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Chad White: Before, during and after Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’

Chef Chad White operates the Zona Blanca ceviche counter at the Steel Barrel Taproom. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

He knew it was a risk.

Ceviche in Spokane? So far away from saltwater?

Never mind the Inland Northwest location. So many people here simply hadn’t heard of ceviche. It sounds exotic. And its main ingredient is something not everyone is into eating: raw fish.

“It’s a huge hard sell,” said Chad White, who first tried ceviche in Northern Baja California in the early 2000s and became obsessed with its bright, fresh flavor. It was unlike any dish he’d ever had, and it still is for many of his customers.

“It’s a unicorn commodity in this area,” White said. “It’s special. It’s seafood.”

It’s also “really easy to make.”

And White, who had just returned to Spokane after more than a decade away, “needed an income.” The restaurant location he liked – and that came with a lease he said he felt he could afford – didn’t have a commercial hood system, limiting what he was able to offer.

White had just appeared on season 13 of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where he prepared the likes of grilled thresher shark tacos with oyster and sea urchin salsa and ash-seared tuna with citrus, pickled beets, radish and black sesame.

So, he said, “I couldn’t come home and open a deli.”

White opened Zona Blanca (White Zone in Spanish), about six months after moving back from San Diego where he had made a name for himself in the restaurant scene. Since then, he’s had his ups and downs. The restaurant he came home hoping to open – Native Post and Provisions, celebrating Inland Northwest ingredients – remains a dream. And, despite its popularity among local foodies and out-of-town visitors, ceviche is a hard sell to some of this region’s die-hard meat-and-potato folks.

But White’s become a partner in the Spokane-based spice company Spiceology, traveling in recent months to Portland, Chicago and Las Vegas to promote the product. He’s focusing on growing that business as well as looking into ways to expand Zona Blanca to other states. He regularly donates dinners for charity, fetching thousands of dollars for those organizations.

And, on May 12 , he’s the featured presenter at the Dorothy Dean Home Cooking Show, sponsored by The Spokesman-Review and Yoke’s Fresh Markets. He’ll talk in depth about filming the popular culinary competition show and coming home to cook in the place where he was born and raised.

Before the show: Country music and Christian school

White, 35, was born at Spokane’s Deaconess Hospital and grew up on Sullivan Road where he went from playing with Tonka trucks to riding dirt bikes, snowmobiles and Jet Skis. “I was the type of kid who always needed to be outside doing something,” he said. “I was not an indoor kid.”

He was the oldest of three and, after church, their family – mom, stepdad, two sisters and White – would frequent Percy’s Cafe Americana, Coeur d’Alene Resort or Old Country Buffet.

“We went to church every single Sunday,” said White, who attended a small, private Christian school from preschool through sixth grade. “My family was very religious. Wednesday night was youth group. I was a youth leader.”

He was also “a picky eater,” his mom, Sonia Dilley, said. “He wouldn’t eat anything green. No lettuce. No salad. No green beans. No peas. He called them all ‘lettuce.’ ”

She could count on him to eat a couple of things. “He always loved cheese.” And, “he liked spaghetti.”

School wasn’t his forte. At Horizon Middle and Central Valley High schools, White said, “I was not a very good student. I was just not very focused in school. I didn’t finish some of my projects,” even in art, a subject he enjoyed. “I was,” he said, “kind of a wanderer.”

If he wasn’t outdoors, he liked to paint alongside his grandmother, Norma Jean Dilley, an artist. “She would set up a small easel for me when she would do her big paintings,” said White, who lived with his grandmother during high school.

All in all, “I had a great childhood. It was country music. It was fairs. It was home-cooking. It was country living.”

He would “cook to show off for girls or whatever” or to help his grandmother in the kitchen. But, he said, “There was never a calling for me in the kitchen.”

Except, his grandmother said, “when I called him.”

White’s sister, Shannon Olney, 34, of Spokane, recalls their grandmother cooking chicken dinners, meatloaf and steaks “all from scratch. Nothing was boxed. We were always sitting right there in front of her, watching what she did.”

White fell into his culinary career by enlisting in the U.S. Navy. on Sept. 11, a few months after graduation. “Something came over me, and I felt like ‘I’m going to join the military.’ … The only thing I qualified for was a cook.”

And, his mom said, “he was really depressed about it. He wasn’t very happy about the idea of being a cook.”

That sentiment didn’t last long. “It truly ended up being the love of his life,” she said. “He absolutely loved it once he got into it.”

He learned to make turkey a la king, Salisbury steak and mac and cheese for 600 to 700 sailors. He cooked for enlisted personnel at first but was soon promoted to making food for high-ranking enlisted sailors, then officers and the captain himself.

White was stationed in San Diego, where he married just before turning 21, started a family and began traveling to Mexico, where his now ex-wife is from and also where his grandfather still lives. It was during one of these trips that White first tasted ceviche. Popular in the coastal regions of Central and South America, the Caribbean and South Pacific, ceviche is made from fresh raw fish that’s cured in lime or lemon juice and typically mixed with ingredients such as onions, salt, cilantro and chili peppers.

After hot and humid spring day in, he believes, 2002, “I became kind of a ceviche geek. Everywhere I went, I had to have it.”

He also continued honing his culinary skills. An externship, or short-term work experience, in 2005 led to a job at San Diego’s famed Hotel del Coronado. White, then a third-class petty officer, applied for and received early termination from the military, working at the “Hotel Del” for two years. In 2007, he became the sous chef at the Doubletree Golf Resort and, after about six months, was promoted to executive chef.

He left in 2010 for Roseville, a brasserie that closed later that year. He also became a partner and chef at Sea Rocket Bistro, working there until it sold in 2014. During that time, White also helped open the now-closed Gabardine as well as three restaurants of his own: Comun Kitchen and Craft Pizza Co., both in San Diego, and La Justina in Tijuana.

During the show: Sequestered without a cellphone

He got the call in early 2015.

“I didn’t apply,” White said. “I was scouted. Somebody had been saying, ‘Chad White needs to be on the show.’ ”

Vetting for “Top Chef” took about four weeks and included a polygraph test and psychological testing, he said. “They asked all kinds of questions to see how you would respond.” And those questions, White said, often seemed meant to ruffle feathers. “They want to see how you react.”

White made the cut.

“They send you a package, and tell you when and where to be, and fly you to LA. There’s somebody waiting for you. They take you to a hotel. They sequester you. They take away your phone, your wallet, your ID, everything. You’re pretty much the property of NBCUniversal at that point.”

There’s little privacy and lots of rules. Contestants can’t bring much with them. “You can only bring X amount of tools. You can only have this many knives,” he said. “They go through everything.”

Filming lasted seven weeks.

“You’re sleep deprived,” White said. “You share a room. They remove the alarm, the TV. They wake you up. You’re stressed out. You’re hungry. It’s a very emotional period. It’s just a lot. It was hard.”

It was, he said, a little like being in the Navy, “except you had an alarm in the Navy” and a phone. White said he got to use the phone twice during filming. He called his mom, daughters, business partner and then-girlfriend. The calls were recorded.

“They don’t want you saying anything about the show,” White said. “They have a camera in your face while you are talking. It’s pretty intense.”

At the same time, “It’s fun. We’re all chefs. We’re getting to know each other. You become this ‘Top Chef’ family. Once a ‘Top Chef,’ always a ‘Top Chef.’ ”

They’ve stayed in touch, too, and White has managed to visit most of them since the show ended.

It’s an experience he would do again. In fact, “I would like to be on another show. I would like to have my own show.”

His season of “Top Chef” was still airing when he moved back to Spokane in December 2015, and there was, White said, “a huge amount of buzz” in local and California media.

White had been away for 14 years, or about half of his youngest sister’s life, visiting just five times, he said, during that entire time. Two were to cook at his sisters’ weddings.

But, his youngest sister, Amanda “Mandy” Vahlkamp, 30, said, “he has a genuine love for this place and his hometown and his roots.”

Each time he returned, he said, he would check out dining options in and around Spokane and felt “underwhelmed by the food.”

Still, during his last several visits, he began to notice more locally owned restaurants, more chef-owned restaurants, more restaurants that purposely don’t feature deep-fat fryers or microwaves in their kitchens. He began thinking about coming home and contributing to the up-and-coming culinary scene.

When he decided to return, his mom said, “it happened very quickly.” It was exciting – if not a little surreal – when he would be recognized.

“He went to church with me one Sunday, and this lady goes, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re Chad White!’ and we were just kind of standing there. She was so excited. And, of course, she came running over. She recognized him from the show. She said, ‘I watch the show all the time.’ ”

Sometimes, their family would watch it together. “It was exciting,” his mom said, “when he won the thing for the week. I think it was the fish tacos that he made that they really liked.”

In episode six, White won the Sudden Death Quickfire Challenge in which contestants were challenged to prepare fish tacos.

“It was weird,” Olney said, “seeing your sibling on TV. His personality and everything was the same. I would be watching and think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Chad.’

“When he moved back to Spokane, the first few weeks, we’d go out to dinner and you’d see people staring at him and it was odd. He’s just my brother. It’s just Chad. It’s no big deal.”

After the show: Homecoming

Before the show, White said his name “would reach to Orange County and Los Angeles or Palm Springs.” Since the show, he’s been recognized on the streets of Seattle and Portland, New York City, Kansas City, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

“Now I’m a national brand. My name is known. People stop me on the street and say, ‘We saw you on the show. We were rooting for you.’ ”

Sometimes, they ask to touch the beard.

White kept what’s become his signature, ruddy beard pretty short for the first few years. He started growing it longer in 2012, mostly, he said, just to see if he could. “I grew it, and I was like, ‘OK, this looks cool. I like it.’ ”

These days, people – mostly strangers in bars – will touch it without asking, something White doesn’t particularly enjoy. He would prefer if people ask first.

All the buzz about the show and his homecoming didn’t always work in his favor. When he was scouting locations for the Inland Northwest-focused restaurant he planned to open, “I felt like I was being up-charged,” he said. “They were charging Seattle rates.”

Native Post and Provisions remains “on the back burner.” White said he still hasn’t found “the perfect spot.” Plus, he’s really busy.

He closed Comun, but remains a partner in Craft Pizza and La Justina. He opened Zona Blanca in spring 2016 in the back nook of Steel Barrel Taproom, where, he said, “We’re still serving people daily who’ve never had ceviche.”

He’s traveling frequently in his new role as partner and marketing director for Spiceology, the fast-growing Spokane spice company, as well as to see his daughters, Sophia, 11 and Isabella, almost 13, who live with their mom in SoCal.

“They’re both really respectful girls,” White said. “They work hard in school and their sports. I’m so blessed.”

His own father left when he was a toddler, and his mom remarried when he was still quite young. But his biological dad’s absence made an impact on his growing up as well as his own approach to parenting.

“If I say I’m going to call, I call,” he said. “If I say I’m going to send a gift, I send a gift. If I say I’m going to come, I come.”

And he has other restaurant concepts in mind. He’s been considering a limited-seating spot called Tide and Tonic, specializing in oysters and gin. He’s also interested in possibly opening a barbecue joint.

Meantime, he’s training for a 300-mile charity bicycle trip, Chefs Cycle, a benefit for No Kid Hungry, in Virginia in September.

Locally, he’s donated dinners to the Junior League of Spokane, Big Table, Central Valley and Lewis and Clark high schools, Humane Society of Spokane, and Mobius.

There are times, he said, Spokane feels small and thinks small. “It takes forever to get anything done. People don’t like change.”

At the same time, that small-town feel is one of the things he said he loves about his hometown.

“It’s been very nostalgic coming home,” White said. “There are a lot of very happy memories for me in this city. I love it here. I’ve lived in a big city where you’re just a number. Here, a handshake means something. People remember your name. And people are, for the most part, very honest.”

White said he hopes to see Spokane’s food scene continue to expand and evolve with “more brick-and-mortar, smaller restaurants where the craft means something, where the chef is cooking what the chef wants to cook. More chef-owned restaurants would be great.”

He stops at Zona Blanca if he’s craving ceviche or, on Monday nights, a round of trivia or game of darts.

At home on Spokane’s South Hill, halfway between his sisters’ houses, he regularly eats something he didn’t enjoy as a boy: “a lot of vegetables.”

And, he said, “I grill a lot.”

On a recent warm spring weeknight, after grilling a medley of meats and veggies – chicken, chilies, yams, a rack of lamb – he was sitting on his back patio with the sliding door open. His grandma, mom and sisters were gathered inside, finishing dinner.

“This,” he said, “is my happy place.”