Mike Bergin is a sous chef at L’Espalier, and he's about to make his television debut on the new ABC show The Big Time. The show uses social media to find contestants looking to "achieve greatness in a specific field." Mike's episode pits different chefs against one another for a chance to be guest chef for one night at Hubert Keller’s Las Vegas restaurant Fleur, complete with his own menu and a house stacked with prominent Vegas chefs and food critics. Did he win? Mike knows, but we won't until the show airs on ABC on Saturday, February 18th at 3pm. But we did find out everything else.
In your own words, how does the show work? It was a competition between myself and two other chefs, and during the competition there was mentoring by chef Keller and Susan Fenigar from Street, which was really amazing to be able to have an opportunity to meet them and to work with them so closely. To be in competition, especially when they put you in places that you're not familiar or comfortable with, and dealing with mystery baskets and time restraints and stuff like that, it's pretty amazing. It's fun to do that and see what you can create.
How did you do? I really pushed myself to the limit and I was pretty happy with what I did and how I represented myself and Boston and my family and friends. All in all I felt like it was a success. And that was one of my biggest concerns about doing this: being able to represent myself and everybody else warmly and accurately.
What was casting like? How did you make it on? One day our PR person for L'Espalier called me and said "do you want to try out for this television show?" And I said oh, great, yeah. So we sent in a video clip and it was kind of a whirlwind after that. Two days later I got a phone call saying that I made final casting and that they would fly me out to LA for a week. I went to final casting, tried out with about 15 or 20 other chefs from around the world, and we had to do interviews with different people and a mystery basket kind of competition.
What was it like? They put us into this really tough kitchen; there wasn't a lot of equipment. We didn't have the luxuries that I have at L'Espalier and all the kinds of toys we have. There was a mystery basket and we had half an hour to come up with a dish, and we had to present that to the executive producers. That was the first time I'd ever done anything like that, and I was pretty successful at what I put together. I came back to Boston and no more than four or five days later they called and told me I made the show and that they would fly me out to Las Vegas to film.
How long were you gone from L'Espalier? Altogether, about two and half weeks.
How did they feel about that? Chef Frank [McClelland] and everybody, Matt Delisle, the other sous chef with me, everybody's just been really supportive from the start and they're really excited for me and for the restaurant, too. Like I said I wanted to make sure I represented everybody including myself in a good light, and I feel like I did that, and I felt like I was a good champion for L'Espalier.
Speaking of the restaurant, how's the new tea sommelier? Oh, Cynthia? She's very dedicated to tea. She's a fountain of knowledge about tea.
Was reality TV like you thought it would be? Not exactly. I'd be interviewing and talking in the present but they'd say "no, talk in the past tense!" Or "act as though something already happened." And I'd say "oh, I thought I did a really good job." And they'd say "you're hoping that you're going to be able to do a really good job." I'm sure a lot of video got wasted on me during that. It's reality but it's kind of not. You're doing it, but also you have people following you and filming you and always talking and asking questions. There was one point, I was so busy in one of these competitions, and don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for chefs Keller and chef Fenigar, but they came up and tried to ask me questions, and I said you know, chef, I'm really busy right now, if we can talk about this in five minutes after I get this done, I'd love to sit down and talk to you. I didn't just realize that this is the whole gig and that's part of the show.
So you know what happens, right? Yeah, I have a very good idea of what happens.
How does it feel to be walking around knowing the future before anyone else? It's definitely a unique position to be in. When I finished the show, one of the co-executive producers asked what I was going to do when I got home. I live with my girlfriend and we're really close and we communicate really openly, so I said well, I don't know: you guys tell me. And they're like oh, don't worry, we'll send over a confidentiality agreement. So I was able to spill the beans to her but other than that I haven't told anybody. It's tough, I want to tell about what went on and how I did. But I've done a very good job and I think I can hold out for one more week and a half.
What was the hardest part? Hmm... the hardest part would have to be the unknown. Everything is just so unknown, and all the anticipation, and fits of anxiety through it all because you were sequestered for more than a week and no cell phone, computer, laptop. You never really know what was ahead of you or where you were going. They'd bring us to certain locations to do certain competitions, and just a hundred thousand thoughts are running through my head and I'm thinking, okay, at this location, this theme must kind of go with this, and I'm thinking what kind of food are they going to through at me, and I'm kind of getting myself riled up, and then, finally get into the competition. I remember once thinking "I can't believe I'm sitting here doing this and half an hour ago I was thinking what would be a cool way to do a hot dog?"
Was there a time when you expected a hot dog? Yeah, I was thinking a hot dog and then I found myself breaking down salmon.
So one of your goals is to open your own restaurant. What would it be like? I'd love to have a small, 60-70 seat restaurant. Unique, very personable, a place where cooks and chefs want to eat and come to, a neighborhood feel to it, casual but refined.
I noticed you're a karaoke singer. Where do you like to go? I do sing karaoke from time to time. I've kind of given it up: I retired after I won $50 at Sissy K's on a Wednesday night. Couldn't get much higher after that.
So would you do it again? Would you be on another show? I think I would. It's a really fun experience, but it is really difficult to be sequestered with no communication between your family and your friends or your significant other. But I liked being a part of it and being thrown into the situations. I found out a little bit about myself when I was put into these positions, seeing how far I could go.
What did you make for that first mystery basket during casting? They gave everybody a full sheet tray with some scrappy cod, shrimp, tomatoes, bread, tomatoes, spaghetti, a little salt, pepper, a couple garlic cloves, two baby fennel, two baby carrots, three eggs, and Arborio rice. I asked "do have to use all of this?" And they said "no, no, no." And I said "great!" This kitchen had no equipment. I roasted the tomatoes with garlic and made a puree out of that in the bottom of the bowI. I roasted the pork loin with thyme and rosemary. I just put nice cuts on the baby fennel and used some celery leaves and fennel for a little garnish. I blanched the baby carrots and roasted them at the end with the pork and the fennel. Then I made a fried egg and punched it out with a cutter. They were pretty excited about it.