At first Matt Ginn, executive chef at Evo Kitchen & Bar in Portland, had absolutely no appetite for cooking competition shows. Then he went on “Chopped,” which airs on the Food Network, and won $10,000. Fans streamed into his restaurant, asking him to sign menus and take selfies. He suddenly had hundreds of new Instagram followers.

Chef Mark Gaier, co-owner of MC Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, already had plenty of experience with food TV when “Top Chef Masters” came calling, inviting Gaier and his life and business partner, Clark Frasier, to compete independently. Gaier and Frasier had both been on “Beat Bobby Flay,” and were regulars on the morning shows. But on “Top Chef Masters,” they would be filming for weeks, and go up against some of the best chefs in the country. Frasier was all for it, but Gaier balked, big time.

Matt Ginn says his “Chopped” appearance added customers at Evo in Portland.

“I have an issue with reality TV. I was sort of insecure about doing it,” he said. “Not that I was afraid of losing, but that I would do something really stupid and embarrassing.”

In the end, Gaier’s therapist helped persuade him to do it, recommending that he tap into his healthy sense of humor to see him through the production.

Neither chef won, but Gaier left the show with a big boost of self confidence, and their restaurants (they owned two other places at the time) got a jump in traffic. Their Ogunquit restaurant alone saw well over a 10 percent increase in business over the next year. “Our phones were ringing off the hook,” Gaier said, “and MC was absolutely like an insane asylum.”

As Maine’s restaurant scene has drawn ever more national attention, food TV has come calling. “Chopped” has probably hunted for contestants in Maine most often, even holding periodic open casting calls. Local chefs have also appeared on shows such as “Beat Bobby Flay,” the now defunct “Rewrapped,” and a myriad of other food shows.

Some chefs embrace the challenge of competitive cooking as an opportunity for personal growth, fun outside their own kitchen, validation of their culinary skills, and a way to shine a national spotlight on their restaurants. Others plunge into the world of reality TV reluctantly, describing a hesitation to make themselves so vulnerable, and expressing concern that the programs are too much like game shows.

Maine chefs who have appeared on “Chopped” say the audition process is daunting. Filling out questionnaires is followed by multiple phone and Skype interviews with producers and directors.

Ever competitive, Ginn accepted a spot on the show because he was “eager to cut my teeth and see how well I performed against people from restaurants in other parts of the country.”

STRESS TEST

Austin Miller, chef/co-owner of Mami on Fore Street in Portland, got a recruitment call at his restaurant and was initially unenthused, mainly because he was worried about being away from Mami for three days. He had to answer written questions about himself and record a 30-second clip where he talked about how he feels about food. He went through three interviews, each time talking with different people.

Miller also had to assess his own personality, answering questions such as “Do you speak well on camera?” and “What do you have to prove?”

“They have scripts that they want you to read,” Miller said. “They kept getting mad at me because I just don’t talk like that. The more they told me to say it a certain way, have a certain sentence structure, I was, like, no way!”The more belligerent his answers, the more Miller was sure he’d never make it onto the show. So he was surprised when he found out he had.

Chef Rachel LeGloahec, a native Mainer who has moved back to the state, was a sous chef for Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas by age 24, and later owned a restaurant. She recently purchased Weft & Warp, a Maine business that makes knife rolls for chefs. LeGloahec admits she was skeptical when a friend in Vegas urged her to go to a West Coast casting call for “Chopped.” She figured the show was staged, and hated when they asked her questions like “What’s your favorite thing to cook?”

Rachel LeGloahec, a winner on “Chopped,” now owns Weft & Warp, maker of knife rolls and other items for chefs.

“It’s like asking a painter what’s their favorite color,” she said.

But surviving the gauntlet of interviews is just the first step. Next comes the stress of actually competing.

Contestants described a typical day filming “Chopped” in New York City. All the chefs appearing on the same episode meet at a fast food joint around 5:30 a.m. for a day that won’t end until 9 p.m. They are ushered into an unmarked building, where they must give up their cell phones. Ginn says that for “Chopped Champions,” pockets were checked for hidden recipes and smuggled kitchen equipment. Chefs say they were not even allowed to go to the bathroom alone.

“They don’t want you running into judges or getting lost,” LeGloahec said.

The taping itself can be draining, with cameras in your face, the clock ticking and famous judges watching your every move, Ginn said. A lot of filming occurs in between rounds, too.

There were, Miller said, “a thousand takes of everything.”

The stress level rises at the end of each round, when it’s time to be judged. Chefs say it’s not quite as bad as you see on TV. Miller enjoyed seeing the judges praise the chefs and “build them up,” but most of that praise gets edited out, he said.

Zachary Pratt, far left, of Boba in Lewiston, competed on “Chopped” against, from left, Nicholas Poulmentis, a Michelin-starred chef from New York who won; Elliot Williams of Westford, Mass.; and Asia Mei of Boston.

“The hardest part for me was once you get there and start cooking, you understand that they’re going to judge you like they’re in your restaurant,” he said. “The food is sitting there for a half hour before they eat it, so that kind of affects the way you’re cooking, or the way you plate it.”

The harsher critiques can be hard to swallow. Miller was “obviously disappointed” he didn’t win, taken down by mushi pan (a Japanese steamed cake), in the final round. He forgot to add leavener, “so my cake didn’t rise.”

After winning a “Chopped” episode that aired in July, Ginn was invited back for a fall episode of “Chopped Champions.” He lost that show – he was chopped after the entree round – and doesn’t mind admitting that it hurt. The judges said his dish – a small plate – was too small, not a complete entree. “To me, that’s a little 10 years ago to say,” Ginn said, adding “You can hear in my voice it still stings.”

Gaier, on the other hand, recalls feeling relieved when he was cut from “Top Chef Masters” because he was frustrated – his team’s teppanyaki had malfunctioned and he’d otherwise had a really bad day. He was exhausted after three weeks of taping the show, and worried about his restaurants, as Superstorm Sandy roiled up the East Coast.

“They were having audio issues, so they had to reshoot my getting cut, like, three times,” Gaier said.

MARKETING STRATEGY

James Beard Award winner Rob Evans was one of the first Maine chefs to compete on “Chopped.” In 2011, he brought home the $10,000 prize. But the attention-shy chef almost turned the gig down.

“I didn’t necessarily like being on TV,” Evans said, “but I was appreciative of the opportunity to do it for the exposure for my restaurants.”

When he got asked back to compete in “Chopped Champions,” he made it all the way to the dessert finale before he lost, a loss that surprised him because he’d taken a lot of risks and received a lot of praise from the judges, including being called a “genius.” But he has no regrets.

“Those shows put a line outside Duckfat’s doors for years after, so I got my money’s worth,” he said.

While competing in “Chopped Champions,” Evans had decided that if he won the $50,000 prize, he’d buy a tractor for his farm in Limington. He didn’t win the money, but his business did so well – Duckfat’s sales have grown 20 percent annually ever since – he was able to buy the tractor the year after he appeared on the show, regardless.

Indeed, chefs say that one of the biggest advantages of being on food TV is that it puts their restaurants on diners’ radar.

Ginn knows whenever his episode is rebroadcast because of social media – he’ll wake up one morning with texts from friends and new followers. “I didn’t have any idea how big the reach is,” he said.

Zachary Pratt, chef/owner of Boba in Lewiston, signed up for “Chopped” because he wanted to test his abilities as a young chef. He got more than he bargained for when he discovered one of his competitors was a Michelin-starred chef. He lost to that chef in the final round, but says the experience was invaluable when it came to marketing Boba, which serves Asian cuisine. The restaurant immediately went from serving 70 or 80 customers a day to 130-200, he said.

The original Boba is closed now, but Pratt is working on opening a new, expanded version next spring. And he plans, somehow, to use his television experience to market his new place. (Martha Stewart, who was a judge on his episode, promised she would visit.)

Shanna O’Hea of Academe in Kennebunk won a TV competition by creating a spice cake made with Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli.

Appearing on food TV has become a marketing strategy in and of itself for Shanna and Brian O’Hea, chefs at Academe in the Kennebunk Inn. First, their lobster pot pie made it onto the Food Network show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

“That episode changed our whole business,” she said. “It got us on the Food Network radar.”

Then, she made it on to “Chopped” in 2012, but didn’t win. She later appeared on “Rewrapped,” where she was challenged to create a dessert using Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli. O’Hea won handily with her Beef Ravioli Spice Cake. Her prize? A year’s supply of the canned ravioli, which she donated to a food bank. She’s also been on “Beat Bobby Flay.”

The O’Heas parlayed their 15 minutes of TV fame into a side business shipping the lobster pot pie and other products. They go on guest chef cruises on Holland America, and they cook at the Epcot Food & Wine Festival in Florida. They teach at Stonewall Kitchen Cooking School. O’Hea credits learning to talk on camera with putting her at ease in all these other situations.

“You can be a great chef,” she said, “but you have to be able to talk to people.”

BUILDING SELF-ESTEEM

A boost in confidence is another perk of being on the shows, even if you lose.

Christian Hayes, chef/owner at Dandelion Catering in Yarmouth, won $10,000 on “Chopped” in March, but said he took it on for the personal challenge, not the money, because it was “way outside of my comfort level.” Hayes compares food TV with being in a band – it takes time to get comfortable playing in front of a large crowd. He said “performing” in front of such a big audience, under pressure, gave him a degree of confidence he didn’t have before. “I’m a very insecure person, so I crave little spots of reassurances and validity in order for me to feel like I’m on the right track.”

Christian Hayes of Dandelion Catering in Yarmouth won $10,000 on “Chopped.”

LeGloahec said that after so many years working in fine dining kitchens, where nothing you do is ever good enough, winning on “Chopped” also gave her newfound confidence and validated her choices in life.

Some Maine chefs, including Pratt and Miller, say they would probably go on a cooking competition show again, even if only to do a “redemption round” where they win instead of losing.

“It’s not about the money,” Miller said, because “it comes and goes so quickly. The thing that’s going to last is knowing you did this. It’s more about personal gain and personal growth.”

Ginn says yes to the idea of more shows, and O’Hea says she and her husband have already auditioned for many other shows.

Frasier and Gaier both lost on “Beat Bobby Flay” and say “Top Chef Masters” had a much bigger impact on their businesses. Yet if they had to choose a show for a repeat appearance, they’d probably pick “Beat Bobby Flay,” which they liked because it was well organized, well stocked with equipment and ingredients, and shooting lasted only a day. Plus it had a studio audience.

“For a ham like me, it was fun to play off the studio audience,” Frasier said. “That gave me a lot of energy and it was fun.”

Evans has appeared on other food TV shows but says he wouldn’t do another cooking competition. “I’ve turned down a lot of stuff in the past couple of years,” he said.

What did he learn about himself from doing “Chopped”? How much of an adrenaline junkie he is.

“I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it, and I did,” he said.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad


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