Sandwich native to compete on 'Top Chef' show


August 05, 2009
SANDWICH — Ashley Merriman got her start cooking meals here in the Lakes Region, and now she'll get a chance to show off her skills nationwide as a contestant on the culinary competition show "Top Chef."

Merriman, born in Sandwich, now works in Seattle, Wash., as a chef at Branzino. Along with 16 other chefs from across the country, she'll compete in Las Vegas for the title of "Top Chef." The show has already been taped, and the season begins on Aug. 19. Merriman had been asked by the show producers not to talk about her experience on the show, to keep it from releasing "spoilers," but spoke about what led her to compete.

"I decided to do it because it was a phenomenal opportunity to test my skills against other young and talented chefs," said Merriman. "It was a one in 17 chance, for me, and I wanted to start working with chefs my own age. I would like my own place, and it's a good opportunity to get my name out there."

Merriman was introduced to restaurant work at a young age. Her mother, a waitress at For Every Season in Meredith, would often take Merriman with her to keep an eye on her – "we didn't have a lot of cash (for daycare)."

She started out washing dishes there, and "caught the bug" for cooking. Once in high school, Merriman began working at Checkers Harbor (now Canoe) as a prep cook. For the next "seven or eight years," she handled the busy summer seasons at Checkers Harbor, working as many as 300 covers in a night, an experience that taught her how to handle busy situations.

"I fell in love with it," Merriman said of cooking. "When I was in high school, I thought about exploring as many options as I could in college – there are some disadvantages to cooking, like bad hours. But I went to college, looked at the other options, and I started at culinary school."

After graduating from Hamilton College in New York, Merriman attended the Institute of Culinary Education. She started working at the Butter restaurant in New York, where she "really started getting into fine dining." Moving to Seattle, she started at Tilth, before moving onto the Branzino restaurant, where she worked her way up to becoming the restaurant's executive chef in a few years.

Merriman described her style of cooking as "new American," and said that she enjoyed "robust cuisine" made from sustainable and organic sources, especially when working with the seasons. While working in Seattle, Merriman said she creates many seafood dishes, but has an "incredible" amount of variety from local sources for produce in Washington.

Two of her favorite dishes to cook are sweetbreads and octopus.

"I love cooking sweetbreads and octopus – they're both underappreciated proteins that lend well to different cooking styles," said Merriman. "They're not used very often in cooking."

After being away from home for several years while working in Seattle, Merriman said she is coming home later this month, looking forward to spending time with her family – and cooking for them and others.

"I'm excited to be back in the area," said Merriman. "Old Home Week's coming up, and I'll be there for it. I'm really excited to send some time in that part of the world."

The Top Chef reality competition show airs on the Bravo network. Contestants – "cheftestants" – compete against each other in different cooking challenges to keep from being eliminated, and to win the title of Top Chef. Past seasons of Top Chef have challenged the chefs to create meals from vending machine food items, or gourmet meals from a few dollars' worth of ingredients.

The last chef standing in the competition may receive a variety of different prizes. In past Top Chef competitions, these prizes have included an editorial feature in "Food and Wine Magazine," an appearance at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., and $100,000 in prize money.

The show begins on Wednesday, Aug. 19, at 9 p.m. Merriman's online profile can be found at http://www.bravotv.com/top-chef/bio/ashley-merriman.

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