Richmond native and star chef Brittanny Anderson never imagined herself on Bravo’s cooking competition series “Top Chef” for a simple reason.
“Watching ‘Top Chef’ used to give me anxiety as a cook,” she says. “It wasn’t a relaxing viewing experience. I was feeling for the contestants, like, ‘Oh, man, that was so hard!’”
But in 2020, the chef and co-owner of Richmond’s Metzger Bar & Butchery in Church Hill and Brenner Pass and Black Lodge in Scott’s Addition (plus Leni in Washington, D.C.) got invited to be on “Top Chef,” and she said yes. What changed her mind?
“I have friends who’ve been on ‘Top Chef,’ and I’ve always kind of envied the family that they cultivate with the other contestants,” Anderson says. “It seems like you gain a very supportive group of people who have been through an experience that only a few people have been through, so it creates really long-lasting bonds.”
And when you’re a restaurateur seeking out new investors or even to draw in new diners, being able to say you competed on “Top Chef” can burnish one’s reputation.
For the winning chef, there’s also a $250,000 cash prize, plus a feature in Food & Wine magazine and a spot at its annual food festival in Aspen.
But for Anderson, it’s more about the daily mission of any restaurant owner: customers.
“‘Top Chef’ is a very big platform,” Anderson says. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase what you do and kind of get butts in [restaurant] seats, as they say.”
For the past year, that’s been more difficult than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but March 25, Anderson reopened Brenner Pass and Metzger (with heated patio seating); Black Lodge continues to offer takeout and delivery.
The pandemic also required changes to “Top Chef” filming, which took place in September and October in Portland, Ore. Regular “Top Chef” viewers will notice a larger-than-usual kitchen set built for the Quickfire Challenges inside the enormous Portland Expo Center, which hosted RV shows in its cavernous space pre-pandemic.
“With COVID, it definitely changes the experience a lot,” Anderson says. “For me, the biggest change was the shopping experience. We did not get to go into Whole Foods and shop, which I think changes the way that you can cook.”
Anderson said the show’s COVID-19 safety protocols made her feel safe. Rather than sharing a house with other contestants, the norm on previous seasons, Anderson says each contestant had his or her own hotel room while the show was in production.
Anderson, who now lives in Hanover County, grew up in Richmond’s West End and in the Northern Neck, attending several high schools before graduating from Lee-Davis High School, now Mechanicsville High School.
Although she’s worked in restaurants since she was 14, Anderson got her first cook job while attending Virginia Commonwealth University.
“As I got better at it, I thought, ‘Maybe I should go to culinary school,’” recalls Anderson, 38. She graduated from The French Culinary Institute in Manhattan in 2009.
“I grew up in a family that loves to eat and likes country-kind-of-cooking and also a lot of seafood because we grew up near the bay and the Northern Neck,” Anderson says. “When I started working in restaurants, I just super-loved the theatricality of it, that we’re putting on a show and a party every night, and I love a party. Even when I was 14, it felt like a magical universe, like a club that was a really special one to get into, and I just wanted to be a part of it in Richmond.”
After culinary school in New York, Anderson intended to return to Richmond in 2010 and open a Southern restaurant, but around the same time, a lot of other Southern restaurants started opening.
She got involved in butchery and sausage-making, which took her down a “German path” that resulted in Metzger.
“And then I feel like it was a natural jump into Alpine cuisine from the German stuff,” Anderson says. “Our restaurant Brenner Pass is named after the road that connects Germany and Austria to Italy.”
Anderson, who previously appeared on Food Network’s “Chopped” in 2012 and “Iron Chef America” in 2018, brings her love of Alpine cuisine to the premiere episode of season 18 of “Top Chef,” contributing Gruyere cheese to the first Quickfire Challenge that lives up to its name when the other two ingredients are revealed to be chocolate and caul fat.
“We definitely got the hardest three ingredients to pair together,” Anderson says. “You’ve just met these people, you’re thrown together to cook with them, you’re trying to assert yourself, but you don’t know how far to assert yourself or should you really just go with the flow.”
While her past TV appearances taped over a day or two, Anderson says the isolation of a longer-term shoot on “Top Chef” proved daunting as did expressing herself through her cooking in a high-pressure environment.
“The hardest part for me was having to really dig deep and try to define what makes my food my food,” she says. “Why is this something that equals who I am? For every chef on the show, it really changes your perspective of what cooking is to you, what food is to you, and what’s important in your food. I definitely learned a lot about myself and my food. It’s a mental game, 100%.”
Samantha Hanks, executive vice president of casting and talent relations for “Top Chef” production company Magical Elves, says Anderson was a favorite for casting in season 18 early in the process.
“Her unique cuisine and depth of knowledge was wonderful to see,” Hanks says. “Plus, her commitment to her kitchen and craft perfectly aligned with what we look for on ‘Top Chef.’ Brittanny has revitalized the food scene in Richmond, and we were thrilled to be able to showcase her talent this season.”
Anderson calls her appearance on “Top Chef” a life-changing experience.
“I definitely think it’s changed what I might do next,” she says. “It’s made me feel a little more open to try new things, cooking something that maybe feels more personal to me.”
Might she revisit that concept for a Southern food-themed restaurant?
“Who knows?” Anderson says, laughing, in a way that suggests she knows exactly what she wants to do next, whatever kind of restaurant that turns out to be. “I definitely have plans, but nothing that’s official.”
Rob Owen is a former Richmond Times-Dispatch staff writer. He can be reached at RobOwenTV@gmail.com or on Facebook and Twitter as @RobOwenTV.