Top Chef on Bravo did just what I love most. They incorporated a segment on genealogy into one of their episodes. I love that mainstream television is catching on to how much fun genealogy and family history is. I want to see more programs feature family history research about their stars. Another person who feels the same way as I do is internationally-known genealogist, Megan Smolenyak. Megan compiled the family history featured in last night's show.
So what is Top Chef all about? I have to admit that before last night I had never watched the show. I was eagerly awaiting the episode, yet with great hesitation, not knowing how they were going to handle family history. Looking back, considering it was a cooking show, they gave more than expected.
The show features famous chefs who are competing for the Top Chef title with eliminations being made each week. On this episode the five remaining chefs had to compete by preparing food quickly on the short ferry ride over to Ellis Island. Once they arrived, however, the family history began.
The show's host, Padma Lakshmi, told the contestants that for their next competition they would be creating heritage meals based on their ancestry. Next, parents or spouses of the contestants walked out and gave them books with their family history compiled by Megan Smolenyak.
The next part of the show was more sentimental and emotional as the contestants reunited with the loved ones and spent time learning about their heritage. The contestants included:
Tiffany Derry from Dallas, TX who decided to cook a southern dish based on her southern roots.
Richard Blais from Atlanta, GA who discovered his English and Irish roots.
Michael Isabella from Washington D.C. who focused in on his Italian heritage despite the fact that he normally doesn't cook Italian cuisine.
Carla Hall from Washington D.C. who also connected with her southern roots for the heritage cuisine contest.
Antonia Lofaso from Los Angeles, CA who discovered her 3/4 Italian and 1/4 Jewish heritage. She decided to focus on Italian cuisine for the competition.
Megan Smolenyak - The Research Behind the Show
I had the opportunity to interview Megan briefly this morning about her involvement with the show.
Megan described a whirlwind research project where she had less than a month to research numerous cast members. In the week before the project deadline she was able to have some contact with family members to gather further information and photographs. Megan conducted the genealogical research without having a specific goal set by the television producers. She went back as far as she could given the very brief time she had. She then summarized the history and the most interesting stories for the producers. She did not get to speak with the contestants themselves during her work.
On average Megan was able to get back five generations to reveal information about the great, grandparents of the show's contestants. One of the interesting tidbits discovered was that two of the contestants, Antonia Lofaso and Michael Isabella area likely distant cousins, both having ancestry within the Antonacci family of Italy.
For another contestant, Carla Hall, Megan was able to tell her of her strong southern roots in South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, Alabama and Tennessee. She revealed that one of Carla's paternal great grandfathers was a free man of color born in Georgia who owned his own printing business. And a great grandfather on Carla's maternal side from Tennessee served with the US Colored Troops during the Civil War.
Megan loves to get the word out about genealogy and encourages everyone to start exploring their family history. She would like to see more shows, particularly those focused on fashion, food and home design, feature more heritage inspired content like we saw on Top Chef last night.