A new season of "Top Chef Masters" hits the airwaves on July 24 with its usual array of top-ranked chef-testants and ridiculous challenges -- including a season opener involving parachutes. But this season also includes a devilish twist: A sous chef battle on the sidelines that wreaks weekly havoc on the main stage.
The Bay Area has always been well-represented on "Top Chef" and its various spinoffs -- San Francisco's Chris Cosentino won the last Masters round -- so local hopes are high for Douglas Keane, the chef and co-owner of the Michelin-starred Cyrus, the Healdsburg restaurant that closed last fall.
Keane and a dozen other chef competitors will be vying for more than mere bragging rights. The prize cash goes to charity. Keane, who was the executive chef at Traci des Jardin's Jardiniere before opening Cyrus in 2005, is competing for the Green Dog Rescue Project, for example. New Orleans chef Sue Zemanick hopes to raise funds for the Gulf Restoration Project, and Bryan Voltaggio -- who competed against his brother, "Top Chef" winner Michael Voltaggio, in season six -- is competing on behalf of Share Our Strength.
Naturally, we had questions -- and Keane was happy to chat about quickfires, misfires and a certain chef's phobias.
Q: Tell us about life after Cyrus.
KEANE: I shed a few tears, but the saying, "One door closes, a thousand opens," is so true. As sad as it was, it was the best outcome for everyone on both sides. Sometimes you need a divorce. There probably will be a 2.0 in another year or so in Sonoma. We've got the Healdsburg Bar & Grill and I might do at least one casual thing. But I took a lot of time off to be with my wife and the dog rescue -- and I learned a lot about myself.
Q: How did you get involved with the Green Dog Rescue Project?
KEANE: Two and a half years ago, I decided I wanted to have a dog rescue (shelter). I got certified in animal behavior, and did the internship and volunteer part while I was doing Cyrus full-time and going through a lawsuit. I go for harder cases, dogs that are deemed aggressive or have a problem. These are amazing creatures -- and (Green Dog) is my happy place.
Q: What was the appeal of competing in "Top Chef Masters"?
KEANE: (Laughs) I'm still trying to figure it out. I had always wanted to dip my toes in, but I was always afraid -- afraid of my ego and status and what would happen. And the other thing was the time. I was in my restaurant kitchen 12 or 13 hours a day. To walk away for even a week or two, let alone a month, was daunting. The perfect storm came up: We were closing Cyrus and they asked again. My wife said, "Get over yourself and do it. Do it for the dogs."
Q: How was the experience?
KEANE: I didn't know what to expect, but whenever you get together with chefs you have fun. The group we ended up having was pretty incredible. It was like chef summer camp. It was brutal at times, but it was really cool.
Q: Traci des Jardin has done the show too. Did she have any advice for you?
KEANE: She was great. She told me, "Don't forget to season your food. Things get so chaotic and that's what you do at the last second, so don't forget." It was great advice.
Q: Did you do anything to prepare beforehand? Test your quickfire prowess or practice throwing your hands in the air when someone shouts, "Knives down"?
KEANE: The Kendall Jackson Tomato Festival always has me and do an "Iron Chef"/"Top Chef" type of thing. My wife gets so nervous, because I don't pay attention to the clock. Cooking is an organic, relaxed thing. You're like "Oh, whatever." My wife was like, "No! You need to watch the clock. They're going to not let you plate."
But I had no time to practice because I had a miscommunication with the Elves -- (Magical Elves produces the show) -- about the timing. I was asking if they still had some dates open. It was Wednesday and they were like, "No, it's THIS Saturday. Can you make it?"
Q: You went on this culinary adventure with your Cyrus sous chef, Drew Glassell. How did he feel about being volunteered?
KEANE: I knew something was coming. (Laughs) Oh, we get to bring our sous chefs? It was too easy. He was supportive, like OK, not "rah! rah!" But when he found out we weren't actually (cooking) together, he was (ticked off).
Q: You haven't seen any of the episodes yet, have you? Do you think you got the "villain edit"?
KEANE: I think I got the Chicken Little edit -- and I completely deserved it. I took so much abuse over that (first episode) from my co-chefs. I started to figure something was weird when people started jumping out of an airplane. Then the panic started setting in. There's no worse fear in my life than heights. Poisonous snakes are up there, but I'd rather run around in a pit of poisonous snakes than jump out of an airplane. I thought, I'm going home. Literally. Oh. My. God.
Q: Knowing what you know now, would you ever do "Top Chef" again?
KEANE: You'd have to ask my wife. (Laughs) It depends how much money they're throwing at my charity. I'm not proud. I can be bought.
Top Chef Masters
On TV: Hosted by Curtis Stone, the new season of "Top Chef Masters" airs on Bravo at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays, starting July 24.
On the web: This season, a "Battle of the Sous Chefs" will unfold each week at www.bravotv.com/top-chef-masters. The sous chefs' victories and losses directly impact their bosses, limiting or bestowing ingredients, tools and time in the most devious -- and entertaining -- ways.