While other kids were reading comic books or graphic novels, Louis Maldonado was busy thumbing through his mother’s cookbooks.
“My mom had the ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ cookbooks and I would always read those,” he says. “I just liked looking at all the pictures of food.”
The research paid off. After studying at the California Culinary Academy, Maldonado, now 32, landed his first kitchen gig at One Market restaurant in San Francisco. He quickly scaled the Bay Area culinary ladder, cooking at the French Laundry, Aziza, Café Majestic and Cortez, which earned a Michelin star.
Now, as the executive chef at Spoonbar and Pizzando in Healdsburg, Maldonado’s mission is for diners to walk away and say, “It was almost too flavorful for me to eat,” he says.
The country knows him as the comeback kid on Bravo’s “Top Chef” reality TV show. He was the one who wouldn’t go away, winning a record eight “Last Chance Kitchen” elimination challenges. But at home he’s just Dad, a karate black belt, ultramarathoner and surprisingly, not the guy who cooks at family gatherings anymore.
THEN: Raised in Antioch and Pittsburg, Calif.; moved to Ukiah at age 17.
NOW: Healdsburg, with his wife, Sarah, and 5-year-old son, Benjamin
MUSIC ON THE WAY TO WORK: House, techno or Kanye West, basically “something loud and fast that has some bass in it.”
AFTER WORK: Otis Redding
MOST EXPENSIVE BLADE: $2,000 Suisun sushi knife
FAVORITE HEALDSBURG HANGOUT: Bergamot Alley
GO-TO DISH AT HOME: Tacos or quesadillas
SPOONBAR DISH OF WHICH HE’S MOST PROUD: Rice porridge finished with ground prawn and served with a miso puree
KITCHEN CATASTROPHE: “One Thanksgiving, I lit the turkey on fire. I basically coated it in butter and then I was going to slow-roast it and cook it in the barbecue. But the drip pan fell over and ignited the entire barbecue. Now, it’s not even spoken of; nobody even asks if I’ll cook.”
HOW LIFE WOULD BE DIFFERENT IF HE’D WON “TOP CHEF”: “Aside from the money, I don’t think I would have changed that much. I just had a conversation with (finalists) Nick (Elmi) and Nina (Compton) and I’m just as busy as they are; actually, I think I’m doing more than they are right now.”