doing my best ‘If Johnny Cash were a Chef’ imitation
I applied to be on season two of Guy’s Grocery Games, Food Networks’ blockbuster hit game show hosted by the affable Guy Fieri, without ever expecting to really get on. I did it almost as a prank sending in the above picture with some extreme answers to questions they had asked in the preliminary interview. Previously I had applied to several shows and never received nary a response or even a computer generated rejection letter. When it came to filling out this application I tried a different tact, I went big, bold and let my kitchen persona shine through with all it’s adolescent charm and grace.
First Course: The Interview
In the past I had been reserved, thinking more about highlighting my career achievements rather than letting my big personality shine. The results were predictably bad without anything ever materializing. It reminded me of when I owned my own restaurant Le Margaux and my good friend Jim Laffer asked me why I only played classical music. I told him it better fit the expectations of my clientele and he correctly countered “But you love music, all kinds of music. People are like you, they want to hear different music.” He was correct, I wasn’t being me, I was trying to be what I thought someone who didn’t know me would want to know about me. It’s impossible to separate yourself from your self. A lesson easily heard but rarely taken to heart.
98% EXCITED, 2% SCARED OR IS IT THE OTHER WAY AROUND?
For the first round of interviews I was required to submit a video that I made of myself in a grocery store describing why I would be a great candidate. I decided to build on that theme and film myself outside Petco about to go shopping for my favorite ingredients. For the interior shots I went to a real grocery store and used my father in law Gary as an unsuspecting stooge whose cart I stole from as I went careening down an aisle looking for ingredients. The footage was great and really captured my sense of humor. A clip appears at my blog entry from January 23rd and the blog captured exactly how I felt at the time, 98% excited, 2% scared or is it the other way around?
Second Course: Acceptance
I thought the interviews went well but hadn’t heard a single thing in a few months so I figured they must have chosen someone else and went on living. Honestly it pissed me off a bit because I felt I did well and never heard anything more. When the call finally came, Lisa and I were headed down to San Diego for a day of debauchery and fun at Polite Provisions, an amazing bar featuring classic cocktails from a bygone era. The mix of ‘oh my god I am really going to be on the show’ with the ‘oh shit, I really am going to be on the show’ set in. I could not believe my ears. I made the show! I was so excited I could barely contain myself.
Intermezzo: Some Perspective
A lot of people assume Chefs to be a serious bunch of folks who quietly toil away on a range, creating brilliant masterpieces deep in the bowels of a restaurant. What they don’t fully grasp is we are a band of overweight adrenaline junkies who thrive under pressure, working in extremely hostile environments hellbent on having a good time. We work 16 hour shifts with no sick days, holidays or even family days. It is frowned upon to not show up for your next shift even if you severed a finger the night before or set yourself on fire trying to pull a derelict pizza out of a remote corner of a wood burning oven. I have spent more quality time with my sous chef and kitchen crew than I have with my wife and son. We live on lack of sleep, way too much coffee and/or energy drinks and alcohol, living large from one pressured moment to the next. The humor runs deep and dark with no subject too taboo to breach. The late comedian Redd Foxx would blush at the quantity and quality of sophomoric humor about male reproductive organs that gets spouted while plating intricate dishes. It gets so bad that whenever you finally leave the kitchen life there is an awkward and hard adjustment back to societal norms. I remember vividly one time my step father made the mistake of asking me to cook for a group of ten visiting ophthalmologists he was presenting a high stakes business venture to. The dinner was going fine when a doctor leaned over to politely ask my French mother what the words pinot noir meant. I quickly and as a matter of fact replied black penis which would have sent a kitchen crew deprived of sleep and devoid of basic human skills into hysterics but only left my mother and me laughing with a very puzzled doctor scared to say anything more other than business. When a prisoner leaves the big house after a 20 year stint he faces the same anxiety reentering the outside world as a chef does leaving his kitchen. I can only imagine that the Food Network executives must cringe during filming hoping the editor can straddle a fine line through the humor to make shows suitable for family audiences.
Fear and panic began to live comfortably with the butterflies in my stomach as my film dates approached. I fastidiously watched every single episode of Guy’s Grocery Games taking copious notes to help develop a strategy to win. I obsessed over all the details, challenges and plot lines that went into a show. My kitchen crew was so supportive and comically kept giving me advice on things to say and do. Predictably not many were usable on family TV. When I boarded the plane, I began channelling my inner animal trying to muster the culinary strength to outwit my competitors and create plates worthy of my abilities and most of all not make an ass of myself on national TV. I dreamed to hold the coveted ten item grocery list in the last contest so badly it was palatable.
For a long time I wanted to be on TV. I often thought about hosting a travel/food program really not too unlike Guy’s other show Triple D. Instead of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Triple F (Francois’s Food Festivals) would feature community driven food festivals like the 80 year old Verboort Sausage & Sauerkraut Festival near Portland, Oregon. The framework of the show would be similar, first segment talk about the festival; second segment film the Chef making 15 tons of sausage, truckloads of sauerkraut and enough apple pies to fill an auditorium; and finally in the third segment sit down and eat those amazing smoky sausages while interviewing all the characters enjoying the festival. I think it’s a great concept to build on and celebrates our American food heritage while delving into the excesses of food we all love as Americans. There are endless food festivals across the country and it would be entertaining. I can see cookbooks and other marketing collateral develop off of my show.
Main Course: Film Date
Butterflies turned into giant moths and flying dragons as I arrived at the run down motel near the Santa Rosa studio where Guy films his show. I ordered low grade Chinese food and spent the night watching reruns, studying and formulating battle plans. The filming would start early in the morning and continue late into the night with hours almost as obscene as a Chef’s. What you don’t see on TV is the huge amount of work and the sheer number of people involved to film a single episode. Credit needs to be given to the stage mother, or whatever his official title was, who endlessly corralled everyone including Guy into getting the job done on schedule. He told us where to stand, when to stand and where to look.
They kept us locked away in a beat trailer with a small plateful of granola bars, junk food and granny smith apples waiting impatiently for some news on when we could enter the set. I spent the first few minutes sizing up my show mates Cherie, Bobby and Tori as we introduced ourselves to each other. We were nervous, tired and dying for coffee. Everyone shared their stories and reassured each other that they would do fine. Bravado, confidence and panic shared space in our conversations. I chugged water by the gallon and nervously peed every three seconds till I pissed myself dry. Minutes seemed like hours till finally one of our handler’s told us to suit up, grab our knives and head into the studio. Show time. The energy was reminiscent of that moment just before a particularly busy Saturday night when I’ve had way too many shots of espresso, knowing full and well I was going to get bitch slapped by the reservations. The precious minutes of calm before service when nervous energy transforms into stoic confidence. I walk down the line making sure everyone had all the mise en place they needed to survive the forthcoming onslaught knowing full and well that someone was going down tonight. It really reminds me of the final scenes in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon where the marines know they are about to be overrun by a larger Vietcong force as they dig foxholes, arm up and wait for the attack. My buddy Jim Groeger would say ‘Take no prisoners’. The air was rich with the scent of testosterone. In my PEI kitchen, sous chef Animal and I had a ritual of blasting Michael Franti’s Yell fire during the four minutes before service to get us pumped up and primed to face a brutal service.
Adrenaline flowed as I walked past Guy’s bad ass yellow jeep and entered the studio. At every corner our handler shouted ‘contestants walking’ to ensure we wouldn’t get any clues to the challenges that lay ahead. We passed numerous faceless Food Network employees who had an empathetic knowing look of the brutalities we would soon face. I have a near photographic memory and paid careful attention to every detail. cataloging all the ingredients as we passed through the aisles to get our start locations. Spotted dick, I thought about working that into a dish somewhere along the way just to hear them have to say the name on national TV. I wondered how many other contestants thought the same thing.
$10.99? HOLY SHIT!
Guy greeted us warmly and said to just have fun, forget about winning and enjoy the games. He asked each of us why we were there, I lied and said I was there for fun, I was on one level but I also wanted to meet him and to win. Chefs are highly competitive folks, I wanted to crush my competition spreading their entrails on the store’s floor and win the $20,000. Despite the pleasantries in the trailer, we had our game faces on and were here to win. The first challenge was to cook our best grilled dish on a shoestring budget of $10.99. $10.99? Holy shit! At home, I spend much more than that just on the protein alone. I cooked a six hour rib roast for Halloween that set me back $150. My mind raced as we stood there till finally I had an idea of what I wanted to cook but seriously wondered if the money was enough to pull it off. I knew I would have to trim the dish way down from it’s normal presentation.
If the kitchen is Moroccan don’t come a knockin’
Thankfully Guy handed us a sheet of coupons to offset the limited budget woes and offer some real choices. As he talked about checking out with Wendy I sized up the coupons and saw he had skirt steaks at a cheap price. I think we all gravitated on that one. He started to count down and we were off running through the aisles on our first challenge. I know it sounds cliche but all I wanted to accomplish in this round was survival to the second and not to look like Jackie Gleason when he did the infamous ‘Chef of the Future’ bit on the Honeymooners.
I was a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car and kept zig zagging through the store trying to figure out where everything was. So much for that photographic memory; pressure snapped that fucker to pieces. 30 minutes at home is plenty of time to cook. 30 minutes with hordes of camera men running behind you with three other contestants who would rather not see you in the next challenge isn’t. I went big on the fig jam but I needed it to center the Mediterranean flavors I was shooting for. Bobby and Tori beat me to the check out and I had to sit, waiting impatiently while precious time ticked off the clock. Guy was asking me questions as I was trying hard to retain my composure and run through the prep needed in my head. Wendy finished ringing me up, BAM $10.78 out of $10.99 – I did great!
I ran to my station and started cooking. I felt a bit more relaxed, the only hard part was having 20 cameras focusing on your every move. MEDIC MEDIC, Cherie screamed as she cut her finger. I never wished any harm on anyone, especially her, but it took pressure off knowing someone else had cut themselves first. I finished my grilled Moroccan skirt steak salad and looked down, noticed I had cut the meat with the grain instead of against, shit, amateur move. I honestly thought about my mortality as I stared down at my plate in disgust. I had let the game beat me. I wasn’t cooking on my level. I looked over at my contestants plates and started to worry about the strength of my dish.
I thrive in high pressure situations. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to pull rabbits out of my ass without showing the slightest bit of panic. One time I was doing a birthday party for then Mayor of Chicago Richard Daley at a high end residence along East Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. I had scouted the property, negotiated the deal and set the date for the party only to realize the woman hosting the party screwed up on the correct date, she said Tuesday the 20th instead of Wednesday the 20th. She called me at my restaurant on Tuesday at 1 pm and worriedly asked where we were as the party was supposed to start in five hours. I realized the mix up and calmly told her that we would be there soon as we were just finishing some last minute preparations when she called. I frantically called the restaurant owner, equipment companies and our sister restaurant with an SOS. I diverted two restaurants worth of kitchen staff and prepped an entire party in about 20 minutes. The party was a raging success with no one ever realizing the snafu.
Troy Johnson, Catherine Mccord and G. Garvin were the judges for our episode. Bobby had the unenviable task of going first. I listened closely hoping to hear the judges hated his skirt steak salad with salsa verde. The only thing he got dinged for was it was undercooked a bit for their tastes. I listened in agony as Catherine told Tori she nailed it with her habanero pineapple taco. Cherie unfortunately undercooked her chicken otherwise she had a solid dish. It was my turn. what I made for you was a grilled Moroccan skirt steak… the judges liked it except for the fact I cut it the wrong damn way and G. Garvin thought it was underseasoned. 20 plus years in the trade and you’d think I wouldn’t have messed that up. It was between me, Bobby and Cherie for going home this round. Cherie got cut. Whew. Survived.
We broke filming for the day and Tori, Bobby and I went out for dinner and a few drinks. I had a pressure valve that needed release and thankfully I survived the first day intact.
Cheesy Course: My Man!
My alarm rang way too early the next morning at 4:30. The cycle repeated itself with the three of us spending a helluva lot of time sitting in the trailer waiting coffeeless for any word from our handlers. I felt way more relaxed knowing what to expect. They walked us into the studio with the handler screaming ‘dead man walking’, I mean ‘contestant walking’. I guess we were brought in way too early because they lined us up in the very front of the studio with our faces towards the wall like a firing squad. I half expected a priest to walk up and offer last rites, cigarettes and perhaps a comforting shot of brandy to deaden the nerves before meeting our maker. We drilled one of the producers trying to get any hint out of what the first challenge would be. He wouldn’t budge. The show is real in that none of us knew what competetion lay ahead and that you really only had 30 minutes to cook it. Word was out that Bob Tuschman from Food Network was attending the filming for the first time in the history of the show. Instead of feeling nervous I felt elevated, in my environment and ready to go.
The first competition was to make your most decadent breakfast. I was razor sharp, slightly hung over and knew exactly what dish I was going to make. I decided on oeufs a la Meurette, a Burgundian dish of eggs poached in red wine and served on toast with a ragout of mushrooms, bacon and potatoes in a rich red wine sauce. I knew I would crush it and could handle whatever spin came our way. I felt relaxed and was on my A game. We took off down the aisles grabbing as many ingredients as we wanted. I started grabbing tons of ingredients for my meurette knowing at some point Guy would have some kind of twist. Every game has it’s twist and this one needed one. RED LIGHT SPECIAL. Oh no, here it comes. I was near Guy when he announced over the store’s PA that we needed to incorporate peanut butter and jelly into the breakfast. The week before I had made an amazing peanut sauce for something at home and the recipe was fresh in my head.
The proper combination of hung over and feeling cheffy had my brain operating on all the cylinders necessary for thought development. BAM! I was going to make an Asian version of eggs a la Meurette. I set up a poaching pan of sake for the duck eggs, broke down my duck quickly and began rendering the fat off them. Guy had asked why I grabbed a whole duck instead of just breasts which were also available. I told him I wasn’t sure if I needed more parts. Parts is parts and I like to keep my options open. I toasted my challah bread, finished my sauce with chunky peanut butter and cherry jam and felt confident about myself. Five, four, three, two… One. Stop working!
Tori went first in front of the judges. She made French toast with almond butter and jam brushed on and hash. It was nice but she chose the wrong bowl and I really feel she didn’t incorporate the challenge items in all that well. I was beaming as I presented my dish. The judges absolutely loved it and went on about how tasty it was with only Catherine wondering about my peanut butter and jelly. Bobby went last and kind of faltered with his breakfast. I was sure I survived this round and wondered whether Bobby or Tori would last to face me off in the next round. Bobby got knocked off.
The pressure was on for the final challenge, only Tori stood between me and that red ingredient list. The moment of truth had arrived. The competition was to make your best Sunday Supper. The week before I had made a Bistecca alla Fiorentina for my Sunday supper. I tend to make epic meals on Sundays for my family as it is the only full day off I have with them. My little boy Beaumont sits on the counter and helps me cook. I was fondly thinking of my beautiful wife Lisa and my little boy Beau when Guy let us have it, the name of the game is one ingredient per aisle. I was shocked. One ingredient per aisle? What insane deprived mind thinks of this stuff? I was channeling Beau and knew I would work it out the way it should and let my instincts control the moment. A giant T Bone in 9, snap; demi glace in aisle 8; Pomegranate juice for the sauce in 7; grits for the starch.
Deep down I knew the inevitable was coming and we would have to work through aisle five, the cleaning products and baby aisle. The only possible choice was some Gerber’s baby food – YUCK! WE never even fed that crap to Beau when he was younger. I had no idea how bad or good it would taste. It was a risk I was forced to take and perhaps a game changer but at least Tori would have to follow in those footsteps.
Beau’s first meal: pureed organic squash
Beau’s very first solid meal was duck confit with fresh black truffles and garlicky fingerlings with a foie gras sauce. Before you assume we are millionaires or weird parents it actually started a bit more modestly and traditionally. I bought a food mill and had steamed some beautiful organic squash I got from a farmer friend. We tried to get him to eat it and he had the look of are you kidding? I have a Chef for a dad and this is the best you can do? The next night I repeated the process with some fresh green peas, same result. The third day we tried a ripe banana. Beau was not having any of it. The following day we gave up feeling defeated. We came to the conclusion maybe he wasn’t ready for solid food yet and would wait a few weeks then try again. I cooked our favorite dinner of duck confit with some gorgeous black truffles and fingerling potatoes slow cooked in duck fat with a shit ton of garlic and fleur de sel. We were sipping a great Burgundy our friend Peter Zitz had given us. Beau looked at Lisa and even though he hadn’t uttered his first syllable yet he conveyed with no uncertain terms that he wanted some duck confit and now. A tear welled up in my eye, I knew then and there I had a midget gourmand prodigy on hand and it made me proud.
I headed into aisle four still thinking of G. Garvin’s comment that my steak in round one was under seasoned and grabbed some harissa powder to kick it up a notch. Sun dried tomatoes in aisle three, a bottle of Merlot in aisle two then broccoli rabe in number one. I had a lot to cook in 30 minutes but I knew I could crush it. Someday I will write about the apple pie I baked during an extremely busy shift while sauteing and expediting the line. It became a bit of a reputation builder and now is commonly referred to as the five minute apple pie.
I started getting emotional thinking of my boy and the possibilities of running with him in a park like all other father’s do. I knew I had it and hoped the judges felt the same way about me. My Achilles heel was that I just spooned the baby food into a soft quenelle on the top. I did my best and was ready to face the judges. I rocked back and forth with an amazing sense of confidence and nervous energy. The title of my dish was Beau’s Bodacious T Bone named after my son. I knew the judges would ding me for the baby food but I had out cooked Tori on this one. There were lots of elements and layers of flavor built into the dish. I was beaming and now it was up to god. Tori went the other route with a very simple Bucatini called ‘not your grandmother’s pasta’. The judges loved her pasta and that brought me crashing back to reality.
We nervously waited as the judges deliberated. Guy brought us back to face the final verdict. He started with saying the judges were split and that the decision fell to one judge to break the tie. The butterflies returned in earnest and I started to question my last meal. I won!
Dessert: The Sweetness
I did it! A huge wave of relief washed over me and brought the realization I had won. That immediately segued into thoughts of Beau and wanting an ankle replacement surgery so I could run around with him. I teared up massively and could not stop the gush of emotions that freely flowed. It was an honest and amazing moment that I am sure even some of the most hardened camera crew felt.
The final challenge was running through the store with two minutes time and picking up to ten ingredients off a list, each worth two grand. I was worried about this one since I couldn’t run and figured I would give it my best shot. I was transported back to my busy kitchen before a slamming night and tried to remember the location of everything in the store. I was euphoric, the first three ingredients were easy to find. 6 grand in the bank. I got hung up on vanilla curd. I knew where lemon curd was but vanilla curd? I never even heard of that before. Guy said something like we’ll find that later. So I changed my focus and stared back at the list. The next few ingredients came real easy… then I heard Guy yell ten seconds, we need to find some pork rinds.
Five, four, three I had my hand on the bag but my cart was way up the aisle. I took a couple steps forward as he shouted two and I let it go… BAM! A perfect three pointer as satisfying to me as any game winner Micheal Jordan had sunk in his long and illustrious career.
Mignardises: Little Sweetnesses that require thanks!
I want to publicly thank all the people who helped me get on the show and film it. I want to thank my entire kitchen crew at Figue Mediterranean whose support and love carried me through two tough years in the Desert. I want to thank Guy Fieri and everyone affiliated with the Food Network, hopefully this isn’t the last that you all will see me. The entire crew was so amazing, kind, helpful and I feel blessed to have worked with them. Mostly I want to thank my wife for being my soul mate and never stopping to believe in me no matter the endless times I gave her great reasons to. Mostly I want to thank my beautiful son Beaumont for helping me learn what life is truly about. You are too young to understand but from the very first second I looked into your eyes I was hooked on you. You are my greatest source of pride and make me richer than anyone on the planet. Lastly I want to thank the trucker who hit me and left me for dead on the side of the Dan Ryan expressway back in July of 1993. For seven years I hated you immensely then I hiked the Appalachian Trail and midway through the Smokey Mountains I was able to let it go and forgive you. We may never meet in this world but I am certain you will be one of the five people I meet in heaven as your life has a major impact on mine. In a strange way you taught me a few important lessons on life like forgiveness, compassion and to enjoy life for whatever magical wild adventure that it is and to never take even the most mundane moment for granted.
Francois de Melogue, King of the World