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Chicago’s Carlos Gaytan and Aaron Cuschieri compete on ‘Top Chef’

Chef Carlos Gaytan Chicago's Mexique restaurant works his culinary magic during one many challenges new seas'Top Chef.' | Phoby: David

Chef Carlos Gaytan of Chicago's Mexique restaurant works his culinary magic during one of the many challenges on the new season of "Top Chef." | Photo by: David Moir/Bravo

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Updated: November 3, 2013 6:07AM

A couple of Chicago culinary talents are throwing their toques in the ring on “Top Chef,” where the gastronomic action heats up again at 9 p.m. Wednesday on Bravo. ¶ Aaron Cuschieri, executive chef at River North’s Slurping Turtle, and Carlos Gaytan, chef-owner of Michelin-starred Mexique, are among the 19 hopefuls competing this season, set in the foodie-favorite city of New Orleans. ¶ “I don’t have a lot of experience with that kind of food,” said Cuschieri, 29, who’d visited the Big Easy once, a decade ago, when his band played there. ¶ “I turned 24 and realized I’m not going to be a rock star,” the drummer from Michigan said. “I woke up one morning, went online and said, ‘I’m going to culinary school.’”

He moved to Chicago in 2011 and landed a gig at one of the world’s top restaurants, Alinea. “It wasn’t really for me,” said Cuschieri, who lasted about two months. “I don’t believe that people should be governed and managed in that way … They don’t exactly treat you well.” (Cuschieri said chef/owner Grant Achatz is a nice guy; some of his support staff, not so much.)

The West Rogers Park chef has found it a much better fit working for Slurping Turtle owner Takashi Yagihashi, a former “Top Chef Masters” contestant.

What advice did Takashi give his chef as he packed his knives and headed south for “Top Chef” season 11?

“All he said was, ‘Don’t forget to have fun and make friends,’” Cuschieri said.

As for Gaytan, he almost took a pass on the chance to compete even though it’s long been a dream of his.

“The only two things I watch on television are ‘Top Chef’ and soccer,” the Pumas [Mexico Premier League] supporter said.

He worried about leaving his family and his West Town eatery, which got a lot busier after Michelin awarded it a star last November. But one morning over breakfast, his wife and daughter convinced him to give it a shot.

Gaytan, 42, grew up in the Mexican state of Guerrero, where he’d wake up early to kill and butcher the goats that ended up in his mother’s tacos, which she sold on a table set up outside their small house.

He moved to Chicago in 1991 and got a job washing dishes at the Sheraton Hotel in Northbrook. In the kitchen, Gaytan pitched in, peeling potatoes and helping cooks on the line. He moved on to Chicago’s private Union League Club — an eight-year experience that he considers his culinary school training. From there, he graduated to Bistrot Margot before opening his French-Mexican fusion restaurant in 2008.

“I’ve been blessed in many different ways,” he said, with the “Top Chef” opportunity being one of them.

That blessing came with a curse: sleep deprivation.

“I couldn’t sleep thinking, ‘What if I’m the first one voted out?’ Everyone is afraid to be the first one out,” he said. “But I pray a lot and that gave me strength.”


Twitter: @lorirackl

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