Local heart-association donors, volunteers get meal from 'Top Chef'

CHAMPAIGN – Although he's been a professional chef less than a decade, Dave Martin is readily recognized by thousands as the funny guy who came in third in the inaugural season of the hit show "Top Chef" on Bravo TV.

The show, which just finished airing its sixth season in December and has been picked up for a seventh, has fans who still remember Martin for a crack aimed at a fellow contestant that's not really appropriate for a family newspaper.

There are even T-shirts with his famous line on it.

Martin, who lives in New York City but is jetting all over the country these days, touts himself as a creator of "upscale comfort food."

"I'm taking dishes I had as a kid and sprucing them up," he said, citing "black-truffle macaroni and cheese" as his signature dish.

Martin spoke to The News-Gazette while in town acting as a guest chef at the Champaign County Heart and Stroke Ball for the American Heart Association.

Having a father who died from heart disease at the same age Martin is now – 45 – makes it a cause dear to his, well, heart.

On Saturday, he prepared meals for 40 of the VIP guests at the Champaign Country Club. Among their treats were roasted-mushroom soup, seared-crab-cake salad, butternut squash ravioli, smoky rubbed filet, a cider-flavored pork and, in a nod to the occasion, "lots of roasted vegetables."

"Fat has its place, but not in every dish. I save it for dessert," said Martin, whose formal training was in French cooking.

Martin came to cooking for a living later in life, having previously worked in the technology industry.

"I ran a recruiting firm. I placed software engineers," he said of his former career.

But he always loved cooking.

"I got the passion from home. Mom made everything from scratch," he said.

In 2002, he entered the California School of Culinary Arts. After finishing the program in 2003, he started his own catering company.

He was browsing Craigslist online when he came across a request for "chef-testants" for a reality program the Bravo channel wanted to launch pitting chefs against each other in a test of their skills.

Martin applied and began the lengthy auditioning process, which he said included "months of interviews and psychological profiling."

Recorded in San Francisco and Las Vegas in the fall of 2005, the first season of Top Chef aired in March, April and May 2006.

Even though he came in third, Martin saw his career catapulted to a new level by the experience, which went on to become one of the channel's most popular shows.

For a while, Martin ran restaurants in New York and Los Angeles.

"It's very stressful, especially New York. Food is my passion, but stress is not," Martin said.

Although he's stepped back from the restaurant business, he continues to derive his livelihood from food preparation, but on different planes.

He has his own catering business, acts as a guest chef, teaches cooking classes, advises University of Illinois food-service people, has published his own cookbook, and is currently developing a healthy line of foods aimed at children.

Martin does all his own promotion, including maintaining a Web site as well as a presence on both Twitter and Facebook.

Acknowledging that his travel schedule is "crazy," the single man said he prefers being busy and has a hard time saying no to any charity that seeks him out for help.

"I'm finding a new direction in helping others. I used to think charity was writing a check. I'm learning it's about giving what you can," he said.

Martin said on a Sunday earlier this month, he saw a New York Times story about a school in a Haitian community in the city's Queens borough.

"They've all had great, great loss," he said, adding that the story so moved him, he called the principal the next day.

"I said, 'I'm not rich, but I'm a chef.' I baked cookies to bring in for the kids," he said. "It's something I can do, even if it just makes them smile or brightens their day."


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