Marisa Churchill: Striking while the iron is hot
By GraceAnn Walden
Former Top Chef contestant Marisa Churchill is of German-Greek extraction. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was a chef who owned restaurants in Manhattan, Kansas.
She was born in San Francisco but grew up in Sedona, Arizona. She came back to the City in 1999.
“I always cooked, but it never occurred to me that I could do that for a living,” says Churchill. “I realized at one point that every time I got stressed, I went in the kitchen and cooked – instantly I felt better,” she explains.
Churchill and I met at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen for our chat and lunch. She came over from her job at Mezzeta. Both of us were starved. Pica Pica is in the Oxbow Market in Napa, (near the now-closed COPIA center for food, wine and the arts) and specializes in Venezuelan-influenced food, especially arepas. These are like pocket bread sandwiches, except the pocket bread is made from corn. She enjoyed the luscious pulled pork, while I had the chorizo-filled arepa. I also ordered the fried yucca, a new taste for Churchill. She joked now that I had turned her on to yucca, she’d always order it.
The 32-year-old Churchill found her way to the California Culinary Academy (CCA) when it was not as expensive as it is today, she says, and still good. “You got more bang for your buck in those days,” says Churchill.
Although she can cook just about anything, once at the CCA she realized that she loved preparing and creating pastry.
“I love using Asian ingredients,” says Churchill, “[and] using Mediterranean ingredients that reflect my heritage in new ways in pastry.”
After graduating from the CCA, she took advanced courses at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa. Later she worked at Rubicon, (now closed), The Slanted Door, Ame, and LuLu.
When there was an open audition for Top Chef, she tried out. Her goal was to eventually be a food writer and television chef, so she jumped at the chance. Surprisingly, cooking was not part of the audition.
“They did check on my resume, and even called the San Francisco Chronicle, but they don’t actually see your skills. After the interview and the film tryout the next day, they wanted me and flew me down to L.A.”
I had to ask her, ”I know your talent, but do you think you were chosen in part because of your looks?”
“I think in part that may be true; they have certain people on the show that fill certain shoes. I think that’s funny, and half the time I look like crap.”
Her own mother called her and told her she looked terrible after one of the shows. “I told her I was up from 5 a.m. everyday and it was go-go-go,” says Churchill.
Top Chef was a joy and it was also painful, says Churchill. “The hours were brutal. Sam Talbott should have won; he’s a brilliant chef,” she says.
Some people came away with the idea that she couldn’t cook, so she’s happy she has been on the Food Network to prove her mettle.
One challenge in particular sticks in Marisa’s craw.
“I showed just about everyone how to make ice cream, even giving them my recipe.” But in the show, it does not show how they went from not knowing how to make ice cream to doing it. “The challenge was interesting, because it made me think in other ways – they need help, do you help them … of course in the end I did,” she explains.
After all that, her ice cream was near the bottom. She made an ice cream base with peanut butter and homemade toffee.
They took their ice creams out to the beach and a bunch of kids judged them. “The guy who won did the same recipe with more additions. He called his Fribble. Of course they chose his because of the clever name.
“What I said on the show was, ‘I don’t think he won on the quality of his ice cream; it was the same recipe as mine but because of the name, it was a brilliant move.’ That was cut to “I don’t think he won on the quality of his ice cream,” says Churchill.
“Now who looks like the bitter bitch?” she says with a laugh.
After Top Chef she consulted on the dessert offerings at Yoshi’s, Zare at Fly Trap and Pampas.
Over a year ago, she began consulting with Mezzeta, the family-owned producer of a line of Italian food products, including roasted red peppers, olives and a fabulous spaghetti sauce.
Churchill says she doesn’t want to do more consulting on pastries until she can have her own restaurant. But she is such a talent, I’m sure she will be back in someone’s kitchen before long, perhaps her own.
Pica Pica Maize Kitchen: Oxbow Public Market, 610 First Street (at McKinstry), Napa; Monday–Thursday 11 a.m.–8 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Saturday–Sunday 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; 707-251- 3757, www.picapicakitchen.com
GraceAnn Walden leads tours for food lovers of S.F. neighborhoods (www.graceannwalden.net), and always gets the SCOOP; read it weekly by subscribing to the Yummy letter (www.yummyletter.com), a weekly food and wine e-letter. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org