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While working as a chef at Healdsburg's Simi Winery for the past 12years, Eric Lee learned how to make wine the star of the show.

But after he watched an episode of "Food Network Star" last year, the 44-year-old chef decided he was ready for prime time as well.

"One of the contestants couldn't make risotto for Wolfgang Puck," Lee said. "I thought, I really have to go on this show. I really want to show people how to cook."

The famous risotto episode, with Puck leading the contestant into the kitchen for a cooking lesson, is now part of "Food Network Star" history.

Meanwhile, Lee is enjoying his own 15 minutes of fame as one of 15 finalists on season eight of "Food Network Star," which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday. A casting special will air at 9 p.m. Saturday.

Lee, who grew up in San Mateo and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in New York, said he has been thinking about a TV career, on and off, for several years. Last year, he was able to get some on-air experience on NBC's "The Today Show," demonstrating a pasta for Valentine's Day and a stuffed burger for Memorial Day.

"I did the first show with Al Roker, and I made a Dungeness Crab Bucatini Carbonara," he said. "I had so much fun. So I thought, this is what I really want to do."

Last July, Lee flew to Las Vegas for a personal interview with the casting agent for "Food Network Star" and was asked to come back in two days with a signature dish.

"Of course, I brought two signature dishes," said Lee, who whipped up a Quail Egg "Toad in the Hole" with bacon and arugula, plus a Seared Lamb Tartare with Calabrian chiles and mint.

"I love that one, because it shocks people that I'm doing lamb with a pinot gris," he said. "I like doing the unexpected. ... I don't go for the tried-and-true wine pairing."

At the end of October, Lee flew back to New York for the final casting, where three celebrity chefs — Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis and Alton Brown — each chose five finalists to work on their respective teams.

Flay, who owns 12 restaurants and serves as the host of seven Food Network shows, chose Lee.

"I was very happy to have him as my mentor," Lee said. "His philosophy is, &‘I can take a great chef and turn him into a great TV star.'"

Lee said he got good advice from Flay, who built his own reputation on the glowing coals of the all-American grill.

"He would say things like, "Focus on the food,' " Lee said. "And he told me to have fun."

Lee left his job at Simi Winery in early January in order to film the show over the winter.

His biggest surprise? He was shocked at how difficult it was to look natural and relaxed in front of the camera.

"The camera doesn't lie," he said. "If you're stressed out or not enjoying yourself, it's obvious. And that's a lot harder than it looks on television."

But the cooking challenges — including a "Chopped"- style cooking battle, a New York Fashion Week food makeover and a Miami beachside competition to style a VIP event for celebrity chef Paula Deen — were all easy for Lee.

"I loved the cooking part the most," Lee said. "Where else can you run around Whole Foods with a camera? You can't recreate a Food Network show at home. You have to do it in their environment, and that was so exciting."

Still, the complex logistics of the cooking challenges, combined with a grueling schedule and constant fatigue, did take a toll.

"We were tired all the time," he said. "You want to perform the best you can every second of the day, and it's hard to keep that adrenaline going."

This season, the show was given a new twist, with the finalists working together as a team for the first time.

"The team aspect made things different," he said. "You're really tied to your teammates and how you perform as a group. So even if you do really well, somebody on your team could be in the bottom."

Lee was pleasantly surprised by the positive attitude of his fellow finalists, many of whom became fast friends over the course of the shooting.

"I thought there would be a lot of animosity and back-biting," he said. "I didn't love everybody that was there, but I liked them a lot more than I expected."

Lee lives in Petaluma with his wife, Laura, who is an instructor at the Napa Valley Cooking School.

"That was a must-have, a partner who loves food as much as I do, and loves to travel," he said. "We went to Thailand and Cambodia last year."

In his spare time, Lee also enjoys taking photographs of food. For the past few months, he has been doing some consulting for small wineries when he's not flying back to New York for Food Network events.

<NO>Back in 2006, another chef from Sonoma County launched a national TV career by winning the second season of "The Next Food Network Star." Guy Fieri, who went on to host several food shows — including the wildly popular "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" — will make a guest appearance this season in a holiday-themed episode of "Food Network Star."

To learn more about Lee<NO1>'s cooking philosophy, food photography and <NO><NO1>TV appearances<NO>, go to chefericlee.com.

Lee made this recipe on "The Today Show" in February of 2011 while he was the executive chef at Simi Winery in Healdsburg.

Dungeness Crab Bucatini Carbonara

Makes 2 servings

1 clove garlic, sliced

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces pancetta or bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons chardonnay, such as the Simi Sonoma County Chardonnay

1 large egg

? cup freshly grated Pamigiano-Reggiano cheese

Pinch kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon chopped Italian flat parsley

4 ounces fresh cooked Dungeness crab meat (or canned lump Blue crab meat)

?pound bucatini pasta

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.

In a large saute pan, heat the garlic slices and olive oil over medium heat. When the garlic is golden brown, remove the garlic slices and add the chopped pancetta. Cook until the pancetta is lightly crisp. Add the chardonnay and turn off the heat. Set aside.

Whisk the egg, cheese, salt, pepper and parsley together in a large bowl. Add the contents of the pan containing the pancetta and wine. Add the crab meat.

Cook pasta al dente. Drain and immediately place hot pasta into the bowl containing the egg, cheese, pancetta, wine and crab. Toss quickly and thoroughly to assure all noodles are coated and the ingredients are well combined. Season to taste and serve immediately.

Instead of putting the cheese, bacon, onions and mushrooms on top of the burger, Lee likes to puts those toppings inside this burger, which he demonstrated for "The Today Show" last May. It's perfect for a Memorial Day barbecue.

Giant Stuffed Burgers

Makes 6 servings

12 slices thick-sliced bacon

12 mushrooms, sliced thinly

Pinch kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

? red onion, thinly sliced

3 pounds ground chuck (80/20 lean to fat)

2 teaspoons kosher salt

? teaspoon freshly ground pepper

6 slices Cheddar cheese, cut into 3-inch circles

Salt to taste

Cut bacon into small pieces and cook over medium heat until crisp but not hard. Remove the bacon and cool. Add the mushrooms to the pan and saute in the bacon fat. When the mushrooms have fully cooked, add the onions and cook for an additional minute. Remove and allow to cool.

In a bowl, combine the ground beef, salt and pepper and mix until combined.

Portion into 12 balls about 4 ounces each. Flatten each ball into a disk about 4 inches in diameter. Place a slice of cheese in the center of 6 of the patties. Top each with some of the bacon, mushrooms and onions. Cover with remaining patties and seal into burgers, making sure no filling is exposed. Chill for 15 minutes.

Preheat grill and cook burgers for 1? minutes per side for medium rare and 2 minutes per side for medium. Serve on toasted buns with your favorite accompaniments such as mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, ripe tomato and even more thinly sliced red onion.<NO1>

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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