- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

LAS VEGAS - Inside a nondescript conference room at a hotel-casino, Gerald Louis Ford sat and listened to the influential speakers.

Mr. Ford, 23, a recent graduate of a prestigious New York school, heard about how he might need to hire media handlers. He was informed that acting classes could be a good idea.

He was taught in a mock news conference how to deflect tricky questions and give the right answers. The instruction might have been appropriate for a blossoming Hollywood star or young politician, but Mr. Ford was neither.

The tall, burly Mr. Ford is a cook — one who had been singled out as perhaps the next celebrity chef. He and seven other top cooking-school graduates recently sliced and chopped their way through the “Almost Famous Chef” competition.

The 2-year-old contest, a sort of American Idol for fledgling culinary talents, was an effort by food-service companies to identify the next kitchen icon, the person who might use their products on television shows and in high-profile restaurants.

It also was an education in shameless self-promotion, one key to prospering in the grueling restaurant business.

Purists might argue the contest is corrupting. Industry insiders say it makes sense. If editors are going to splash chefs posing as rock stars on covers such Gourmet magazine’s most recent edition, they might as well know how to play the game.

There’s nothing wrong, they say, with aspiring to be a Jamie Oliver or Bobby Flay, mainstays on the popular Food Network.

“In this day and age it’s not an unworthy goal,” said Bill Rice, Chicago Tribune food critic and chairman of the James Beard Awards Restaurant Committee. “It’s not crass.”

Contestant Nathan Lyon, 32, a one-time model and cook at Lucques in Los Angeles, said cooking is the easy part. Many chefs are socially challenged, he said.

“The only thing we can do is work in the kitchen.”

What better place, the “Almost Famous” event’s creators said, to expose promising cooks to the perks and pressure of fame than Las Vegas — a city that built its food reputation on the backs of celebrity chefs.

The contestants learned the competition involved much more than food.

They were served up a series of lectures by Mr. Rice, chef Susan Feniger of the TV food show “Too Hot Tamales”; Katie O’Kennedy, a senior editor at Bon Appetit; and others.

The eager invitees were told not to lose sight of the food, which will ultimately establish their reputation. And not to set out to be a celebrity chef, but to listen up, should it happen.

Then the critics and gastronomes unsheathed some trade secrets.

Lesson No. 1 came from Miss Feniger.

“You want the media to be there,” she said. “You want to be covered because the more you’re covered the more business you do.”

Miss O’Kennedy deconstructed the Food Network’s personalities. How did Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse succeed outside the kitchen?

“Timing and a certain amount of luck” are important, Miss O’Kennedy said.

“Personality is a big deal,” she said. “Creating buzz is the last step.”

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