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Aspiring Chefs Stew to Win a Title

A sort of American Idol for eight cooking school graduates aims to identify the next foodie icon. Showmanship is tested too.

October 19, 2003|Adam Goldman | Associated Press Writer

LAS VEGAS — Inside a nondescript conference room at the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino, Gerald Louis Ford sat and listened to the influential speakers.

Ford, 23, a recent graduate of a prestigious New York school, heard about how he might need to hire media handlers. He was informed that acting classes could be a good idea. He was taught in a mock news conference how to deflect tricky questions and give the right answers.

The instruction might have seemed appropriate for a blossoming Hollywood star or a young politician, but Ford is neither. The tall, burly Ford is a cook -- one singled out as perhaps the next celebrity chef. Ford and seven other top cooking school graduates recently sliced and chopped their way through the "Almost Famous Chef" competition.

The 2-year-old contest -- sort of American Idol for culinary artists -- was an effort by food service companies to identify the next kitchen icon, the person who might use their products on television shows and in high-profile restaurants.

It also was an education in shameless self-promotion, one key to prospering in the grueling restaurant business.

Purists might argue that the contest is corrupting. Industry insiders say it makes sense. If editors are going to splash chefs posing as rock stars on covers like Gourmet magazine, they might as well know how to play the game.

There's nothing wrong, they say, with aspiring to be a Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson -- mainstays on the popular Food Network.

"In this day and age, it's not an unworthy goal," said Bill Rice, Chicago Tribune food critic and chairman of the James Beard Awards Restaurant Committee. "It's not crass."

Contestant Nathan Lyon, 32, a onetime model and cook at Lucques on Melrose in West Hollywood, said cooking is the easy part; most chefs, he said, are socially challenged.

"The only thing we can do is work in the kitchen," he said.

What better place, the event's creators said, to expose promising cooks to the perks and pressure of fame than Las Vegas.

The contestants learned that the competition involved much more than food.

They were served up a series of lectures by Rice, chef Susan Feniger of Santa Monica's Border Grill, Katie O'Kennedy, a senior editor at Bon Appetit, and others.

The eager invitees were told not to lose sight of the food, which will ultimately establish their reputation. And don't set out to be a celebrity chef, but if it happens, then listen up.

Then the critics and gastronomes unsheathed some trade secrets.

Lesson No. 1 came from Feniger.

"You want the media to be there," said Feniger, who appears often on Los Angeles television and radio. "You want to be covered because the more you're covered, the more business you do."

O'Kennedy deconstructed the Food Network's personalities. How did Emeril Lagasse succeed outside the kitchen?

"Timing and a certain amount of luck" are important, O'Kennedy said. Placing yourself in a restaurant with noted chefs and cutting-edge cuisine is vital. A niche can help. See Alton Brown, she said, the wizard of food science who made Bon Appetit for the first time in its Thanksgiving issue.

"Personality is a big deal," she said. "Creating buzz is the last step."

Rice gave "10 steps to removing the almost in almost famous."

Locale, persona and profit centers play a role, he said, adding, "Causing controversy is one path to fame."

Avoid tricky questions and never go off the record, the reporter-critic said, because it can be "terribly embarrassing."

Lastly, when a bad review levels the restaurant like a bang flattens a souffle, "try to turn the other cheek," Rice said.

The promising cooks then headed to the Aureole kitchen at Mandalay Bay to compete in a version of "Iron Chef" -- and a chance to win a trip to Italy and cash.

The nervous-looking cooks were given baskets of whole duck, fennel, squash, green apples, red pepper, carrots, rosemary, basil, thyme, garlic, onion and baby artichokes.

Their task: Prepare a menu in 15 minutes and complete the dishes in 90 minutes.

Easy? Maybe.

But these wunderkinds had to do it while being peppered with judges' questions as a roving camera peered into their stockpots. Feniger, a judge, roamed the kitchen with a spoon in hand, tasting unfinished sauces.

Every so often, someone would bark out the time, sending the nervous contestants into a flurry of culinary activity.

They were chided to embrace sponsor products. One clever cook used San Pellegrino water to boil carrots and listed the combination on her menu.

"We'd like to remind you that Cuisinart and Waring are our sponsors," a spokeswoman screamed. "You need to use their equipment."

What is a celebrity without sponsors? one judge yelled.

At the conclusion of the chaotic cook off, the chefs delivered their dishes to the judges' table.

Ford barely finished his rendered duck breast with thyme and rosemary, stuffed artichoke and nouveau soubise.

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