Thursday, March 3, 2011

Top Chef Genealogist: Megan Smolenyak

Last night the reality program 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 Contestants

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.

The heritage moment/reunion was well-done and enjoyable but, of course, had to come to an end so that the contestants could get back to the business of the competition.  Despite not be very experienced with reality cooking shows I found the episode to be a lot of fun.

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.


  1. sounds like an interesting show.

  2. I'm happy to see this cross over two of favorite loves: genealogy & cooking!

  3. Top Chef, the various international Master Chefs, and nearly every cooking reality show to cross my dh's path...they are staples in our house! Looking forward to watching this episode, most likely this weekend. Very, very nice to see family history integrated with other entertainment interests!

  4. What a great idea to incorporate heritage meals into the competition! I would have loved to have seen the show. I bet Megan had fun with this one. Thanks for sharing Marian!

  5. I'm a big fan of all the Top Chef shows and really enjoyed the genealogy stories of the contestants. Unless I missed it, I don't think Padma gave Megan recognition for doing the research. I think she just said something about a famous genealogist. I hope I'm wrong.

  6. Marian,

    Thank you for this blog post. I didn't watch the live version of the show, but HAD to watch it On Demand.

    What a great show! The task of linking Cooking to their heritage was wonderful.

    I saw where Megan averaged 19.5 hours a day, for that show was enlightening. (but not surprising). But to think about how much research had to be done for those you were eliminated before these 5 Top Chefs is probably an amazing amount or research.

    The reaction of the Family and Judges as each plate was put before them was awesome. You just can't make that stuff up. Each Top Chef "pulled it off". From what this viewer could tell, they really did relay on their heritage for their dish.

    The best part was the final decision.

    When those books were handed to the contestant, I knew who had prepared those books.

    What an honor to know both you, and Megan is beyond words.

    Thank you,


  7. I know that this is a touchy subject and (Please) I don't want to create a war of words,but is there an easy way to ask/find out the nationality of someone who says they are 25% Jewish when they, as Antonia's family did, replace the nationality with a religion. It would be the same question if she said she was 25% Polish and 75% Catholic.


  8. PS.

    I really appreciate this Blog and love Top Chef and Who do You think you are?

    Bob Again

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Wow, genealogy is moving so fast in some ways it is hard to keep up with all the neat new adventures.
    Side Bar is I have talked Medical Genealogy for several years and now I see Curt W. is going to be addressing this issue in the near future. Wonder if we could address a go in that direction.

  11. I just watched this episode today. I don't watch Top Chef but DVR'd that episode when I heard it was "genealogy-based". I wish they gave Megan credit for the work she did on the show. The show just mentioned a (well known, famous or professional...not sure which word) genealogist did their ancestry, and mentioned it was a she. This episode could've been partly sponsored by! But hopefully it's a way to get more people interested in genealogy!

  12. This was a fantastic episode. As an individual who is very interested in learning more about her own ancestral roots and more about my husband's (to pass along to our daughters!), I wonder how you go about researching your family tree (besides Google, etc.). Is it feasible to hire someone like Megan to do this type of research? If so, can you advise? I would love to do this. Actually that's how I got to your article: googling "top chef genealogist"... ha! Thanks for the article. -Julie W.

  13. Julie,

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. You can contact Megan through her website -

    Though I'm not sure if she takes private clients. One great way to get started is to read an introductory book. Megan has a very readable one that you can find here

    You can also read the book review I wrote about it.

    If you want to hire a professional genealogist to help you I would try to pick someone local to get you started. You can find Certified Genealogists here:

    Good luck with your family history and come back if you have any more questions!