Chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, wearing the James Beard medals they won in 2010 for best chefs in the Northeast, grow produce and herbs in Ogunquit for their restaurants.
By Meredith Goad
When renowned Maine chefs Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier were approached about being on the reality TV show "Top Chef Masters," their first response was, basically, "No way."
Frasier says they were "blissfully ignorant" about the show. Sure, they had heard of it, but since they have to work in one of their restaurants every night, they don't get in a lot of television time. And when they do watch, it's generally not reality shows.
"Neither one of us are big reality TV fans," Frasier said. "There's just a lot of unreality in reality TV."
But then word got out in their kitchens at Arrows and MC Perkins Cove in Ogunquit.
"All of the young people in our kitchens and in the front of house were like, 'Oh my God, you've got to do this. I watch it all the time,' " Frasier said. "It was really quite amazing how many people reacted to it, saying how important it was for us to do it.
"So I was a little reticent at first, but Mark was really not very gung ho on the idea. Once they convinced me that we should do it, and said that tons of people all across the country watch it and it's important to do, then we started talking Mark into it. He really didn't want to do it at all at first."
But after meeting the other chefs and going through a few challenges on the show, Gaier changed his mind about the whole experience.
"It was a little bit like boot camp," Gaier said, laughing, "but it was a lot of fun because of the camaraderie of the chefs. We all kind of got to know each other so quickly because we were spending so many hours together.
"You would just be having fun together and then you'd start cooking, and then it was, like, 'Oh wait, this is a challenge,' " Gaier said. "That was kind of interesting because it was almost easy to forget why you were really there at times. But it was a lot of fun, and I have to say that I was surprised, because I didn't expect to have fun."
Frasier and Gaier appear on Season 4 of the show, which starts at 10 p.m. July 25 on Bravo. A spokeswoman for Bravo confirmed that this is the first time two chefs from the same restaurant have competed on the same season.
"Top Chef Masters" hand-picks a dozen master chefs from around the country to compete against each other for charity.
They are subjected to cooking challenges that test their skills and patience, and then are judged by an esteemed panel that includes former Gourmet editor and New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl and James Oseland, the editor of Saveur. The host of the show is celebrity chef Curtis Stone.
In each episode, there's a Quickfire Challenge, in which the judges throw demanding tasks at the contestants, such as asking them to create a delicious dish out of crickets and worms.
The winner of each Quickfire Challenge is awarded $5,000 for their favorite charity. ("I didn't know a Quickfire from the O.K. Corral before this," Frasier says.)
The show also has elimination challenges, and the winners of those get $10,000 for their charities.
The goal, of course, is to be the last chef standing. The lone chef named top chef master in the end wins $100,000 for charity.
Mark Gaier is playing for Equality Maine, an equal rights group currently fighting for the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maine. Frasier is playing for Outright Lewiston/Auburn, which works with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youths age 22 and younger, as well as young people questioning their sexuality.
The organizations, Frasier said, "are very important to us."
The chefs have been a couple in the kitchen and in life for 27 years now, and look forward to the day they can be married legally in the state where they have made their home and built successful businesses.
"I feel very strongly that everybody has the right to equality before the law, and we hope that this year in Maine, this will finally come to pass," Frasier said. "We think that everything we can do to help in that cause, which was Mark's specifically, is a great thing.
"And I felt very strongly that young gay/bisexual/transgender people deserve a leg up. It's not the easiest thing in the world to be gay in our society, even today. Even though a lot of people think the difficulties have disappeared, I think you only have to pick up the newspaper on a regular basis to see that bullying still exists in the classrooms and in our society. We both feel very strongly about that as well.
"Once you're established, it's easy to become insulated. Mark and I have a great life together. We have a place in the community and so on, so we're much more insulated, but when you're a young person it can be very horrible. We felt strongly about both of our causes, and it was great to be able to raise money for them."
Gaier and Frasier are planning to fly out to Las Vegas for the July 25 premiere of the show. Bravo is throwing a big party for the Season 4 chefs and chefs from previous seasons, and the Maine chefs hope to see a little of the city they were too busy to enjoy while they were taping the show.
The cast of "Top Chef Masters" reads like a roll call of James Beard award winners.
Frasier said they already knew some of the other chefs they were competing against, including Patricia Yeo of Om Restaurant & Lounge and Moksa in Cambridge, Mass.; Art Smith of Art and Soul in Washington, D.C., and four other restaurants ("a crazy character and a lot of fun"); and Takashi Yagihashi, "a marvelous man and a very accomplished chef."
"Top Chef Masters" was taped at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas over many weeks. Numerous celebrities, from Sugar Ray Leonard to Brian Boitano and The B-52s, dropped by to be guest judges, but the Arrows chefs can't comment on that because talking details might give too many hints about how long they lasted in the competition.
Frasier said some of the challenges were like a return to cooking on the line, where it's important to be able to adapt quickly.
"The challenges, they're tough," he said. "What these guys dream up is not easy. It's a bit like being an athlete. You definitely are testing yourself, and they're definitely pushing you. Having that thrown at you is kind of exciting at times. Exhausting, too, but exciting."
Gaier says the experience left him feeling more empowered and confident, partly because the two chefs were competing as individuals instead of as a duo.
"I found that, although I'm not 25 anymore, I still have the physical stamina, almost, that I had at that age, and I can be on my feet 14 hours a day, or something like that, and really hustle," Gaier said. "I found that I worked pretty well with a gun to my head and with a clock running. That's something that, in our business, you frequently are doing anyway.
"But I found that working together in our restaurant for so many years now, you sort of rely on each other a lot, and in this situation I couldn't necessarily rely on Clark. (I couldn't say) 'Oh, I need you to help me.' "
Frasier agreed with that assessment, comparing their collaborative relationship in the kitchen to the proverbial twins who spend all their time together and suddenly have to learn how to get by on their own. The independence was good for them, but it was really hard.
"Our great strength," Frasier said, "is that ideas can be bounced off of each other and thoughts may be pared down: 'Oh, you don't need that. Your idea is good without it.' Or techniques: 'I'm thinking of making something this way.' 'Well, why don't you do it this way? This works better.'
"That's how we've cooked for years, so to suddenly go not only to not being able to do that, but sometimes actively competing against each other, that was a bit of a shock."
And the cameras? No problem for these veterans of the network morning shows.
"They were irritating at times, but you just sort of get used to it," Gaier said. "Sometimes you'd just sort of forget that you were on camera."
In a preview of the season, Gaier is shown on camera saying, "Criticism really gets under my skin."
Cut to a judge telling him: "Your dish was very odd."
"I liked it," Gaier coolly replies.
The judges, the chefs say, were all people they respect.
Still, it was difficult at times to be judged on food made under circumstances they could not control, or be judged by guests whose knowledge of food was not as extensive as the professional judges'.
"That obviously is the point of the show, to knock your feet out from under you, to make it extremely difficult, to change things at the last moment," Frasier said. "We all understood that that was going to happen to us going into it. It doesn't make it any easier though. Some of the things that would never happen to you in your own restaurant will happen on the show, and there's nothing you can really do about it.
"You're working with somebody that you've never worked with before, for example. You have no idea how they think about food. You have no idea how they work."
The Maine chefs were allowed to keep in touch with their restaurants back home while they were taping the show, but otherwise they couldn't go around broadcasting what they were doing.
Gaier told a couple of siblings he was doing the show, but swore them to secrecy.
The chefs also are not allowed to watch the show with anyone -- presumably because they might give away the ending.
"That's going to be a bit odd and a bit difficult, but we'll make it work," Frasier said. "I know in our local community there's a lot of excitement to see us on the big show. It's a very exciting event in a small town."
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: email@example.com