Originally created 10/13/03

Are celebrity chefs born, or made?



LAS VEGAS -- Inside a nondescript conference room at a 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 been appropriate for a blossoming Hollywood star or young politician, but Ford was neither.

The tall, burly Ford is a cook - one who had been 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 fledgling culinary talents - 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 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's most recent edition, they might as well know how to play the game.

There's nothing wrong, they say, with aspiring to be a Jamie Oliver or Bobby Flay, 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 one-time model and cook at Lucques in Los Angeles said cooking is the easy part. Many chefs are socially challenged, he said.

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

What better place, the event's creators said, to expose promising cooks to the perks and pressure of fame than Las Vegas - a city that built its food reputation on the backs of celebrity chefs.

The contestants learned the competition involved much more than food.

They were served up a series of lectures by Rice, chef Susan Feniger of the TV food show "Too Hot Tamales," 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," she said. "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 Mario Batali and 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 flattened souffle, "try to turn the other cheek," Rice advised.

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

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 stock pots. 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 sweating cooks into a flurry of culinary activity.

They were chided to use sponsor products, such as a particular brand of mineral water and high-tech kitchen machines.

"You need to use their equipment," a spokeswoman screamed.

What is a celebrity without sponsors? one judge yelled.

When the chaotic cookoff concluded, all the nascent chefs plated their dishes and delivered them to the judges' table.

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

"Too close," said Ford, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and took a job with a hotel opening in New York City this month.

Others stumbled. Felicia Shallow Davis, 34, of Chicago, Ill., flopped her herb roasted duck breast all over the plate. She recovered with about a minute to spare and put the precious pieces back together. Somehow the plucky Davis kept a wide, arching smile.

Soon the esteemed palates began tasting, prodding, disparaging and complimenting the food.

"Eye catching."

"Vanilla was his favorite spice - that was scary."

"Didn't render the duck fat enough."

They used video to evaluate the cooks' performance on camera and referred to the judging sheet.

"Please bear in mind that this is not just a cooking contest, we are trying to identify a potential 'star' chef with all that entails!"

Star potential was worth 20 percent of the total score.

The judges didn't hold back.

"That's not confidence, that's confusion."

"He's cocky, out of control."

"Her cheeks are too red."

Then silence as scores were tallied.

The choices seemed clear. Ford and a woman from Germany, Uta Schepers, had the top cooking skills, though they were too stiff on television - too worried about the food.

Who had those subjective star qualities?

The judges' choice was Davis - a cop turned cook four years ago and mother of five.

She was almost famous.

Almost.