Sunday, September 4, 2011

How to become a celebrity chef

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Emery and me at The Taste LA - yes, we are now officially the same height
Yesterday I took my 12-year-old son Emery to The Taste LA, a fantastic three-day food and wine festival presented by the Los Angeles Times and Food & Wine magazine. For a food- and chef-obsessed tween, this was pretty much the equivalent of a year of birthdays. But events like this are just as much fun for me.

The food was great, of course. Every restaurant turned out excellent small plates, one thing more impressive than the next. My favorite bite: pressed watermelon cubes with basil oil and edible flowers from Chaya. The pork sausage sandwich with melon and chiles on ciabatta from Public Kitchen came in a close second. But picking favorites is hard, because, truly, everyone was on (or above) their game. (For snapshots of the event, see The Taste of LA slideshow on my LA Cooking Examiner column.)

Watermelon with basil oil from Chaya - my favorite taste of the day

Given my someday-aspiration of making my way into food television, I paid close attention to the chefs doing the cooking demos. Scott Conant, the restauranteur who often sits at the judges' panel on Chopped, has a huge personality and made the ladies swoon. Claire Robinson, host of Food Network's 5 Ingredient Fix, felt like your next-door neighbor. And Aarti Sequeira, winner of Food Network Star and host of Aarti Party, bubbled and giggled and glowed. They all had that certain something that made you want to keep watching.

TV food host Claire Robinson talking about making butter

So what do these TV chefs have that I don't (yet)? Based on what I saw, here's the to-do list for becoming a celebrity chef:

1. Learn to love talking about yourself. If you can't love it, at least get comfortable with it. When you're a TV food personality, it's only partly about the food. It's mostly about you and your perspective on the food. Scott Conant reminded the audience several time that he loves talking about himself and his life. It didn't come across as egotistical - instead, it confirmed in our minds that he was worth watching. Confidence is attractive.

Scott Conant made two simple pastas and told stories about his youth

2. Define your food philosophy. Scott Conant does Italian. Claire Robinson's about short ingredient lists. Aarti is all Indian, all the time. Each of these TV chefs has a point of view, sticks with it, and sells it.

3. Develop a stable of stories that support your POV. That wasn't the first time Claire Robinson talked about riding her bike down the road to the chicken farm while living in southwest France. Aarti, I'm sure, has talked in public before about her mother's famous prawn biryani. Write down the anecdotes that will entertain your audience, rehearse them, and trot them out.

Aarti Sequeira spent more time telling stories than cooking, which was fine

4. Get your teeth whitened. Sorry - it's a requirement. We're talking about television, after all. But being stick-thin doesn't seem to be necessary for food TV personalities, which gives me hope.

5. Accept help in the kitchen. You'll need assistants to prep and even do the actual cooking while you tell your stories and entertain the audience. Aarti, who made paneer (Indian cheese) and then saag paneer (spinach with cheese), hardly touched the food at all during her demo. It was her recipe, but everything had been chopped and measured ahead of time, and her assistant did much of the stove work too. It didn't detract from the experience at all, and Aarti thanked her helper effusively. Most of you have probably dreamed of having a permanent sous chef. Not me, actually - I like the process. But I guess I'd get used to it.

6. Be gracious about photos. Everyone made time for snapshots with fans. Including the adoring one I brought with me, as you can see:

Emery with Scott Conant
Emery with Claire Robinson
Emery and me with Aarti Sequeira


Leslie Singer said...

I've met Scott Conant at The SOBE food and wine feat in Miami. I agree he is delightful in person. Next Week I will go to a demo by top Chef Master Floyd Cardoz- Let you know if he meets your criteria,. The professional chefs I've met are unusually charming.

Patti at Camp Blogaway said...

Great post, a fun read. And the day I see you in person with whitened teeth, I will know you scored a TV gig. Go for it!

Elly said...

This was a fun read, so excited by your pictures! Jealous of your experience :).

Alton Brown is coming to my university this month so maybe I'll have some stories like yours to report back soon!

Ellen Harris-Braun said...

How does one press a watermelon?

Erika Kerekes said...

Elly - find out who's handling his publicity, tell them you write a blog and ask for an interview before or after his presentation. They always try to make time. Prepare a few questions ahead of time so you can get some original content, different from whatever he says in public. And ask someone to take a photo of the two of you!

Ellen - I think you cut cubes and then weight them down, the same way you would squeeze water out of tofu.

Miss @ Miss in the Kitchen said...

Very cool! What a great experience for you and your son to share.

KC Quaretti said...

Thanks for a delightful article Erika! I too share your desire for a few years in front of the camera and from what I read here, you'll be there sooner rather than later!

Erika Kerekes said...

I realiza there is one more requirement: Learn not to sweat. And that one, I'm afraid, I am constitutionally unable to master.

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