, Robin Leventhal (a self-taught chef and cancer survivor). Isabella was a villain, however, who was also, occasionally, self-effacing. A little bit bumbling. Aw, shucks, quite literally. He would later explain, of the “same level” comment:
It was meant jokingly. Me and Jen are great friends before, during, and after the show. I grew up in a broken family—with my mom, my sister, and my grandmother. I was surrounded by women so I would never, ever disrespect a woman like that.
Isabella was, in all this—as all reality-show contests will be—a persona. (As Carla Hall, a Season 5 contestant who also found fame with the show, noted of the show’s all’s-fair-in-reality-and-war editing process: “If you say it, they can play it.”)