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Fun Friday: My Favorite Celebrity Chefs

Friday, February 5, 2010


First things first, congratulations to Faith McLellan, who suggested the name Phoebe for Zarah’s sister in Love Remains. Faith will receive the first signed copy of the book when it comes out later this year! Final results of the poll can be found here.

Now, for anyone who’s been hanging around this blog for a while, you know that I have a “thing” for Food Network and certain celebrity chefs. So I thought today (since I’ve promised a few people that I won’t spend all the the Fridays this spring blogging about this week’s episode of LOST—either because they aren’t caught up and don’t want the spoilers or they don’t care) I would count down my top five favorite celebrity chefs.

5. Rick Bayless—This chef entered my consciousness first as a guest judge on my absolute favorite cooking show, Top Chef (Bravo TV) and then as a contestant himself on the Top Chef: Masters season. Rick Bayless, unlike a lot of celebrity chefs, is very soft-spoken and quiet, unusual in a career that seems to draw big personalities and even bigger egos. Raised in Oklahoma, Bayless majored in Spanish and Latin American studies in college—even pursued his Ph.D. in Anthropological Linguistics. He and his wife lived in Mexico for six years, which is where Bayless developed his passion for cooking traditional Mexican cuisine. For the past two decades, Bayless has championed traditional Latin flavors while creating a unique cuisine that I would love the chance to sample one day at one of his restaurants.

4. John Besh—As a premiere chef in New Orleans, John Besh’s name is one that I’d heard for several years before he showed up on my TV as a contestant in the first Next Iron Chef competition in 2007. Besh grew up in Slidell, Louisiana (on the northeast side of Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans), and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves after graduating from high school. He saw ten months of active duty in 1990–1991 during Desert Storm and participated in the capture of Kuwait International Airport. After he returned, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. In 1999, he was named one of the Ten Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine, and in 2006, he was named the Best Chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Besh returned quickly to New Orleans and, in addition to helping coordinate efforts to clean up and rebuild his and other restaurants, he cooked and served food to relief workers and participated in several fundraisers around the country to support the relief efforts. Besh came in second on Next Iron Chef and didn’t make it to the final round of Top Chef: Masters, but he’s definitely a Top Iron Chef to me.

3. Chef Bobby Flay—Are you ready for a Throwdown? It wasn’t so long ago that Bobby Flay was some redheaded upstart with a grilling show on during the midday segment. Then, all of a sudden, he had three or four shows going. Then he became an Iron Chef—and he was indestructible. Flay started early in the restaurant industry, getting his first restaurant job at seventeen. In 1984, he was a member of the first graduating class of the French Culinary Institute (NYC). He opened his first restaurant, Mesa Grill, in 1991, and it was named Best New Restaurant in 1992 by New York Magazine restaurant critic Gael Green. In 1993, he earned the Outstanding Graduate Award from FIC and the Rising Star Chef award from the James Beard Foundation, recognizing him as one of the country’s most accomplished chefs under 30. With more than half a dozen restaurants across the country (and the Bahamas), and almost as many shows on Food Network (it seems), Bobby Flay is one of the most recognizable chefs in the United States. And even though he does have the big personality and big ego that are typical for big-time executive chefs and restaurateurs, he has a good sense of humility to go with it—which makes him seem like he’d be a fun person to hang out with. And there are very few things I’ve seen him make on TV that I wouldn’t want to eat.

2. Chef Tyler Florence—For anyone who’s looked at the casting post or heard me talk about the inspiration for Menu for Romance, I know you’ll be shocked that he’s not the #1 chef on this list. A 1991 graduate of Johnson & Wales University in South Carolina, Florence worked in Charleston for a couple of years, then moved to New York City to work as an executive chef in a succession of acclaimed restaurants, winning awards and acclaim for himself. While working at Cibo restaurant, he had his first opportunity to appear on a program on the fledgling Food Network. By 1999, he was employed full-time by the network, hosting the shows How to Boil Water and Food 911 (the show which led me to start thinking about a certain character named Major O’Hara). Katie Couric once called Florence “the sexiest man to ever pick up a chef’s knife.” At one time, I agreed until . . .

1. Chef Robert Irvine—My favorite celebrity chef started his culinary career at age fifteen when he enlisted in the Royal Navy. He served as a cook aboard Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht Brittania. His first “Dinner Impossible” happened when the yacht was called to provide relief efforts during an uprising in Yemen in 1986, when he was twenty-one years old. He was informed that more than 4,000 evacuees were waiting for transport on the beach and needed to be fed. With no mobile kitchen and only the food stores available on the yacht, Irvine had to improvise. “There were undisguised elements of the story of the loaves and fishes in this challenge, and I took some of my cues from the similarities.” After taking inventory of the food available, and pulling out what he could cook in bulk (beans and rice) he needed something to cook them in. “In those moments, it helps to break your problem down to the absolute basics. Need very big pots. Metal. What’s big, can hold lots of food, and is made of metal? Wait for it . . . garbage cans.” Yes, he found half a dozen brand-new aluminum garbage cans in the hold of the ship and used those to cook all that food and feed those people. And these kinds of challenges seem to have been the theme of his life, leading him to finally find recognition and fame as the chef who takes on impossible catering challenges every week on Dinner Impossible. Aside from the fact that he’s the sexiest man to ever pick up a chef’s knife (gotta love those tight black T-shirts!), and despite the British accent, what I love about Chef Robert Irvine is the way that he can get things done without alienating people. Sure, he yells, sometimes, but then he makes sure the non-professionals helping him understand what he needs done without making them feel stupid or belittled (unlike how Gordon Ramsay does it on Hell’s Kitchen, which is why I won’t watch that show and why Gordon Ramsay isn’t on this list, even though I love his shows on BBC-A). Plus, Chef Irvine has a great sense of humor, about himself and about life in general, it seems. He also has a big heart to go along with those big “guns.”

Addendum: I can’t believe I didn’t think to add this video last night when I wrote this. After watching the following video last fall, I sent my mom an e-mail telling her I wanted to go to Robert’s house for Thanksgiving instead of home:

  1. Friday, February 5, 2010 8:43 am

    I love Food Network, and if I find myself flipping through the channels, and Bobby Flay is on, the channel stays there just a surely as if “Sleepless in Seattle” was on . . .


    • Friday, February 5, 2010 11:26 am

      The funny thing is, I always root for him on Iron Chef but for the competitor on Throwdown. I guess it’s a difference of them coming into his “house” and him going into their “house.”


  2. Friday, February 5, 2010 11:11 am

    I decided a long time ago (haha) if I come into unlimited money I’ll hire a personal chef. LOL


    • Friday, February 5, 2010 11:25 am

      If I ever get that million-dollar deal, first thing I’m doing is hiring a personal chef! Preferably one with the initials R. I.!


  3. Becky Miller permalink
    Friday, February 5, 2010 11:16 am

    Robert Irvine is crazy intense. And brilliant. I loved his Groundhog’s Day episode, I think it was last year, when he worked all night to put on a breakfast for people in Punxatawney.


    • Friday, February 5, 2010 11:24 am

      See the video I just updated the post with—that was what cemented Robert in my top spot!


  4. Friday, February 5, 2010 11:22 am

    I’m nowhere near the groupie you are when it comes to chefs. I like Gordon Ramsay (all three of his shows) and Guy Fieri. I like to watch Iron Chef and Ace of Cakes.


    • Friday, February 5, 2010 11:24 am

      I thought about including Guy Fieri—after all, I paid money to go see his Road Show back in November. But I see him as an entertainer, not a chef. But I do love me some Triple-D.


  5. Kate Shiloh permalink
    Friday, February 5, 2010 3:36 pm

    Kaye, I’m with you on the Food Network thing. Especially the evening shows. Great way to relax. Emeril would be on my list of favorite chefs, along with some of those you mentioned above.


  6. Audrey permalink
    Friday, February 5, 2010 5:02 pm

    The only show I watch on the food network is Ace Of Cakes!!! Duff Goldman is awesomeness! What he and his crew can do with cake blows my mind every week. Making cakes is not easy (I took the courses offered at Michael’s) and yet it seems that way when they do them.
    They have done so many awesome cakes, Han Solo in carbonite, 4ft superbowl cake, cakes that are dead ringers for real bacon, eggs and toast.
    It’s truly an art form.


  7. Lynette permalink
    Saturday, February 6, 2010 5:58 pm

    I enjoyed your countdown, Kaye! Rick (as you know) is one of my favorites. Food Network is probably one of the most-watched channels in our house, and we always catch Top Chef when it’s on. 🙂


  8. Lizard permalink
    Saturday, February 6, 2010 9:13 pm

    I love Ace of Cakes with Duff and his crew. I was also grown to love Cake Boss on TLC. Buddy and his family are just so funny sometimes. It seems to add something that all of the people are related by blood or marriage in the shop. I love my family, but I don’t know if I could work with them all day everyday. I like Duff’s cakes better, but Buddy is fun to watch.


  9. Sunday, February 7, 2010 5:30 pm

    My favorite ever was Juan-Carlos Cruz who starred in the show Calorie Commando. I wish Food Network would bring that show back. They had great recipe ideas and practicle ideas for fitness routines. It was motivating to watch the contestants overcome everyday & everyman/woman struggles to achieve their goals.


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