Thursday, December 1, 2011

'Chef Hunter' focuses on Merriman's tonight

Food Network photos
Carrie McCully brings restaurateurs and executive chef candidates together on The Food Network's "Chef Hunter."

Attaining executive chef status is a grueling process in itself, made even tougher when cameras are involved. That's the challenge of Food Network's new series "Chef Hunter," which shows what happens when out-of-work chefs head to Kauai, intent on landing an executive chef job with Peter Merriman.

The episode will air at 11 p.m. today, with chefs put to the ultimate test of culinary skill, business acumen and tenacity required to be an executive chef. Beyond the basics of creating a couple of dishes for Merriman to sample, the chefs are given full run of the restaurant for one night and tasked with creating their own menu and serving a packed house of the restaurant’s best customers.

It's not just made-for-television stuff because of the show's real-life implications, according to Carrie McCully, a New York- and L.A.-based professional culinary recruiter, who takes her work very seriously.

In a phone interview earlier today, she said, job seeking on the show "is absolutely harder because they have cameras all around and they're under a tremendous amount of stress. They're literally going in and creating a menu, sourcing all the products, working with a team they never met before, and serving local patrons of the restaurant. It's much harder than the average interview.

"I've never had one chef who didn't say that it was the toughest interview they'd had in their life, and it's been a career changer. Once they experience it, everything else always seems like a piece of cake."

It marks a big commitment to the hosting restaurant as well, who entrusts the chefs with the premises, all its equipment, and its clientele. Though throughout the process, McCully said she and Merriman, one of the architects of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, were right there to observe the chefs' working methods.

"It's important for him to create the right team because he's often on the road, and has to know this person is capable, so he's watching every movement the chefs are making," McCully said, while adding, "Peter is such a professional. He's had so much experience and has a terrific sense of humor, so it's really hard to ruffle his feathers. There were a lot of laughs (over the chef's blunders), like that's happened before."

Carrie McCully

It wasn't too long ago that McCully was recruited for television herself. As a culinary expert working in marketing and public relations, she said, over time she'd hear about chefs who were leaving their jobs and chefs who were out of work, and started making recommendations to restaurateurs. In such a high-stakes industry, her recommendations were invaluable and she parlayed it into a new career, now as principal of Force of Nature Media.

A visit to L.A. to check out the culinary scene brought her to the attention of The Food Network, which had wanted to launch "Chef Hunter," but had been searching for someone like McCully for a year.

"I'm not a television person," she said. "It's my job to put my clients on TV. Before, no one ever cared about what I did for a living."

But she turned out to be a natural. "I'm not uncomfortable in front of the camera because I really believe in what I'm doing. I'm probably a frustrated executive chef myself."

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