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The Making of a TV Cook

June 08, 1995|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What does it take to make a dream come true? Ask Nick Stellino. He jumped from dishwashing in a restaurant to stardom in a television cook show. And he started out without "connections" or greasing anything but a skillet.

Stellino's series on Italian cooking, "Cucina Amore," debuted on public television in Seattle in January. Thirteen of the initial 52 segments appeared on KCET in Los Angeles in April (the rest are as yet unscheduled in Southern California). And another 52 will start shooting in October.

But that's not all. Stellino, who lives in Brentwood, has also emerged as an author. You see him in chef's whites, presenting a tableful of food, on the cover of his "Cucina Amore" cookbook (Doubleday: $24.95). Tucked inside the cover is a CD of romantic Italian songs to accompany dinner. Stellino made sure that the publishers included his mother's favorite, "Che Sera Triste, Che Chiaro 'E Luna" (better known as "Autumn Leaves" in the United States). The book is just out, and Stellino is now on a nationwide promotional tour.

Already fans greet him on the street. They like his engaging Sicilian warmth, the homey memories of his family in Italy, the way he makes cooking Italian food so easy.

"This is the best ride of my life," he says over lunch at Drago, the Italian restaurant in Santa Monica where he once worked as a pasta chef.

Here's how it came about, condensed into 12 rules for success that anyone can follow.

Rule 1: Do something you love and believe in. Stellino quit a job as a stockbroker because he couldn't stand the way the market's vicissitudes destroyed dreams and ate up retirement nest eggs. What he loved was cooking and entertaining.

Rule 2: Be willing to start at the bottom. Stellino talked his way into a post as head chef in a small mid-Los Angeles restaurant. In almost the same breath, he confessed he had no experience. That's how he wound up washing dishes, the only other job that was open.

Rule 3: Look for opportunities to improve your skills. Stellino volunteered to help with simple cooking tasks and gradually advanced to preparing dinners. To learn even more, he took off for Italy and worked without pay in a series of restaurants there.

Rule 4: Don't let obstacles stop you. No sooner had Stellino landed a job as head chef--legitimately--in another restaurant than he damaged his knee so severely in a football game that he couldn't work. Instead of lamenting, "Why did this happen to me?" he said: "Well, it happened. What can I do about it?" The answer was therapy. "I decided my knee would be better than ever," he says. And after months of rehabilitation, it was. This gave him confidence that he could make things happen.

Rule 5: Be willing to take risks. Stellino was cooking at Drago, had organized an Italian chefs' club and appeared in commercials for a pasta sauce. It was a good life, but he wanted something more. With the backing of his wife, Nanci, he decided to aim for television. They allowed six months to sell his idea. "It took eight," he says.

Rule 6: Do the footwork. Stellino put together a business proposal and a tape filmed at home. The Stellinos live in a '30s Brentwood cottage where it's routine for friends to wander about, helping as Stellino cooks in the closet-sized kitchen. Next, he went to the Beverly Hills Public Library to research the business end of the field. After a couple of weeks, he emerged with a long list of contacts. Day after day he called, offering his proposal and tape.

Rule 7: Don't take "no" for an answer. Some responses were friendly; others were nasty. No one was interested. "I did not allow myself to take this personally," he says. Instead, he would ask for a referral to someone who might be interested. He hit pay dirt with a call to KCTS, the public television station in Seattle, which referred him to a Seattle-based production firm called West 175 Enterprises, Inc.

Soon Stellino was filming on a set in Seattle (where he has also started an Italian chefs' club). He was firm about one thing: The show was not to have a master-student format. Viewers were to be treated as friends and equals.

Rule 8: Never give less than your best. Cooking for TV is a different ballgame from cooking at home, or in a restaurant kitchen. Once, Stellino accidentally burned some garlic. The tainted pasta all'arrabbiata looked fine to the camera, but Stellino knew it was not fit to eat and threw it away. However, it's the custom to feed the crew after a shoot. So he made another batch.

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