Flash in the pan

Cooking shows stir up all the rivalry and pressure of other reality shows, and sprinkle in some of the outcomes

Benjamin Knack at Sel de la Terre before the screening party for his appearance on “Hell’s Kitchen.’’ Benjamin Knack at Sel de la Terre before the screening party for his appearance on “Hell’s Kitchen.’’ (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / June 16, 2010

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Benjamin Knack, a chef from Malden who had had many cooking jobs and was teaching customer service techniques at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, was cast on the current season of “Hell’s Kitchen’’ because of his determination.

“Someone I knew had the personal cellphone number for the New England casting director,’’ says Knack, 34. “So I called her cellphone like eight times. Late at night, everything. The casting director was getting really angry, and told me to stop calling her. But I kept calling and telling her, I want to try to be on ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’ Finally she told me trying wasn’t enough. You have to want it. So I told her I want to be on the show. She said, ‘Yell it!’ So I yelled into the phone, as loud as I could: I want to be on ‘Hell’s Kitchen!’ ’’

In that “Jerry Maguire’’ moment, she was persuaded. “He’s persistent, and he has the ‘It’ factor, Debbie Ganz, the casting director, told me. “We love him!’’ Knack got on the show. Afterward, he was offered a new job. Now he is chef de cuisine at Sel de la Terre on State Street.

Of course, not everyone’s life changes that dramatically after an appearance on a reality show. Chefs already well known and who have cooked on TV say things remain relatively unchanged, with perhaps an added measure of recognition. When restaurateur Jody Adams of Rialto appeared on “Top Chef Masters’’ this spring, she says, “Younger people came in more, and many would ask for me. They sometimes ask if I am cooking dinner.’’ They also want to know if she would make the same food she made on the show. With a rueful smile, and a thought of the meat dish that was her demise in episode six, she adds, “Except for the goat.’’

On the spectrum of TV cooking competitions, the top tier shows are for renowned chefs, while the grittier shows are for aspirants hoping to make it big. Celebrity chefs reside in saintly light in the relative paradise of “Top Chef Masters’’ on Bravo, an elite coterie of equals enjoying the challenge of cooking with an ingredient or two with which they are presented. The Masters face judgment, and expulsion by noted food critics. Competitors are participating in these genteel cook-offs to benefit their chosen charities. Guests on the middle-tier shows, such as the civilian version of “Top Chef,’’ also on Bravo, struggle in a purgatory of conflict, self-doubt, and, often, recrimination. But here, whether cooking a timed amuse-bouche or a main course of a required theme, skills and knowledge are still a main focus.

For contestants on the less rarefied shows — the scream fest “Hell’s Kitchen’’ on Fox, for example, or the more civilized “Chopped’’ on the Food Network — the personal stakes are much higher, and the shows exploit those hopes. After so many seasons, we can get a view of what the effect is on the participating chefs, their restaurants, and our own expectations.

Ana Sortun of Oleana Restaurant and Sofra Bakery and Cafe, who was also on “Top Chef Masters’’ this spring, also noticed a surge in business among a younger demographic in the weeks when the show aired, and to a lesser degree, ever since. This month she was invited to the White House by Michelle Obama to join the Chefs Move to Schools program (see related story, Page 12). Sortun will choose a Boston school and work with the community to improve the meals.

Being a chef is becoming an increasingly respected position. Cashing in on this phenomenon, some shows offer a zero-to-hero chance to become famous overnight, and entry-level contestants are scrambling for spots. In the most brazen nod to master-chef aspiration, “Hell’s Kitchen’’ awards its winner the position of executive chef at London’s legendary Savoy Grill. It’s quite a jump from a show that makes the same three dishes every season. What happens if something other than beef Wellington, lobster risotto, and scallops are on the Savoy menu?

For chefs and aspirants, the motivation to appear on the expanding roster of shows seems obvious. The word you expect to hear is “fame.’’ But Boston’s on-screen contingent — past, present, and future — all use the word “exposure.’’ As Jason Santos, executive chef at Gargoyles on the Square in Somerville and a current “Hell’s Kitchen’’ competitor, explains, “It’s exposure on a national platform, and you can do a lot with that. But you can wind up feeling, well, exposed.’’ The show begins with a short challenge. Losers must perform exhausting manual labor (say, clean the dorm). Winners rest up for the multicourse dinner they’re cooking the next day, which ostensibly pits one half of the cast against the other. In reality, it’s every man for himself.

Santos says that while he may have an idea of how he’s doing, the video goes into an editing room and then it’s anyone’s guess. “Depending on how they edit you, you might be the villain, the leader, maybe even a great chef,’’ he says. “I mean, the cameras are everywhere, and for two months they’re always on. The episodes are not that long.’’

On “Hell’s Kitchen’’ (and nowhere else), Santos is called “Jay’’ (there was already another Jason). He wears a white uniform with a “Hell’s Kitchen’’ logo. His hair, normally a subtle blue wash, is an extreme bright blue and spiked in odd directions. And the show’s lighting gives his face an odd, doll-like cast. Between F-bombs, dress-downs, and earsplitting expulsions from the kitchen, host Gordon Ramsay calls him “Smurf.’’

“Hell’s Kitchen’’ contestants are sequestered, mostly incommunicado, in Los Angeles during the two months of filming, regardless of how they fare. This prevents outside observers from learning which contestants remain. The upper-tier shows allow participants to exit when eliminated. Like many contestants, Santos told friends he was going on vacation. Afterward, contestants are contractually sworn to silence about events that take place until they air — a long time considering the current season of “Hell’s Kitchen’’ was filmed by Fox nearly two years ago. For Bravo network shows, all press communication with the contestants, even years after the shows have aired, must be with a Bravo representative present to monitor forbidden questions or answers.

“Chopped’’ or “Top Chef’’ represent a kind of purgatory for mid-tier chefs. “Top Chef’’ pits promising young working chefs — called “cheftestants’’ — against one another in various structured cook-offs to win $125,000, lots of press, and the title of “Top Chef.’’

Patrick Dunlea, a Quincy native, appeared on “Top Chef’’ two years ago when he was 21. Unceremoniously eliminated on the first episode, he achieved both notoriety and gay heartthrob status on certain fan blogs. Dunlea took it in stride, returning to the Culinary Institute of America, where he was a student, graduating, then spending the past year learning cheese-making at Bobolink farms in New Jersey. “I had all this exposure, I knew technique . . . but I knew nothing about where the ingredients came from, how they were made. That matters to me,’’ he says. This month, he moved to Atlanta to resume work as a chef.

Ed Cotton, 32, a chef at Plein Sud, in Manhattan, and Jacqueline Lombard, 33, a private chef, both Boston natives, are equally sanguine about their upcoming appearances on the new season of “Top Chef,’’ which starts tonight. Both are hoping modestly for a personal challenge and the opportunity to do meaningful charity work afterward. Lombard says, “I did not participate in ‘Top Chef’ to become a celebrity personality.’’ Both realize that as the number of shows and contestants multiply, the half-life of the afterglow gets shorter. Nonetheless, they do view it as part of the path to being a world-class chef.

On TV, great chefs are fun to watch and often the cooking is interesting and exciting. Struggling cooks make a show mostly about struggle. The shows turn out to be real enough because it’s hard to fake the cooking. At all levels it’s entertaining. It just depends on whether you’re in the mood for heaven, or hell.

Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at