When Season 3 of Bravo's Top Chef premieres on June 13, lesbian viewers will have one of their own to root for again: 39-year-old Sandee Birdsong. (And, much like last season's Josie Smith-Malave, she's the Top Chef hopeful with the snazzy haircut.)
Originally from St. Simons Island, Ga., Birdsong now lives in Miami, the city hosting this season's competition. She is a self-taught chef, as are seven of the other competitors (there are 15 in all to begin with). But don't let that fool you into thinking there are any amateurs here.
"The new chefs bring an undeniably high level of talent and expertise to the table this season," said head judge Tom Colicchio in a press release, and Birdsong concurred.
"The caliber of chefs that they got for this season is absolutely fantastic," she told AfterEllen.com. "The skill level is amazing! Everybody was so confident in their ability, and that was great because it really took this show to another level."
The show's producers have found creative new ways to test the chefs' abilities this season. In the first episode, for instance, the competitors are just getting to know each other over hors d'oeuvres and champagne at the former Versace mansion when ever-smiling host Padma Lakshmi informs them that they have 15 minutes to assemble an amuse bouche from whatever buffet items have survived their grazing. Later they face an elimination challenge involving a grisly array of glistening "proteins" that can't possibly be easy to work with, let alone stomach.
But these are precisely the kinds of punishing challenges these foodies signed up for. And Birdsong is no stranger to challenge.
Though she worked for 15 years as a personal chef, Birdsong had no commercial kitchen experience when she first began to work at Tantra, the Miami restaurant she now headlines. She simply stopped in one day and — thanks to her sheer passion and persuasiveness — convinced the head chef at the time to give her a shot, even though the only thing she could claim to know about the profession was that it was her calling.
He offered her three days without pay as a line cook. Within just two weeks, he was so impressed that he made her kitchen manager.
Birdsong is now executive chef at Tantra, a fine dining establishment that serves "aphrodisiac cuisine" and has grass-covered floors, flowing-water walls and ceilings decorated with fiber-optic shooting stars. It's the only restaurant she has ever worked in.
"If you go to culinary school, you automatically get to learn the A-to-Z of cooking, and that was something I don't really have under my belt," Birdsong admitted. "I'm having to learn it from trial and error, and books." She has read every culinary-themed book she's managed to get her hands on.
If other Top Chef contestants underestimated Birdsong because she lacks formal training, it only worked to her advantage, she said. She happens to be a third-degree black belt in karate, a sport that taught her never to underestimate her opponents. "Every time I went into a match and thought, 'Oh yeah, she looks easy to beat,' that was always the one that kicked my ass," she said.
Luckily the Top Chef team was persistent in its efforts to recruit Birdsong for Season 3, because she didn't get back to them after they left several voicemails and emails. "But one night I was in the kitchen, and my phone was ringing in my pocket," she recalled, "and I just grabbed it without looking at the number. I answered it and it was them. They convinced me to come talk to them, and I guess I made the cut."
By that time the competition was set to begin in just a couple of weeks, so Birdsong did the one thing she could do to prepare: She bought 30 pairs of underwear. "You're going for so long and you might not be able to wash your clothes," she explained.