Food Network orders up a New Orleans chef for shot at ‘Star’dom

When approached to audition for the reality cooking competition series, Chris Lynch had one question: “What’s ‘Food Network Star’?”

“Funny enough, I had never seen the show before,” said Lynch, a New Orleans chef. “And when I was on the phone when they initially asked me if I would be interested, I had to ask one of my cooks, who had heard of the show.

“And then I began to realize what a big deal it was, what an honor it was to even be considered to be on it. And that in itself was really my motivation to do it, because I think it takes a lot of confidence just to be able to put yourself out there like that. Five or 10 years ago, I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to do it. I just took it as an awesome opportunity.”

The series, which begins its 10th season Sunday, pits 12 contestants from around the country in weekly on-camera kitchen challenges, all to eventually choose a winner, who gets his/her own show on the network. Judges are Food Network culinary celebs Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentis and Bobby Flay. This season, which was shot earlier this year, hops from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and New York and promises “more intense culinary challenges.”

Lynch, 40, made a demonstration video and had an interview with the show’s casting company in New Orleans last year, and a month or so later, learned he’d made the cut.

“It was very exciting,” Lynch said. “I’m a working chef, so I just went with it.”

A native of Philadelphia, Lynch found his passion for cooking at a young age. He trained under certified French Master Chef Jean Francois Taquet before attending and graduating in 1996 from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. It was a couple of his friends at school — New Orleans natives — who encouraged him to head south.

“They just kept telling me about how great it (New Orleans) was, and it had so much to offer,” he said.

One visit to the Big Easy, and Lynch set about making New Orleans his adopted hometown. At different times, he moved back to New York for four years and Philly for 14 months, but missed Louisiana and returned.

“Food Network Star” is Lynch’s first substantial time in front of a TV camera, although he does have backstage experience. He served as a chef consultant for the 12-episode second season of the HBO series “Treme,” set in and shot in a post-Katrina New Orleans.

“This was kind of like my first foray cooking outside a professional kitchen,” he said. “It was really interesting. I got to work closely with the writers and directors, and some other talented chefs who were written into the program. It was a lot of choreography and set dressings. They built these kitchens at their stages over in Algiers, and we had to just really make it look real. It was a lot of fun, especially trying to teach actors how to just do basic knife work, because they were very committed to making it seem real and look real.”

Lynch worked directly with actress Kim Dickens, who portrayed character/chef Janette Desautel, and New York chef David Chang, who played himself on “Treme.”

“I actually flew up to New York for a couple of days just to work in his (Chang’s) restaurant to get an idea of how he is, and what he’s going to bring to the television show, so we were on the same page, and that was a lot of fun at the same time,” he said.

What Lynch brings to “Food Network Star” is his modern take on Cajun and Creole cuisine, exemplified in the dishes he creates as executive chef at Uptown’s Atchafalaya restaurant.

“It’s very seasonal, right now, spring into summer, we’re seeing a lot of really nice vegetables and fruits are coming in and we just try to incorporate them into our menu, whether it’s working with crab or shrimp, redfish or snapper, whatever’s just really at its peak. We do takes on some of the more classic dishes. It’s familiar flavors that people can recognize, but we just kind of put our own little spin on it. My philosophy is letting the ingredients speak for themselves.”

Lynch likes working with raw seafood.

“We quickly cure it, you know, we call it like crudo, or even ceviche, with tuna or hamachi, scallops. We’ll take a lot of raw stuff and do a lot of light, really colorful, flavorful appetizers that way. As for entrees, we do a pecan smoked New York strip right now that’s really popular. We smoke it over pecan shells. So that’s been a big hit too.”

Away from his familiar surroundings, “Star” was definitely a learning experience, Lynch said, of working with and cooking for some of TV’s top kitchen talents, including the three resident judges.

“They were all great, very professional. I think one of the great parts about the show is, you know, they’re really there to instruct and mentor. They were fair, and I think very accurate with what they saw.

“The tough part for me was being in front of the camera. You know, as a chef we get to hide in the kitchen. And I knew that in this day and age, you kind of have to put yourself out there. There are a lot of great talented chefs in great restaurants, and I think the diners, they really want to see who’s back there, put a name with a face especially in this chef culture that we live in. It’s not quite the way it was when I started cooking, but it’s definitely the way it is now.

“I knew that I was probably the best cook out of the bunch, so I think there was an advantage there,” Lynch said. “Working for some of the chefs (Emeril Lagasse, Tom Colicchio) that I have over the years, I’ve seen them succeed in the food television industry. So I knew that if I worked at it, I could do it, too.”

Should he be named “The Next Food Network Star,” Lynch is already imagining what shape his own show might take.

“I think it would be interesting to travel from city to city spending time with these chefs in their kitchens, and hearing their stories, hearing about how their dishes come together, where they get some of their products from, what is their signature dish, and maybe going through it, learning how to cook it, so you get that peek into some of these really nice restaurants, to see how the magic happens if you will,” he said.