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Captain Cook: Can celebs handle the heat of the TV kitchen? Sparks fly on a new NBC series

April 20, 2006 By:
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Wolfgang Puck
Now that the matzah police have turned in their unleavened badges of bread for another year, and bitter Herb has gone back to being just an annoying neighbor again, Jews can take a seat at the table and ask the burning bush of a question:

What's to eat?

Bubbie, have we got the series for you!

Must-nosh TV?

That's the "Celebrity Cooking Showdown," that shows life is not so much a cabaret as a buffet of choices, where choppers aren't even needed for smooth chopped chicken liver and "playing chicken" is a dare depending on whether you like it broiled, roasted or boiled.

It helps to have a puckish sense of humor, too.

Wolfgang Puck has that sense, and the taste of quality that has made him a chef extraordinaire worldwide. His is no mystic pizza - Puck's legendary pies adorned with incredible edibles began an empire that broiled over with haute cuisine.

And, now, the chef whose apron strings tie the cool with the classical is dishing out himself as one of the celebrity chefs on this NBC special series - peacock, keep away from the fire! - that culminates in Thursday night's winner-eat-all championship cook-off.

Have a taste for the trendy? Viewers are asked to vote the winner, declared live Friday, April 21, in this American eyeful - and mouthful - of flavor.

The truffle has spoken: Celebs teaming with the master chefs are masters of different domains, including model/ broadcaster/most downloaded figure on the Internet Cindy Margolis and possibly the only Jew from Iowa who made a matzah meal out of mirth - Tom Arnold.

As for Puck … the Spago specialist is no stranger to holiday fare himself, not passing up a Passover menu at his popular eatery this past week, where his dishes beat the kreplach out of the competition.

Haggadah and haute cuisine? That was some week of seders, says the star chef.

Indeed, ethnic eating - in which billboards of "Eat at Joe's" could easily read "Eat at Yussele's" as signs of the times - are finding a spot at the most elegant of restaurants these days. After all is said and done, says "Cooking" exec producer Ben Silverman, reality-show king ("Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," "Weakest Link," "The Biggest Loser"), it's all win-win these days. Look, he says of cross-cultural comestibles, "you have a Jew (Silverman) and an Austrian (Puck) talking today" about different forks in the road that lead to silver palettes.

"When we cast [the show], we drew on a cross-section of America," says Silverman of stars, including Patti LaBelle, Margolis, Arnold and Alison Sweeney. And what could be more American pie than having Miss USA, Chelsea Cooley, adding her two scents?

It's a Small Culinary World
Capers with that knish - or is it just a knish caper? "Everybody wants to have something different," points out Puck of the plethora of new tastes and tams on everyday menus. "People want the experience of different cultures."

Tom Arnold must have been in culture shock. The comedian, who converted to Judaism when he married Roseanne Barr - the two long ago divorced - may have been the best damn sport in America showing off his stuff.

"Tom had never cooked before," says Puck.

Could this captain cook commandeer the bounty before him? Would Puck trust him to toss the crust of his famous pizzas now? Or maybe plan an elegant, elaborate Oscar party, as Puck does every year as king of the cooking Academy? "I would let him make some hamburger."

The bun stops here. But where did it all start? At a culinary boot camp, where the stars learned not to make everything taste like shoe leather.

Under the canapes we see them, laden with happiness and fears: Rare was the chance to get things well done in this medium for après-dinner apprentices. If no one heard the magical words of "You're fired!" well, certainly, they felt the heat.

"We had a lot of fires, blood," attests Puck of the mishugas and mishaps. "This show could have been called 'Finger Food.' "

Ice-caking with the stars?

Jewish hot star Margolis couldn't even boil water, says Puck of the celebrity who met her husband on a blind date at the chef's Chinois on Main years ago. "Now, she can make a dinner party at home."

With gossip columns focusing so much these days on the proliferation of stars who have buns in the oven, it sort of fits that the kitchen has become a steamy-hot point in and of itself. P. Diddy, says Puck of Sean Combs - whose Bad Boy Entertainment is producing the series in association with Reveille - "is obsessed with the kitchen being the new bedroom."

Lovin' spoonfuls? If "Celebrity Cooking Showdown" proves a sizzler, might other stars get their just desserts on screen, too?

It's all possible, says Silverman of future table settings.

This is just the first course. And remember, cautions Puck, it's the celebs - not the celeb chefs - who are making the meals, catering to the home-viewing crowds' sense that "if they can do it, we can do it."

"We're only the 'closers,' " he says.

And, in closing, maybe the title for the show should have reflected the somewhat novice cooking status of some of the stars who had their own reservations of whether they could pull it off - but did.

They certainly proved their mettle, acknowledges Silverman proudly.

This way to … "Aluminum Chefs"?


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