Platelist: 'Top Chef' Harold Dieterle Exudes Confidence in the Kitchen

Restaurateur and Top Chef winner says he started cooking in home economics class

ByLauren Effron
February 22, 2011, 10:51 AM

Mar. 8, 2011— -- When restaurateur and "Top Chef" champion Harold Dieterle was a kid, he said he wanted to be a fighter pilot. But it wasn't meant to be.

"[My teacher's] quick response was that you don't have 20-20 vision, so you have to pick something else." he said.

Growing up on Long Island, Dieterle said he became hooked on cooking at age 15 when he took a home economics class in high school.

"I wasn't terribly popular in high school either so I kind of took to cooking with the scheme that if I took a home economics class, it would definitely help me meet girls," he said. "That's kind of how the cooking started."

Dieterle also credited his eclectic family for inspiring him to follow his passion for food, going as far back as the Sunday dinners that filled his childhood.

"There were always a lot of lovely Italian suppers going on, on the weekends," he said. "The family was always cooking together on Sundays. That's my mom's side of the family, a bunch of Sicilian crazy gals."

With German and Irish grandparents on his father's side, Dieterle said he learned to love many different styles of cuisine, but one recipe he kept close to his heart was his Sicilian grandmother's tomato sauce.

"People are constantly, always asking ... 'Oh what's your favorite tomato sauce?'" he said. "We'll it's my grandmother's sauce and I try and replicate it all the time but not too many people are into pigs feet."

"The food that brings you back to your childhood is definitely the most rewarding, in my opinion," he added. "It makes you feel special."

Click here to get chef Harold Dieterle's recipes.

Cooking became an excellent fit for Dieterle, who is now the owner of two restaurants in New York City, Perilla, a critically-acclaimed New American restaurant with Asian influences, and Kin Shop, which is devoted to Thai cuisine that was inspired by Dieterle's several trips to Thailand.

After graduating high school in 1995, Dieterle went to Spain to work in some of the country's top kitchens, and then came back to the United States to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Harold Dieterle Says Being on Top Chef Made Him 'Cranky'

"Probably the first chef I worked for that had the biggest ego, the angriest," Dieterle said. "But also as far as putting food together, the best pallet ... I learned a lot from him and also lived on a steady diet of antacids for the majority of the summer."

Dieterle went on to work in a series of high-quality establishments on Long Island and in New York City. But the most notable was the 1770 House in 2002, which earned a two-star review from The New York Times at the time he worked there.

"I have to say about me, confidence has never really been the problem," he said. "It's kind of always been chefs smacking me down a little bit."

That same year, Dieterle landed a job at restaurateur Jimmy Bradley's The Harrison in New York City, where he worked until 2006 under future standout chefs Joey Campanaro and Brian Bistrong.

"I didn't really learn so much about cooking," he said of his time at The Harrison, "Even though I still accredit Joey for teaching me how to make pasta. … But just from a restaurant side of things and a restaurant tour in operations I definitely got my feet wet in that department and I learned so much."

During his tenure at The Harrison, Dieterle competed in and eventually won the first season of Bravo's "Top Chef" in 2006. It's an experience he said he was grateful for, but would not want to do again.

"When everyone saw it on TV they were like, 'Oh my God! Now we get it! This is what you've been doing!' So it's kind of cool," he said. "[But] I don't think I could go through that whole process again. It makes me too cranky."

Dietrele left The Harrison in January 2006, close to the end of filming "Top Chef," and went to work opening his own restaurants, something he said had always been his goal.

"The type of places I want to do are the type of places I want to dine out at," he said. "I kind of just like to roll into neighborhood places where you have the same staff there for a while...[and] just make, you know, unpretentious food that everyone enjoys."

While Dieterle is very content with running his own businesses, he said he had to work hard at toning down the arrogance and that learning how to be a good manager was a challenge.

Dieterle on Learning to Teach Others in the Kitchen

"It didn't come easy to me," he said. "I'm fairly certain that majority of the staff despised me just because I was aggressive and you know, I would kick people off of the line and just say 'watch me,' not really by example and being a teacher, but really throwing it back in people's faces."

"So it took a little while to learn how to talk to people," he added. "You know teaching, that's just kind of in my blood. My mom was instrumental in that. She's a teacher so you know just seeing how that goes down, and it made the path much easier."

Despite working 12- to 14-hour days with owning and managing two businesses, not to mention cooking for both, Dieterle said he lives for the camaraderie of the kitchen and always leaves work feeling like he has accomplished something.

"I love being a chef." he said. "It's just one of those things where it doesn't always feel like work when you're doing what you love."

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