A plan was hatched. The moment his name was announced, they'd jump-tackle him onstage, ruffle his Mohawk on live television. That's how sure the other contestants were that Dale Levitski would win "Top Chef." Levitski would accept the $100,000 -- money that would help launch his downtown Chicago restaurant, his dream restaurant, an upscale diner called Town & Country.

It was written in stone. Levitski sailed through auditions for the Bravo cooking competition on charm, and through 14 episodes on ability. His pedigree was golden: Deleece, Blackbird, and head chef at La Tache and the acclaimed Trio Atelier.

Then the host announced the winner, and it was someone else. Second place wins nothing, and Levitski came home with $50, all he had. The months dragged, and Town & Country drifted from his grasp. With no income, he was evicted from his apartment. Then came word about his mother: Doctors found a lump in her breast. The depression came, the weight packed on, he alienated his closest friends. How did it go wrong for a chef on the verge of becoming the next Rick Bayless or Charlie Trotter?


Henry Adaniya found his man in a sandwich.

The owner of Evanston's Trio was looking to replace Grant Achatz, who was leaving to open Alinea, the Lincoln Park restaurant that would be named best in America. Adaniya was rebranding Trio as Trio Atelier, a more casual, bistro version of its avant-garde former self.

It was 2004, and Adaniya found him at La Tache, the Andersonville bistro where Levitski was chef.

In his croque monsieur, Adaniya saw a revelation.

"Dale saw something in food that most people don't -- this emotional factor that food can have," Adaniya said. "That croque monsieur hit me right (on) the breastbone."

In Levitski's hands, the classic French sandwich became a playful interpretation -- rosemary ham, with aged Cheddar inside and outside the bread, cooked in a way that one can't tell when the crisp halo of cheese stopped and the sandwich started.

"That was why I hired him," Adaniya said.

For 18 months at Trio Atelier, Levitski cooked the best food of his life. Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel awarded him three stars, writing "Levitski has risen to the challenge."

But in January 2006, Adaniya gathered his staff and announced the restaurant would close after 12 years.

"I cried," Levitski said. "The day the doors to Trio shut, something in me shut down."

Levitski moved on with an ambitious concept in mind: a 200-seat, breakfast-to-dinner diner downtown called Town & Country.

Around that time, Levitski found himself yelling at the TV whenever "Top Chef" aired. He was also coming out of a painful breakup with his boyfriend. Motivated to move past the relationship, he told himself: "I could out-cook anyone on this show."

He almost did. He was cast in the show's third season, in 2007, then strode past the field into the show's final three. After cooking four courses in the finale (including a poached Colorado lamb with eggplant puree that stunned judges), Levitski thought he'd won.

The host announced the winner's name, and it was ... someone else.

Levitski didn't care as much about the "Top Chef" title. He needed the money to stay afloat. This is one of the falsehoods of the culinary world, that chefs rake in the money. Even in the whitest of white tablecloth restaurants, the size of the kitchen staff means chefs are paid menial wages -- a $25,000-a-year salary for a cook would be generous.