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Petaluma chef takes aim at TV fame

  • Food Network Star finalist Eric Lee, 44 (Petaluma, Calif.), graduated with high honors from the Culinary Institute of America, and his kitchen skills, along with his calm confidence, have made him an acclaimed chef in the California wine country. Before going to culinary school, Eric graduated with a degree in sociology from the University of California Los Angeles. For the past 11 years he has served as the executive chef for Simi Winery, where he is well-known for his mastery of food and wine pairing. Eric distinguishes his food by deconstructing and re-creating dishes using alternative ingredients and cooking methods. FOOD NETWORK

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."

'Food Network Star' Hopeful Eric Lee

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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."


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