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Heeeeeeeres Danny!

It’s starting to look like being a TV chef, as opposed to being a working restaurant chef, has become the career goal of an increasing numbers of culinarians. That’s especially true when it’s possible to take the reality cooking show route to stardom instead of the traditional work-in-famous-kitchens-to-build-your-resume method. TV is easier and faster, and the shows that enable overnight stardom are proliferating so rapidly even we get them mixed up. We mistakenly referred to Hell’s Kitchen as Kitchen Nightmares in our 6/30/07 newsletter. That latter show doesn’t air until September, while Hell’s Kitchen is in the midst of its summer run, dominating its time slot as never before.

But it will be hard for any of these shows to have a more surprising ending than the Food Network’s Next Food Network Star. The show wrapped up earlier this summer, pulling good ratings during its run. But its contestant lineup was again notably short on people who had spent much time cooking in restaurants. It was also short on background checks, as one of the two finalists, Josh “JAG” Garcia, had to be removed from the show after it turned out he had lied about both his military service in Afghanistan (he hadn’t served there) and his culinary school degree (he didn’t have one). This left the producers the embarrassing task of bringing back contestant Amy Finley, whom they had previously dropped from the show as being unworthy of being a Food Network personality, for the final showdown. In the end, when the winner was chosen by online voting instead of the panel of judges who had previously made all the decisions, Finley won!

The show was slanted more toward personalities than food, the network’s name notwithstanding. Now that Mario Batali is reportedly cutting back on his Iron Chef duties and Emeril has been bumped from his prime time slot (they’ve moved him up to 7 p. m.), the number of working chefs on the Food Network has dwindled down to a precious few.

Which leaves that ever-growing foodie audience up for grabs and, boy, has the MOJO network gone after it. Premiering in October will be the second season of After Hours With Daniel, a 10-episode series which purports to give viewers a glimpse of what goes on each night when a restaurant closes its doors. Here’s the official pitch for the first season:
“For years, the secret late-night dinners of internationally-renowned Chef Daniel Boulud were exclusive to his celebrity and top chef guests. Now, you can join them behind-the-scenes at New York City’s best restaurants as they trade recipes, culinary secrets and untold stories. Venture out to learn that some of life’s best lessons come After Hours.”

What happens is that Boulud, a large TV production crew, a few noted chefs and a couple of B-list celebrities all set up shop in another chef’s kitchen for a night. The half-hour format calls for both the host chef and Boulud each to crank out a nifty dish, which the entire group then consumes while chatting about what they eat. The premise is that viewers are watching how chefs cook for each other when no paying customers are around.

Boulud, widely acknowledged as one of the top chefs in the U.S., does an admirable job narrating a show in his second language, English, although he isn’t the smoothest talker ever to hit TV. Which somehow contributes to the charm of the show, because it lacks that superficial slickness that makes so many other cooking shows seem contrived. This one’s the real deal, because Boulud gains access to kitchens of restaurants the audience would never get to see otherwise and, boy, are they worth seeing.

There were eight episodes of this show in its first year, and here are the New York City restaurants that played host: Blue Ribbon Sushi, WD-50, Maremma, Dinosaur BBQ, Cru, BLT Prime, Aquavit and Boulud’s own Daniel, where Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert pitched in to help Boulud with the cooking chores. From the host chef’s point of view, having Daniel Boulud show up with a TV crew to see what you can do is a strong incentive to pull out all the stops. Who wouldn’t want to put on a show for him?

Season One was enough of a success for the MOJO network (all of its shows are in HD, the idea being that HD cable subscribers are, by definition, a free-spending demographic) that show producers were able to quickly line up 10 great restaurants in Los Angeles to host Boulud et al in Season Two. The list includes Pizzeria Mozza (Nancy Silverton), Hatfield’s, Father’s Office, Sona, Ford’s Filling Station, Providence, Grace, Simon LA and Campanile. Patina restaurant owner Joachim Splichal goes all out and does the whole show from his house. We highly recommend you watch this show or, better, contact a local TV producer to inquire about doing one in your hometown.

Boulud isn’t the only Beard Award winner for “Best Chef America” to show up on TV lately. This year’s winner of that honor, Michel Richard, was a judge on all nine episodes of the Barbecue Championship Series, a nine-episode series that just completed its summer reruns on the Comcast-owned Versus cable network. The show featured three-person cookoffs among noted and aspiring pitmasters (many of them full-service restaurant operators when not out competing on the barbecue circuit). Unlike other competitive cooking TV shows, this one featured blind judging. The three-person judging panel featured the unlikely crew of the French-born Richard (who, despite his cooking expertise, was new to the barbecue game), ex-NBA player Darrel “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins, and actress Megyn Price (“Grounded for Life”). Entrants came from all walks of life, but many had full-service restaurant backgrounds: Jack McDavid was a Food & Wine “Best New Chef”; Adam Perry Lang worked at Le Cirque, Daniel and Chanterelle before opening his own New York City operation— Daisy May’s BBQ; and barbecue legend “Bad” Byron Chisum’s folksy persona belies the fact that he is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who cooked with Larry Forgione at An American Place. None of them won, however. The grand prize ($75,000) went to Dallas-based caterer Sara Horowitz, herself a CIA grad.

The upshot: If you’re good at what you do in your full-service job, and if you can learn to be good on TV, your career options really open up. The demand for people who can star in cooking-related TV shows is outstripping the supply. Need a place to start? Check out the next “Cooking on Camera” workshop. It’s scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 11. in San Francisco. Go to www.promediacoach.com, call 510-402-8757 or email [email protected] to get all the details.

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