Sizzling on 'Top Chef'

The Baltimore Sun

A few months back, Jill Snyder, executive chef at the Red Maple tapas lounge in Mount Vernon, wasn't a big fan of Bravo's Top Chef.

"I hadn't really watched many episodes," she admits, a little sheepishly.

That's probably about to change: Snyder, 28, will be on the show when it kicks off its fifth season Nov. 12.

A native of Latrobe, Pa., who moved to Charm City eight years ago, Snyder is one of 17 chefs competing for the grand prize of $100,000 toward opening their own restaurant. The reality show tests not only culinary skills, but also contestants' resourcefulness, quick-thinking and business savvy.

Although the show's finale has yet to be shot, Snyder and 16 other contestants spent about a month this summer in New York City, preparing dishes, shopping for the best ingredients and watching their budgets, all with an eye toward impressing the four-judge panel.

"It was really competitive, and the fact that you're in New York City made it just that much more intense," says Snyder, who is prohibited from discussing any particulars of what happened during the competition. "There are so many awesome restaurants and celebrity chefs up there. One of the judges, Tom Colicchio, actually owns a couple restaurants in New York City, too. It was pretty wild."

There's a tremendous amount of hush-hush surrounding the competition, as the show's producers don't want anything revealed that might affect viewer interest. Secrecy has been so tight that the names of the 17 contestants weren't announced until last week. Several blogs, however, had revealed many of the contestants, including Snyder, by staking out the shoot and working hard to identify the people they saw coming and going.

"Everything was a surprise," says Snyder. And she's determined to keep it that way.

But some of the people she's worked with in Baltimore like her chances. If nothing else, they say, her appearance on Top Chef will help put Baltimore on the culinary map. Like fellow contestant Melissa Harrison, a Maryland native now living in Boulder, Colo., Snyder honed her cooking skills at the Baltimore International College.

"She's a great person, she's just got a bright outlook and she's a lot of fun to be around," says Spike Gjerde, owner of Woodberry Kitchen and one of Snyder's mentors. "She brings a great attitude and a great kind of energy to the kitchen. I've always thought of her as extremely talented, someone who deserves a wider audience. And Top Chef has quite a wide audience."

Lars Rusins, founder of Baltimore Foodies, a group that meets monthly to celebrate the best of the city's restaurants, agrees: "I think Jill's great. She's very cool, she's young, she has this really artistic touch. She's personable, she's gregarious. The TV's going to love her."

Snyder says she never thought about being a chef while growing up in Pennsylvania. "It wasn't my initial plan, coming out of high school," she says.

During two years of undergraduate study at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, "I wanted to be an artist for a while, so I did a bunch of art classes, but I wasn't sure if that was going to work out financially.

"I think it was my aunt who suggested trying to go to culinary school, and I knew that I could pick up a degree there doing something that I'd probably enjoy."

That aunt, Kathy Baker-Brosh, said her niece showed an early affinity for cooking. "She has always been very creative, and she's always been very handy in the kitchen. She always enjoyed cooking and preparing foods for people; that's one of her greatest loves."

But Snyder insists that she never envisioned cooking as a career. "I saw it as kind of a temporary thing, just until I figured out what I really wanted to do. But then I got some great jobs, and I've really enjoyed it."

Soon after arriving in Baltimore, Snyder began working with Gjerde, first at Spike and Charlie's Restaurant, then at Joy America Cafe in Federal Hill. She also spent seven months making pastries at Red Maple - pastries that were good enough to help persuade the owners to hire her as executive chef in 2005. Making desserts, she says, is still among her favorite pastimes.

"I would say I love making sushi, and then I love making desserts, too," she says. "And everything in between. It's hard for me to pinpoint one thing. I like to use lots of different spices. I like to get influences from India, different Indian curries and things like that."

The best part of her job? Experimenting with different ingredients, Snyder says, and the looks on her customers' faces when those experiments work.

"I love just researching new ingredients and trying to figure out how to make them work together," she says. "Designing a menu that's really cool, and that people really enjoy - it's really fun to get feedback, when you have someone who's come in and had a great dining experience."

Of course, there will be no shortage of feedback on Top Chef, from the notoriously hard-to-please judges. Only this time, the reward could be far greater than a roomful of satisfied customers.

"I'm waiting to see what happens," says Snyder, still cautious about revealing anything of substance. "It's a great thing to add to my resume now. Who knows, possibly I could get a real awesome job somewhere. I'm going to go with the flow, see what happens."

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