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Originally published Wednesday, March 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Top Chef" contestant sharpened her skills at Dahlia Lounge

In tonight's season premiere of Bravo's "Top Chef," Seattle native and former Dahlia Lounge cook Zoi Antonitsas dishes the season's first...

Seattle Times staff reporter

On TV

"Top Chef" The fourth season, filmed in Chicago, premieres at 10 tonight on Bravo.

In tonight's season premiere of Bravo's "Top Chef," Seattle native and former Dahlia Lounge cook Zoi Antonitsas dishes the season's first plot twist, one that caused a few jaw-dropping reactions and one snarky remark.

Later, Antonitsas also drew the most challenging dish to cook, in the elimination challenge, no less.

Talk about a television debut.

So did Antonitsas feel overwhelmed? Puh-lese.

At 16, this Franklin High student was a prep cook for Tom Douglas at Dahlia Lounge during the summer, which turned out to be pretty good training ground for her reality competition 14 years later.

"It was crazy. It felt really competitive, almost like a sport," remembers Antonitsas. The wide-eyed Antonitsas quickly learned that the Dahlia Lounge wasn't like home-economics class.

"I cut my finger. I knew how to use a knife, but you have a time frame to work under. You have x amount of hours until service starts and x amount of time to prep. It was a lot of pressure for a kid," said Antonitsas, who, with the help of her mother, had convinced Douglas to give her a shot.

Up until then, her cooking experience consisted mostly of making chef salads and sandwiches under the broiler for her younger sister after school.

Antonitsas went on to cook at Etta's and returned to Dahlia Lounge with stints at the Alibi Room and Marjorie before moving to San Francisco in 2000.

"She was a pistol," said Douglas. "She was never shy. Very inquisitive. She turned out to be a fabulous cook. She has the talent to run her own restaurant. I think she is going to do fine [on "Top Chef"]. She has that way about her."

Due to a signed agreement, her lips are sealed about her "Top Chef" appearance in Chicago until all the episodes are aired.

"Top Chef" pits 16 young chefs in the kitchen under deadlines, with celebrity chefs judging.

Not since "Iron Chef" hit Food Network has a culinary show garnered such mainstream adoration, especially from the New York media, who can't get enough.

Like a football game, blow-by-blow analyses after each episode are posted online, as well as pictures of what host Padma Lakshmi wore in the kitchen. Even New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni has chimed in on his blog.

Unlike many "Top Chef" contestants, Antonitsas didn't attend culinary school. She learned about fusion and Pacific Northwest cuisine from Douglas; classic French cooking from working in kitchens in San Francisco; and Mediterranean cooking from her Greek dad, Tassos.

After working in at least four restaurants in the Bay Area, Antonitsas wants to open her own restaurant within the next three years.

She still visits here, especially every Greek Easter, when her father roasts a whole lamb for family and friends on the patio of their Seward Park home.

When she's in Seattle, she says she enjoys strolling along Pike Place Market and the Chinatown-International District, buying seafood with her dad at Mutual Fish Co. in Rainier Valley and eating tapas at Harvest Vine — when she's not frequenting one of Douglas' restaurants, of course.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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