The Port City’s Top Chef

Keith Rhodes' time to shine
Photo by Bryce Lafoon

Keith Rhodes, owner and master chef at Catch, was well-known locally before he joined the reality TV fray big time with Top Chef: Texas. Now back in Wilmington- for the most part- he reflects on the crazy journey to Top Chef.

January 2011: Rhodes starts receiving calls from the Magic Elves production company. At first, he hangs up on them, thinking it’s a telemarketer or a prank. They’re persistent though, asking him to send in a tape.

March 2011: “I kept putting it off, thinking they’d forget about it,” he said. When he learned they’d be in South Carolina for the Charleston Food Festival, he decides to go talk to them.

April 2011: Rhodes agrees to be on the show. “From that point on, they didn’t tell you a whole lot of anything,” he said. But soon, they fly him out to Texas. “It was some hardcore sequestering. I didn’t see anybody for a week,” he said. “I was trying not to make waves and doing all of the stuff I don’t do here, like watch TV and sleep.”

After two weeks of down time in Texas, he gets a call at 1 a.m.: Wheels up at 5:30 a.m. He soon finds himself in a passenger van packed with 15 to 20 chefs, which pulls up to the Alamo with two more vans.

“I get out of the van, the sun begins to rise and it’s hot. There are all these camera guys like snipers on top of the buildings,” he said. He looks at his fellow contestants wondering: “Who are these people?” And then they tell him he has to compete for a spot on the show. “I’m like, f*** this show,” he said.

But that was the point. “That’s how they want you to feel,” he said. “They want you to just chill down and then get you ultra-wound up. It happens that fast.”

He lands a spot on the series, and then moves into the communal house. “I’m a grown man. I’ve never had roommates,” he said. “And this, it was like living with my line cooks.”

Soon, he and a group of other contestants are working on a group challenge, and Rhodes takes the heat for some unfavorable food choices of frozen seafood and flour tortillas. The emphasis on the drama of team dynamics rather than culinary skill was frustrating. “At that point, you know, I’m like OK, this was fun, but I’m ready to go home,” he said.

July 2011: Being eliminated, though, doesn’t mean Rhodes can go home. The sequestered cast had lots of down time. “I watched more movies than I’ve seen in my entire life,” he said. Another benefit of the production mandates are many meals out in San Antonio restaurants, courtesy of the production company. Several days later, they film the scene of him packing his knives to go. He finds a letter among his things.

After they yell “Cut,” they shoot it again and this time Rhodes reads the letter, an invitation to compete in the “Last Chance Kitchen” aloud for the cameras. “Last Chance Kitchen” was the online show that pitted recently booted chefs against each other.

“You know, that was a lot of fun,” Rhodes said. “And a lot more interesting, I thought.” Rhodes won two of these battles, but ultimately didn’t earn a chance to return to the show.

Chef Keith Rhodes on Top Chef: Texas

August 2011: While Rhodes films, his wife Angela runs their restaurant, Catch, back in Wilmington. He’s allowed to call her a few times, but it’s hard to be away for so long. The production staff finally let him return home with the promise that he would be back as soon as they need him again.

November 2011: Top Chef: Texas premiers with Wilmington fans eager to show their support for the local chef. November, and especially December, is busy at Catch.

January 2012: Rhodes continues to travel for filming and other opportunities, such as serving as a North Carolina culinary ambassador for a national media blitz. He officially steps into the limelight. A fan recognizes him in the Chicago airport and another spots him entering a restaurant in New York City. “It seemed like everywhere I went, someone recognized me. That’s when it really started to resonate,” he said.

The production company flies him to Vancouver, where he is part of a team cooking with one of the final contestants on the series. This time, he gets to feel like a winner. “It felt really great to be picked, and to work with the master chefs on this team,” he said.

Now: Although his time on Top Chef: Texas is over, it’s not the end of the road. The phone is ringing for interviews with national magazines, for cookbook opportunities and still more travel. Back here at home, Rhodes is planning a series of beer dinners with North Carolina breweries and working on his new culinary ventures – food trucks and the Phun Seafood Bar downtown, which opened in February.