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.