She had them at her panna cotta. But she didn't have the heart to keep going.
Malika Ameen, 35, the lone Chicago contestant on Bravo's "Top Chef: Just Desserts" walked away from the competition on Wednesday's episode, citing her dislike of "cooking in a competitive environment." Ameen dropped the bombshell just as Gale Gand, a guest judge and fellow Chicagoan, was offering generous praise for Ameen's saffron-scented panna cotta.
"I think I'm the least of the group who wants to be 'Top Chef' and that's unfair," Ameen later told her fellow contestants.
Ameen, a divorced mom to three young boys (her ex-husband was the chef at their now-shuttered River North restaurant Aigre Doux), says she still doesn't regret her decision to quit, something she'd hinted at in the previous episode. "It was what I felt was right at the time," she said by phone today.
The toughest part, Ameen says, was anticipating how her family would react. She called her mom, "and much to my dismay, she was grocery shopping," instead of watching the show, Ameen said. Later, after her mom had watched and digested the episode, the two talked.
So why did she bother going on "Top Chef" in the first place, if competitive cooking isn't her cup of tea? "To me, it was taking another step forward in my life. It was really outside of the box of what I'd do," she said.
Ameen's departure wasn't the only shocker. Seth Caro, viewed by many of the other competitors as a loose cannon in the kitchen, was physically removed from the set, and the show, after suffering a panic attack.
Ameen was empathetic. "I felt very badly for him. I think clearly he had some very big emotional or mental issues going on, and unfortunately, they all came to fruition on national television."
After just four episodes, the dessert spinoff is proving to be one of the most entertaining in the "Top Chef" franchise. Ameen says it's not surprising.
"Pastry chefs are wired very differently," Ameen said. "We are used to working in very controlled environment with formulas and recipes, and when you take us out of that element . . . We're just rigged differently."
Top Chef groupies can find Ameen plowing ahead with her custom dessert business, By M Desserts. Her home base: the kitchen at Pasticceria Natalina, 5406 N. Clark, owned by her friend and fellow pastry chef Natalie Zarzour.