“Behind, behind, behind,” one chef said as he bounded around a corner holding a pot of boiling liquid.
No one near him seemed surprised. It was no coincidence that what was happening Thursday night in the Handsome Hog kitchen seemed like a typical episode of “Top Chef.”
Justin Sutherland, who is competing on the Bravo show, was hosting a dinner in his Lowertown St. Paul restaurant, and, just like on TV, it was a race against the clock to get everything on the plate.
Brian Young of Boston, also a “Top Chef” contestant, was in town for the dinner, for which the two of them butchered a whole Iowa hog that ate nothing but olive oil and walnuts its entire life. They turned the meat into a $160-per-person, six-course dinner that included seven kinds of charcuterie, sausage, pork broth, porchetta, and pork loin.
And they had only two hours to serve it. That’s because, as soon as the meal was done, the latest episode of “Top Chef” would begin, and Sutherland’s fans were there to watch it.
Every Thursday night, the Handsome Hog bar becomes a screening room for Sutherland’s supporters to see their hometown hero cook on national television.
“We came a few weeks ago and watched, and [Sutherland] sat a couple seats away from us,” said John White, who was enjoying a plate of Po Ping pork and pancakes with a Kumamoto oyster. “It’s kind of surreal to me to watch the show and think, ‘Oh, I just talked to him.’ ”
White’s dining partner, Wendy Fossum, said the TV version and the real-life version of Sutherland are not so different. “It’s nice to see that charismatic smile in person,” she said.
Seven episodes into the season, Sutherland has stood out as a genial guy and a good chef, though he hasn’t sailed too high above the competition — yet.
Things changed this week during the Quickfire Challenge, in which he had to put his own spin on the Hot Brown sandwich, a Kentucky classic and a sandwich he serves at Handsome Hog.
“This is one challenge that I have to win,” he said on the show. “There’s no way I’m going back to my cooks having lost a Hot Brown competition.”
He served the judges what he called a Kentucky Fried Breakfast Brown with maple Mornay, spicy bacon jam and an egg yolk on top.
“I love putting egg yolks on things,” he said. “It’s gonna make some tongues happy.”
He won the challenge.
“Having hung out in the middle for a while and not gotten a whole lot of positive feedback, it feels good that someone’s acknowledging that I’m making some good food,” he said.
The Handsome Hog erupted in cheers. Sutherland stood surrounded by friends, family and guests, his arms crossed with a never-empty glass of bourbon in one hand, watching himself on TV.
Standing next to him was his father, Kerry Sutherland, beaming with pride. Kerry repeatedly pulled out his phone to show photos of Justin as a baby; as a child wearing a chef’s hat and apron; and plates of food he made for his family. Kerry talked about family chili cook-offs and hash-brown challenges, and Justin’s stepmother, Laura, shared a story about the time Justin prepared breakfast for all his friends at a sleepover.
A dinner guest pulled Sutherland away from the televisions to take a photo. Another asked him to autograph her copy of the night’s menu.
“Nights like this are happening more,” said Donald Gonzalez, culinary director of the restaurant group of which Sutherland is managing partner.
Since Sutherland got on the show, “it’s more buzz,” Gonzalez said. “More excitement.”
Cooking up a friendship
Young had been in town for a week, staying with Sutherland. The pair became “Top Chef” besties during the course of filming.
“We like cooking together, I don’t think it’s a secret,” Young said. “I don’t think that anybody else in the whole show is closer than Justin and I have become.”
Young had some fun in St. Paul, butchering and cooking, dining at In Bloom and partying with local chefs. Watching himself on television, though, wasn’t so fun. Especially this week’s episode, in which he was humiliated for a bad steak in the Elimination Challenge.
“It’s like watching movies of your dreams,” he said of watching the show. “It’s like a memory, and I get to literally watch it from an out-of-body experience. It’s very weird.”
Sutherland, however, fared well in the challenge, in which the chefs each cooked a different piece of beef. He got flank steak and tried to honor the meat by not doing too much to it. His steak with creamy polenta, braised mustard greens and local carrot purée landed him in the top three.
The volume went up on the TVs as the judges gave their feedback. They called his dish “nicely composed.” But when he didn’t win, the crowd let out a collective “Awwww.”
The bar burst into applause as the show’s the credits rolled. Sutherland smiled at his friends and fans.
“See you next week,” he said.