Tonight, Chef Jesse Sandlin of Abacrombie Fine Foods will be preparing finger foods like local peaches wrapped with Serrano ham and heirloom tomatoes with Buffalo mozzarella for guests who are paying $60 to nosh and to watch the premiere episode of Bravo’s Top Chef: Las Vegas at Silo Point’s swanky penthouse. The catch is that Jesse is one of the cheftestants on the show, which is in its sixth season.
"I’ve never been on TV before," she says. "It’s a little surreal."
Jesse is good friends with Jill Snyder, a cheftestant on last year’s show who is now working at Woodberry Kitchen. She said Jill wasn’t the reason she decided to try out for a spot on Top Chef. She really wanted to promote her hometown
"I have a lot of love for Baltimore," said Jesse, 30, who went to Glen Burnie Senior High. "There’s great stuff going on."
She joins two other native Marylanders, brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, who grew up in Frederick. Bryan is the chef/owner of the award-winning VOLT in the Western Maryland town. Michael is a chef de cuisine at a Michelin-star restaurant in Pasadena, CA.
Jesse has nothing but praise for both guys. She’s been to Bryan’s restaurant, where she asked him to cook whatever he liked for her. "It’s really amazing," she said. "He’s a really talented guy and super nice."
I talked to Jesse yesterday on the phone about her Top Chef experience. We were joined by a Bravo representative, who runs interference in case I start pumping Jesse for info about this year’s competition. Jesse isn’t allowed to talk about the particulars, but she sounded upbeat and happy about the deal.
She said she expected cattiness but didn’t find it. "The people I met were awesome," she said." But she added that maybe it would seem more cutthroat once the footage was edited.
She spent six weeks in Las Vegas for the show, which hasn’t shot the finale yet. She wasn’t a big fan of the heat. "I hated it," she said, laughing. "I’m not a summertime person."
The 17 competitors also didn’t get a chance to see much of the so-called Sin City. "Your pretty secluded from the world," she said.
Jesse is a self-taught chef. There are actually several chefs who are not culinary-school trained in this season’s group, but there are also competitors who have received prestigious James Beard awards.
But Jesse, who spent 14 years perfecting her cooking chops in restaurants from here to Australia, takes a realistic approach. "It’s just little ol' me," she says. "I tried to be me, who I was, there."
Perhaps Jesse’s colorful tattoos speak more to her spirit and drive. "I get comments all the time," she said. "People will stop me in the grocery store." She doesn’t mind. Each of the tats has something to do with her life. "There’s a story behind every one of them," she said.
She’s also quick to point out, "I’m anything but timid."
Go, Jesse. Let the competition begin.