At Sunday night’s RAMMY awards, I had the pleasure of sitting at the same table as Carla Hall, who may be the nicest person on earth, and Ariane Duarte, who was introduced to me as yet another former Top Chef contestant making the rounds. That’s when my embarrassment meter went into the red zone. I couldn’t remember Duarte — and couldn’t immediately cop to the minor embarrassment.

Finally, after sitting there for what seemed like an eternity, I turned to Duarte and asked some questions about her Top Chef experience in hopes of jump-starting my memory. She was kind enough to give me the hint I needed. “They called me the Cougar,” she said.

A light flipped on inside the dull fog of my brain. “I’m sitting next to The Coogs?” I said. “That’s awesome!”

Did I mention that I had a glass or two of wine in me?

I took the opportunity to ask Duarte how life has been for her after Top Chef. Despite her middling performance — she was bumped mid-way through Season 5 for butchering an assignment to butcher lamb — Duarte has been able to milk her brief turn on the reality show. She’s been on two Top Chef tours already, she told me, and has another one in the offing. Her restaurant, CulinAriane in Montclair, N.J., has been hopping, and she’s about to officially launch a site called, a database of recipes that can be sorted by ingredient, ease of preparation, and healthfulness, among other categories.

Duarte admits it was hard to get back into the swing of things after being on Top Chef. During the five weeks she appeared on the program, Duarte was not allowed access to newspapers, the Internet, or any other form of media. She was allowed to make phone calls back home to her husband and kids, but they were always on camera. It was like being in the witness protection program, she said.

“I had to learn how to live again when I get home,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Bravo