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April 23, 2014

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As ‘Top Chef’ approaches, revisiting the myth of Marcel

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Beverly Poppe

Marcel Vigneron was in fine foam on Season 2 of “Top Chef.”

(Note to you, the reader: This piece is part of LasVegasWeekly.com’s “Top Chef” countdown. Click here for the day-by-day installations leading up to the show’s premiere on Bravo at 9 p.m. Wednesday.)

He was the tablespoon of cayenne dumped into the Season 2 “Top Chef” stew. The most-popular but least-liked contestant, Wolverine-maned Marcel Vigneron, was by happy coincidence a Las Vegas resident during that memorable 2006-2007 season.

During the airing of Season 2 of the Bravo culinary contest phenomenon, Vigneron was a master cook at Joel Robuchon at the Mansion at MGM Grand. He immediately caused a stir, and not only while wielding a wooden spoon. So nifty with the grater, Vigneron was similarly grating on his fellow contestants. Maybe it was his cocksure attitude. Maybe it was his strange fascination with foams. Maybe it was his wildly exaggerated pompadour. Whatever the reason, Vigneron was the focus of a prank that seemed more like a deleted scene from “Animal House” than anything related to culinary artistry.

For those who don’t recall, midway through Season 2, Elia Aboumrad -- herself a Las Vegan who at the time was an assistant room chef at The Hotel at Mandalay Place -- confided that she’d always wanted to shave her head. It was a tragic confession, as Aboumrad at the time had a beautiful head of long, loose black curls. During a night of drunken buffoonery, she and Ilan Hall finally did shave their heads for the cameras. But not satisfied, fellow contestant Cliff Crooks (whose disdain for Vigneron seemed unmatched by anyone on the show) seized the Norelco and took after a sleeping Vigneron. As Hall and Sam Talbot goaded him on and the camera crew trailed, Crooks attempted to shave Vigneron’s famed plume of hair. Vigneron managed to fend off Crooks, but the episode so enraged head judge Tom Colicchio that he pushed for the entire foursome of Crooks, Hall, Talbot and Aboumrad to be disqualified from the show. As Colicchio wrote at the time, “For the first time all season, the producers stepped in with a veto.”

Only Crooks, who had violated the series’ written rules of protocol (which state, in effect, don’t go shaving the heads of chefs no matter how appealing the concept), was told to pack his knives. But if Colicchio had gotten his way, the show would have had a champion other than Hall, who did beat out Vigneron, Talbot and Aboumrad among the show’s final four.

By the time the show reached the final two of Hall and Vigneron during the show’s two-hour finale from Hawaii, I was actually hoping Marcel would pull it out, just to toss some spice into the series. I remember what Vigneron said the week after the hair-clipping incident, “I consider myself pretty decent, likable and sociable. What happened? Why was I an outcast? I don’t know. There was no incident that caused this.” In one unfortunate moment after the show aired, a woman at a nightclub approached him and asked if he was Marcel from “Top Chef.” As he recalled soon after the January 2007 incident, “The next thing I knew, this bottle struck me, and my friends had to rush me to the hospital. I needed 30 stitches for this.”

Having checked out of Las Vegas, Vigneron has made a few missteps since his eventful Season 2 appearance. A year ago, he was pulled over in Laguna Beach, on Pacific Coast Highway, on suspicion of DUI while he was on his way to a cooking demonstration (he was booked and released on $2,500 bail). But at age 29, Vigneron is still a chef -- sous chef, actually, at The Bazaar by Jose Andres at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. Pretty swank for a guy who took second in “Top Chef” but overpowered the entire dish. And Vigneron still knows how to raise the flame. On Wednesday, I attempted to reach him through an intermediary for an update on his life, career and thoughts about the upcoming Las Vegas season.

When Vigneron was asked about taking some time to field questions, he responded that he wanted to be compensated for his “time and opinion.”

Compensated? For his time and opinion? How about, as compensation, our recipe for Double-Flip Birdie Surprise?

Now where’s that Norelco?

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