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Reality TV Show Contestant Pursues Dream in Restaurant Business

Reality television shows can make people instant celebrities, and a young contestant from the reality show Top Chef is making the most of his time in the spotlight. Mike O'Sullivan reports, Stephen Asprinio is realizing a lifelong dream of running his own restaurant.

The 26-year-old Florida native fell in love with cooking at an early age. Asprinio is Italian American and says food and wine were important parts of his family's social life. He took a part-time cooking job in high school and he loved it.

He attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, then learned the business side of the hospitality industry at Cornell University. Two years ago, while he was working in Las Vegas as a sommelier, or wine steward, he auditioned for the first season of the competitive cooking show Top Chef on the Bravo cable network.

Contestants did battle in a kitchen in San Francisco, while celebrity chefs and a food critic judged their culinary creations. Asprinio was brash and confident, and some fans of the show liked him, while others did not. One Internet reviewer called him the obnoxious wine guy, and several dubbed him the resident scoundrel.

"I wasn't the mean guy, but I was the elitist guy, like I knew how good I was," he said. "I was very vocal about it. I did very well on the show, though. I think one thing was, people could say, he was a little arrogant, he was elitist, but no one could say, he didn't know what he was talking about."

Asprinio did not win the Top Chef title, but got the exposure he needed. He had become a celebrity, and started getting offers from wealthy admirers who wanted to team up as business partners.

"People come to you, they see you on TV [and say] oh, I want to open a restaurant with you," Asprinio said. "We've got to go to New York, we've got to go to Los Angeles. We've got to do this project."

As the excitement died down, the deals were never completed, until one serious investor came through with the needed financing. Asprinio designed the décor himself and opened the restaurant, called Forté di Asprinio, in West Palm Beach, Florida, two months ago. He offers his own interpretation of modern Italian food in what he calls a chic, contemporary setting.

He says running the restaurant is exciting but challenging.

"Just to be dealing with all the employees. Like right now, currently in my one restaurant that I have, I have 50 employees, and all their different personalities," Asprinio said. "And each night, we have 200 guests with all their personalities and demands and needs and wants. And you want everything to be perfect, and then you have plumbing problems and a light goes out and a cook cuts himself and has to go home."

Asprinio loves the daily drama, and says that the conflicts viewers see on reality cooking shows are really a part of the business. He says that for him, appearing on television was an important step in his plan of getting a restaurant.

"What my agenda was on the show was to get across to the America public, this is what I know, this is where I'm going, and this is what the future holds for me," he said. "So look out, America. Here comes Stephen Asprinio."

Asprinio's rival on Top Chef, the show's first season winner Harold Dieterle, has opened a restaurant in New York called Perilla. It has earned good reviews and generated attention because of Dieterle's fame from the show.

Asprinio says the restaurant business is highly competitive, especially with today's rising food and fuel prices. And he says he now realizes just how difficult it is to get a restaurant up and running. But always self-assured, Asprinio says he is confident his first restaurant will succeed, and that he plans to open others in major U.S. cities and a wine bar in Los Angeles.