Being on television was never one of Heather Priest’s goals, but in 2010 the 34-year-old private chef found herself competing for $10,000 on Chopped, a Food Network show that pits four chefs against one another. The competition is divided into three rounds—appetizer, entrée and dessert—and the contestants are given a mystery basket of five ingredients to use in each one. The judges cut the contestant with the worst dish until only the winner is left. Priest won her episode with a dessert made from challah bread, almond butter, tamarind pods and delicata squash.
“It was as intensive as it looks,” she remembered. “It was a 16-hour day. All of the cooking on the show is real, but the part where they judge you is not. I told a joke and the director asked me, ‘Could you say that again?’ Jokes are spontaneous, so it wasn’t the same the second time. The whole experience was fun, but being on television is weird.”
Reality television is sometimes criticized for making celebrities of people with no discernible talent other than the ability to get on TV. But this isn’t true of cooking competitions like Chopped, Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, or Bravo’s Top Chef. These shows depend on a stream of talented—and sometimes eccentric—chefs ready to showcase their kitchen skills. Priest, who originally is from Stamping Ground, is one of a number of chefs with Kentucky roots who have shown up on national television cooking competitions. The list also includes Edward Lee, owner and executive chef at 610 Magnolia, a recent contestant on Top Chef Texas and a winner of Iron Chef America; Natalie Blake of the Beaumont Inn, a historic Harrodsburg bed and breakfast, who was on Hell’s Kitchen; Lynn Winter, owner of Lynn’s Paradise Café, who won a spatula-to-spatula competition on the Food Network’s Throwdown! With Bobby Flay; and Chef Todd Richards, former executive chef at The Oakroom at The Seelbach Hotel, who also was on Iron Chef America and served as a judge on Throwdown! With Bobby Flay (the episode that Winter won).
Game shows and cooking shows are two of the oldest formats on television, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a combination of the two is attractive to viewers. Five million people tune in each week to watch Gordon Ramsey torture the chefs in Hell’s Kitchen. Another 2 million marvel at the stress-filled Quickfire Challenges on Bravo’s Emmy Award-winning Top Chef.
“Cooking shows are popular right now because they are something the whole family can watch,” Lee explained. “A lot of television now is too silly or racy, but a cooking show is something that appeals to a lot of different age groups. It’s not surprising that some of the contestants come from Kentucky because there is good food everywhere.”
Priest added, “It’s a cycle like game shows in the ’80s; it goes through ups and downs. Cooking shows were big 15 years ago, when Rachel Ray and Emeril came on the scene. Today, so many people eat out that they are interested in seeing how things are done in the kitchen. And, of course, chefs want to show their skills.”
Priest and Lee are friends who have done some catering jobs together in the New York area. In fact, it was Lee’s relationship with the Food Network that led to Priest’s appearance on Chopped. Lee, 39, grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he started cooking by watching his grandmother. He began working in restaurants when he was a teenager. After receiving a degree in English literature from New York University, Lee decided his time was better spent in the kitchen than discussing the finer points of Henry James. With no formal culinary training, he set out to become one of the top chefs in the nation.
It was a visit to the Kentucky Derby that led Lee to relocate to Louisville. He was impressed by the high quality of the city’s eclectic dining scene. Nearly eight years ago, Lee bought 610 Magnolia, which is housed in a beautiful Victorian home near Central Park in the Old Louisville neighborhood. The restaurant features an ever-changing menu based on the availability of organic ingredients in the Kentuckiana region. This farm-to-table approach landed Lee on the national culinary radar and led to appearances at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. It was a feature in Gourmet magazine that convinced producers from Iron Chef America to invite Lee on the show in 2010.
Lee doesn’t watch much television, but he was intrigued by the offer because Iron Chef America contestants must create three dishes using a secret ingredient. The producers provided him a list of three potential secret ingredients (blue cheese, tongues and cheeks, and a Hawaiian fish), but he didn’t know which one they would pick until the day of the show. With only about a month to prepare for his kitchen battle, Lee and two assistants spent two Sundays experimenting with menus and practicing with a pressure cooker, which was something they did not use at 610 Magnolia.
When the time came for his appearance, Lee challenged the newest Iron Chef, Jose Garces of Tupilano’s in New Jersey. The secret ingredient turned out to be tongues and cheeks, which was comforting to Lee because of his Korean heritage. He defeated Garces with a trio of dishes that included cow tongue Reuben, sauerkraut soup and duck tongue tempura.
Lee said cooking on the show with its time limits, the audience and the television cameras wasn’t distracting because he was going on instinct. “Having grown up eating the stuff [tongues and cheeks], I was thrilled to get to showcase the versatility of these underappreciated cuts,” Lee wrote in a blog entry after his Iron Chef America stint. “The battle itself was one of the toughest hours of my life … and then there was the judging! Chef Garces created some fantastic dishes, but in the end my guys and I emerged as the victors by a 5-point margin. It still feels like I dreamt it.”
It was a dream that didn’t end for him or Priest. Because of his Iron Chef America victory, Lee developed a relationship with the Food Network. When one of the producers asked him to recommend a chef in the New York area for Chopped, he immediately thought of Priest. The Iron Chef appearance also led to Bravo contacting him about submitting an audition tape for Top Chef, which took place in Texas this season.
The experience of filming Top Chef was vastly different for Lee because in addition to competing in the kitchen, he had to live with the other contestants for six weeks. The living arrangements and constant cooking challenges caused mental fatigue and some strained nerves on the Top Chef set. But Lee said he is contractually prohibited from sharing any stories about what went on off camera between the chefs.
Lee made it to the top five out of 16 contestants on Top Chef Texas. Part of the difficulty of the show for him was making dishes that he wouldn’t normally cook. But it was braised pork belly and smoked oyster crema with pickled vegetables that got him sent home. The judges enjoyed the meat and the sauce in his dish, but they did not enjoy them together. Host Padma Lakshmi delivered the show’s patented kiss-off to Lee: “Pack your knives and go.”
“I never watched the show much before I was on it, so I was less star struck by the judges than the other chefs,” Lee said. “Obviously, there is a lot of tension when it is going on, but I found the judges were very helpful; they were very professional. Afterward, they were thankful and wished us good luck.”
Priest is more outspoken about the heated competitiveness she experienced last year when she returned to the Food Network for the Chopped Champions Tournament. Paired against three other former winners, Priest was competing for a $50,000 prize, but what she really wanted to do was shut up a few of the other contestants.
“Two of the guys I was going against were really into themselves,” Priest said. “They talked so much trash. I wanted to win so badly because they were annoying.”
Unfortunately, Priest was eliminated in the second round when the judges felt that her entrée, which was made with antelope, could have used a sauce. But her experience does point to the subjectivity of these cooking competitions and how television sometimes casts chefs as heroes or villains. Natalie Blake, who appeared on Hell’s Kitchen, said she definitely felt there were some people on her show who cared more about the battle of wills and TV ratings than showing their cooking skills.
“There were a few contestants that weren’t really honest to the show,” Blake admitted. “They wanted to be bad guys to get more time on television. It was 10 times worse than you saw on television.”
Blake, 24, is a graduate of Mercer County High School. She studied psychology at the University of Kentucky, but fell in love with the culinary arts when she started cooking for herself in her off-campus apartment. After leaving UK, she moved to Louisville to study at Sullivan University. Blake auditioned for Hell’s Kitchen on a lark. It gave her an excuse to visit friends in Louisville on a weekend off from Beaumont Inn. The whole process involved two auditions and three interviews, with the last being in California, where the show is produced.
Blake’s first audition took place in October 2010. In February 2011, she got a call that she had to be in California in two weeks for the show. “The Beaumont Inn was really supportive,” Blake declared. “They said, ‘We’ll see you whenever you get back.’ I was gone for six weeks and it was way more involved than I expected. There was a lot of ‘Can you do that again?’ And the house we lived in had cameras everywhere. There was totally no privacy.”
Initially, the contestants were split into teams by gender. Because the female team won so many challenges, Ramsey decided at one point to even things out by moving Blake to the men’s team. In a particular episode, the blue team won a challenge and their reward was to take a trip on a luxury boat. Blake can be seen relaxing with her team in a hot tub. The men are drinking and flirting with the attractive blonde, but Blake says the clips were edited to make it look as if something more was happening. This caused some problems on and off camera.
“I was disappointed the show wasn’t more about cooking skills,” she said. “A lot of people were cheated out of cooking as well as they could because of the other stuff that goes on in Hell’s Kitchen. I’ve worked with men for years, and have male friends in the kitchen without it being anything but professional. The way things were presented on television could be misinterpreted. I have a boyfriend of two years. He understands that it is a show, and they have to make it as entertaining as possible. But I had some explaining to do.”
Overall, Blake said her experience on Hell’s Kitchen was rewarding. She got to spend time with one of the top chefs in the world, and it has changed the way she conducts herself in the kitchen. Blake said she learned a lot of classical French cooking techniques from Ramsey, and she uses more butter in her recipes because it worked so well on the show. By the way, she says Ramsey is not so overbearing off camera.
“He does mellow out when the camera is off,” Blake said. “He’s a good teacher and a nice guy. He had really nice things to say to people before he sent them home.”
Blake’s downfall came after a stressful night manning the fish station, but she says even that was overblown on television. On the show, viewers see restaurant patrons sending plate after plate of undercooked fish back to the kitchen. But Blake said in reality the plates came back as long as two hours after she had sent them to Ramsey for approval.
However, Blake, like Lee and Priest, feels the overall television experience was worthwhile. Priest now teaches culinary arts at a Connecticut high school, and she said her students get a kick out of television celebrity. The publicity from Top Chef Texas has increased the traffic at Lee’s 610 Magnolia. And Blake said just being a contestant on Hell’s Kitchen makes her a star in Harrodsburg.
“People want me to come to their table and take pictures with them,” she said. “I’m kind of surprised about that. What have I done? I was just on a show.”
— Michael L. Jones