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Top Chef Chicago: Meet LA's Antonia Lofaso

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Because the Internets are rife with all sorts of Top Chef chatter, we'll keep it local---as long as Foxtail exec chef Antonia Lofaso has some longevity. Noting that she wasn't introduced in the first few minutes of the show, our minds were in overdrive: Will she make it? Maybe she's not a "personality" player. Maybe she'll ride the middle as CJ in season three, neither picked nor panned for a few weeks. But then: At the judges table for the elimination challenge, Antonia's shrimp scampi got four straight mmms from the judges. And then she was one of the top four chefs out of all 16. This isn't a one-trick pony. She might be a contender! On the Television Without Pity forum, the best chat room for obsessive fans, Antonia's cheftestant page has no comments, not one. Time to meet LA's only Top Chef contestant.

Eater LA: Did you watch the show last night? What'd you think?
Antonia Lofaso: I was working, and I didn't get to watch it watch it. But when I did, my first reaction, like anyone, was just seeing myself on TV. It's exciting and overwhelming. It's funny, when you see reality TV, it's just TV. But it was very real for us. Watching us go into the pizza shop and meeting everyone, I was thinking, "Wait, I did that." It's kind of surreal.

ELA: Why do the show?
Antonia: Initially I left Spago to join SBE restaurant group. I really wanted to put myself out there, push myself. I was at Spago for six years, and it was a great opportunity. I turned 30, and I wanted to do everything I can in this lifetime. I just want to push myself as hard as I can right now. The opportunity arose and I though, "Yeah, absolutely."

ELA: What would you do with the money?
Antonia: I think about the title more than the money. I know it's not the way most people answer, but I'd probably pay off my student loans. I'm really happy with the company that I'm with right now. They've given me all the equipment and resources that I need. I'm just beginning, just starting out. I wouldn't take the money and do my own place.

ELA: You're originally from NYC, but you've lived and cooked here for how long? You're OK with us claiming you?
Antonia: I've been back in LA almost seven years. Of course! I love LA.

ELA: What did you think about that ad in Food & Wine? It's you, green dress, looking hot, right up front.
Antonia: I KNOW! It's so airbrushed, though. My breasts do not look like that in person. I don't mind it though. I like the idea of being feminine and being able to run the restaurant. It's so male dominated; to have me not have to lose my femininity is a good thing. Truthfully, I'm more comfortable in my chef jacket. It's very relaxing.

ELA: What's one thing that prepares a chef for this experience?
Antonia: I worked under some really great people, like Lee Hefter and Ari Rosenson. Really great people when I started at Spago. They were perfectionists. It was about the integrity of the food. Always do it well, do it with integrity, do it with morals. This is your love, your life. I really wanted that to come through on the show. It's all about the food. It's not about tricking others. It was funny to watch the mayo thing last night. You can have all the same ingredients, but it's all about technique.

ELA: What's your biggest weakness in the competition?
Antonia: It's not really a weakness, but I try to not let things get to me. But I really missed my daughter. That was hard. I've cried at work before, and my coworkers say, "Hey, you're not super woman, you know." When they do background checks on you before the show, they called my brother and asked the same thing. He just said, "Nothing gets to her. She'll never let you see when she's upset."

ELA: But at the end of the show, there was that teaser with you yelling at someone.
Antonia: Yeah, stand behind your dish. People will always say something about your food, but you don't make excuses. You take responsibility for what you do. There will always be conceptual changes or different ingredients. But you have to stand behind what you do, whether it's good, bad, or indifferent.

ELA: What was the first thing that went through your mind when you walked into Pizzeria Uno?
Antonia: That the whole thing was surreal. "Holy shit, I’m actually doing this." I'm a huge supported of the show. Every once in awhile, I felt like that movie Pleasantville where Reese Witherspoon gets sucked into the TV. Like all of a sudden, I'd look around and think, "I'm on that show that I watch". The first time I was in that stew room, I was like, "I’m in that room. I'm in that kitchen."

ELA: Did you size up the competition?
Antonia: No. people were sizing up, but you really don't know what people are capable of. Doesn't matter how they look. You can't place judgment on how they look. That's what they'd say if they see me: She's a girl, she's from LA, she's cute, she probably can't cook.

ELA: Who was the first person you noticed and why.
Antonia: Nikki and I sat next to each other. She's from NY, she has this great accent. She's just a real person. There were no frills or anything. She wasn't nervous or anything. That's who she was.

ELA: At this point in the game, who did you feel was your biggest competition?
Antonia: I didn't really think about that. I didn't want to be caught up in what other people were doing. I didn't want to look over and see what others were doing because it takes away from my concentration. So my focus was really on me.

ELA: Not that six years at Spago is anything to laugh at, but these chefs have some serious pedigree. Were you intimidated?
Antonia: No, again, I didn't want to come in that they knew more than me or are any better. The more time you spend on what other people have done or did, it makes you lose your concentration.

ELA: Did you have a strategy?
Antonia: Cook every day as hard as I possibly could. Have 100% integrity for the food. Not miss a day because I drank too much the night before or I didn't get enough sleep. Just do my best every day.

ELA: Someone said their first impression of you on the show is "strong."
Antonia: I'm honored that's what people are saying. I'm happy. You put yourself out there and people will pick you apart. I'm not mad it was a mild episode for me. I was in the top four, which was a huge compliment.

ELA: You have a daughter. Hard to be a working mother, especially a chef?
Antonia: She just turned 8, she had her birthday last week. Her father gets so upset when people say that I'm a single mom, but although we're divorced, he's totally Mr. Mom. We believe it takes a village to raise a child, all of our family and our friends are so involved. She watched the show twice this morning. She totally gets into. She said, "Nimma must be very mad at you Mommy."

ELA: Foxtail has only been open a few weeks. How's it going?
Antonia: Going really well. 140 on the books tonight, and we only seat 78.

ELA: What's the one dish we shouldn't miss on that menu?
Antonia: Everyone loves the steak frites. Sunny side up egg, black truffle, French fries. Who doesn't love steak, egg and truffle?

ELA: So do you have a breakout moment on the show?
Antonia: I don't know. That was a pretty good little twist with the "stand by your dish" teaser. It should be everyone's motto.

And they're off! Watch for Top Chef updates, gossip, conjecture all right here.