“Top Chef” Tour Rolls into San Jose

"Top Chef'' favorite, Fabio Viviani, cooks in front of a crowd in San Jose on Tuesday.

It’s not every day that I get kissed on the hand by “Top Chef”’s resident Italian charmer, Chef Fabio Viviani — while simultaneously getting kissed on the cheek by fellow hunky “Top Chef” alum, Ryan Scott.

Yes, Tuesday was that kind of heart-fluttering day.

It was all in a scorching afternoon’s work when the Bravo TV “Top Chef Tour,” which has been winding its way across the country, rolled into San Jose for two days of madcap fun inside a tent set up behind the AT&T store on Stevens Creek Blvd. Although this is the fourth year that contestants have gone on the road like this, it was the first time that the tour stopped in San Jose.

Another "Top Chef'' alumn, Ryan Scott,  prepares to battle against Viviani.

Yours truly was asked to judge one of the “Quick-Fire”-style battles between Viviani, who owns two restaurants in the Los Angeles-area, Firenze Osteria and Cafe Firenze, and San Francisco’s Scott, who used his “Top Chef” earnings to start a catering company, Ryan Scott 2 Go, and a mobile sandwich truck, 3 Sum Eats. Look for him to open his newest venture in a month — Brunch Drunk Love (how cute is that?), a brunch-only restaurant that will be open only on weekends at the Bruno’s site in the Mission District.

Those signs of affection from Viviani and Scott were humorous attempts to butter up the judge. But being the professional that I am — ahem — I did not let any of that sway me.

Plus,  I had my two fellow judges to keep me in check. One was an audience member, plucked from the crowd of 40, who won the chance to judge after correctly naming the most recent winner of “Top Chef All-Stars.” (That would be Chef Richard Blais for those of you who didn’t tune in.) Alvin Chen of San Jose joked that he was only all too eager to down some free food, being a starving MBA student at Santa Clara University.

The other judge was Chef Jim Stump, proprietor of the Los Gatos Brewing Company, with locations in San Jose and Los Gatos. Stump will be opening another restaurant next spring, The Table, at Willow and Lincoln streets, in the old Willow Glen Bicycles location. The intimate 50-seat, neighborhood-friendly restaurant will feature a global wine list, full liquor license, and a compact menu of small plates and entrees, emphasizing local, sustainable ingredients.

Jim Stump, chef-proprietor of the Los Gatos Brewing Company, checks out the action.

We three were armed with forks and napkins to do our duty.

OK, maybe it wasn’t so taxing. After all, it wasn’t a bonafide “Quick-Fire” challenge, where the competitors have no preparation and mere minutes to cook something from scratch.

This was a little easier. OK, much easier. Both Viviani and Scott both knew ahead of time what the challenge would involve and what ingredients they would be using. In fact, by the time they finished their dishes for the judges, assistants came strolling out of the “Top Chef” trailer, bearing samples of those same dishes to dole out tastes to the audience. So much for spontaneity.

The main ingredient was chosen by Facebook fans — wild salmon. Both contestants got to bring along one to two “secret” ingredients, too. Scott chose tequila; Viviani opted for pancetta and Red Bull, of all things. It all sounded so very familiar to their match-up just the day before in San Francisco, too.

Why did Viviani choose to cook with that uber-caffeinated beverage?

“Because I had a rough week,” Viviani joked, ”And espresso is just not enough.”

And so it went — with the two of them lobbing more good-natured barbs at one another than actually cooking.

A little cooking and a lot of goofing around made for a fun day in the sun.

The comic culinary duo.

Still, they were given 15 minutes to create a dish, which would be presented to the judges.

Scott joked that being a California guy, he just picked up all his ingredients from Manresa, the Michelin two-star restaurant in Los Gatos that grows all its own produce at Love Apple Farm.

He also admitted that head “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio makes him so nervous that Scott once sliced open his thumb badly on a box of plastic wrap when the Craft chef-proprietor questioned his use of prepared mayonnaise in a dish on a sweltering day.

On the flip side, Viviani revealed that the competitors get so slack-jawed when they see curvacious “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi walk into the “stew room,” that the director often must resort to take after take to get them to stop looking like a bunch of dogs in heat.

When the buzzer went off, Scott presented a coriander- and peppercorn-encrusted salmon, seared on one side, and served with corn and radish panzanella. Viviani served cured salmon, with a drizzle of sweet-sour Red Bull glaze and sprinkled with pancetta bread crumbs.

Fabio Viviani's salmon dish -- made with Red Bull.

The judges dug in, then were asked to make a few comments before rendering their verdict.

Stump said he would eat an entire serving of Scott’s dish, but only a mere tasting size portion of Viviani’s. Chen turned up his nose at Viviani’s dish, finding the texture downright awful.

Then, yours truly weighed in: “Being a native San Franciscan, I found Ryan’s dish a great example of the bright, fresh flavors of  the best of California cuisine. I found Fabio’s dish, well,  very interesting. It was different. It was unusual….”

“You’re a vegan, aren’t you?” Viviani interjected to the laughter of the crowd.

I think you can tell that it was a unanimous decision. Homeboy Scott walked away with the victory in this mock battle.

And if all that whet your appetite for more “Top Chef” zaniness, you’ll be glad to know that Season 9 just started filming on Monday.

More: My Q&A with “Top Chef Masters” Contender Suvir Saran

Plus: My Q&A with “Top Chef Just Desserts” Champ Yigit Pura

And: My Q&A with “Top Chef Masters” Competitor Rick Moonen

And: My Q&A with “Top Chef” Alum Kevin Gillespie

And: My Q&A with “Top Chef Masters” Competitor Michael Chiarello

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