Have you tuned in for this season of The Next Food Network Star? If so, you recognize the hunk fondling the onions in the photo above. It's Chef Darrell "DAS" Smith, who was nice enough to take time out of his week to meet me at the Santa Monica farmers' market for a walk and a talk.
I was introduced to DAS by a mutual friend whom I'd asked for advice about the upcoming open auditions for the next season of The Next Food Network Star. (Yes, I've decided to go: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It's next week, on my birthday, so I figure they have to be nice to me. I'll report back.) "Reach out to DAS - he's a really nice guy," said the friend. I sent him an email on a lark, and to my astonishment - isn't he a celebrity? - he replied the same day. We arranged to meet early in the morning at the market, in front of the mushroom guy.
As we walked around, fondling onions, tasting slices of dried tangerine and Valencia orange, DAS told me about his work. He teaches a culinary arts program at Beverly Hills High School, a certificate program, full-time. He started the program through the LA Unified School District's ROP (Regional Occupational Program), got the funding, put in a new kitchen at the school, designed the curriculum. He spends six periods a day, 10 months a year, with 16- to 18-year-olds. Do you know what patience that takes? What grace, what commitment? DAS is a young guy, not yet 30, but you talk to him and think, Wow, this guy's got it together. He's the only chef I've ever talked with whose dream (soon to become reality) is to open a casual restaurant where high school kids can hang out, do homework, and help in the kitchen. You have to admit, that's an unusual culinary point of view.
I did learn a few things from DAS about The Next Food Network Star auditions, which, in the spirit of paying it forward, I will share with you, just in case you decide to go to the auditions in your own city:
- Above all, be yourself. Wear what you'd wear on a normal day. Act the way you always act. They're really looking for you, not you playing a part.
- If you were planning to bring something delectable to wow the judges with your kitchen skills, don't bother. Auditions in the first round last about two minutes.
- Make sure you can answer the question "Why should you have your own show on the Food Network?" in less than 30 seconds, clearly and succintly. Know your angle.
- Remember that they're casting for characters. You can be the best cook in the world, but if you're not the character they're looking for, they won't call you back for a second look.
- If you do get on the show, remember that it's not really about winning; only one person will. It's about what you do before the show, and what you do after the show.
- For this show, it's all about you on camera. The food has to be good - because Bobby Flay is going to eat it - but it's not Top Chef. The most important thing is how you do on camera.
Did we see DAS the high school teacher? I didn't. I wish I had, though. We saw DAS the cool black guy, because that's the character the producers needed to create their story. But I wish we'd seen him in the classroom, teaching his kids how to make the chicken roulade he served - severely undercooked, if you remember - to the judges in the first episode of the season. That's the first dish they make in his culinary arts classes every fall. After that episode aired, his students gave him shit: "Chef, we make that every year, how could you mess it up? How could you serve it raw? How?"
I guess that means if the producers of The Next Food Network Star are looking for a semi-frumpy working mom who happens to throw 13-course truffle extravaganzas for 70 in her spare time, I'm in luck.
I'll let you know what happens. Meantime, look for DAS's recipe for classic French onion soup, which is what he got all dreamy-eyed about when we stopped to fondle the onions. I'll have it up in a few days.