N.O. chef hits the ring in ‘Food Fighters’

Even the most well-seasoned cooks feel the pressure.

Just ask New Orleans chef Kevin Belton, who’ll appear on the premiere of NBC’s reality cooking competition series, “Food Fighters.”

The show pits one home cook contestant, favorite recipes in hand, against five veteran chefs from across the country. Cat Cora (“Iron Chef”) and Duff Goldman (“Ace of Cakes”) are also among the well-known TV chefs on the first episode.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh, you all can probably cook circles around home cooks.’

They don’t understand. We don’t get to go through the kitchen. We get to spend a minute in the kitchen looking around, seeing where everything is,” Belton said. “And I don’t care how long you cook, when you’re standing there and they say, ‘We’re going to challenge you with cereal,’ you draw a blank. You go, ‘Wait, cereal, I’ve eaten cereal.’ So you have about a minute and a half while you’re running all this stuff through your head. You’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off, but it’s a ball.”

Belton will be the first chef out of the gate on Tuesday night’s episode, as Oregon home cook Elisha Joyce challenges Belton to crank out his best 15-minute egg rolls and dipping sauce.

“The first time I saw her was when I walked out,” Belton said. “I didn’t know what she was going to challenge me with until it came out of her mouth, and that’s when my memory went totally empty.

“You have to make the best use of your time. Halfway through, you tell yourself, ‘Oh, I should have done this, I should have done that,’ but you don’t have time.”

Host Adam Richman (“Man Vs. Food”) introduces New Orleans native Belton as the “king of Cajun.”

Belton tells the audience his forté is tradtional Louisiana cusine.

“If it walks, crawls, swims, flies, if we can catch it we can cook it,” he says. “Etoufées, gumbos, I’ll even teach you how to cook alligator, and get you a pair of shoes at the same time.”

Under the bright lights of the blue, red, yellow and purple stage kitchen, Belton creates crabmeat and bacon eggrolls, while Joyce works on her favorite eggrolls influenced by flavors from her native Guam.

“Look at you, look at how pretty you look,” Belton says, looking down at his eggrolls in progress.

But will talking to his food be the trick to his triumph?

Those who’ve taken one of Belton’s classes, which are open to the public, at the New Orleans School of Cooking know he loves to talk, and have fun with food. His classes have been described as part learning experience, part comedy show.

“That’s just because I’m a dropped child,” Belton said, laughing. “When I do a class, it’s like having a lot of friends over. I get to show people what makes us Louisianians, I guess.”

Belton grew up watching his mother and grandmother in the kitchen.

After injuries ended his brief career as a semi-pro and NFL linebacker, he returned to his first love, cooking. He’s been at the New Orleans School of Cooking since 1991.

He also recently began a new stint as the host of a biweekly cooking segment on WWL-TV news in New Orleans, reviving the spot done for years by the late Frank Davis.