TV chefs' appearance amply suits their taste Groupies: Fans travel near and far for the chance to see their favorite cooks prepare dishes and sign their cookbooks. It doesn't hurt that they get to taste-test, too.

November 16, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

While warm temperatures tempted many to spend the day outdoors yesterday, hundreds of food faithful paid $45 each to watch their favorite TV chefs turn up the burners indoors.

The 20-city Cooking Across America tour arrived in Columbia with cookbook-authors-turned-media-stars Nathalie Dupree, Mario Batali and Nick Stellino, who sauteed and stirred their way through an afternoon at the Sheraton Columbia Hotel.

Eager tasters sampled such aromatic dishes as wild striped bass messinese and tarragon chicken. But before the olive oil even danced in the pans, many gastronomic groupies lined up for a chance to get the autographs of chefs who increasingly dominate their living rooms on the Food Network and PBS.

"The only thing I watch on TV are the cooking shows," said Mike Tutko, 44, who, with his wife, Audrey, 43, of Ellicott City, waited patiently for Batali's signature. "They're like celebrities, but you know them at the same time."

For chef-in-training Elizabeth Mitchell, 27, of Walnut Port, Pa., being in Batali's presence was heavenly. "He's like a god to me," said the Baltimore International College student, who ran up during one presentation to get his photograph with her disposable camera. "He explains everything so well."

He autographed her copy of his cookbook, "Simple Italian Cooking," with this notation: "with love and lasagna."

Star-struck fans hurried between two ballrooms set up with elevated cooking stations and rows of chairs, much like a stage production. They waited patiently in rooms kept chilly because of the imminent cooking demonstrations and heard such tips as "do not buy strawberries in December," "clean out your refrigerator" before Thanksgiving and "always use tongs," as one chef scooped up sizzling chicken filets by hand.

Still, the viewers ate it up. So did the chefs.

"I love it because I get to meet the people," said Dupree, the author of seven cookbooks. "They are the reason I'm here."

The price of hobnobbing with the celebrity chefs wasn't cheap but the four-hour show included samples such as oatmeal cookies, chardonnay champagne, vermouth and cream of crab soup in addition to the chefs' specialties.

More than 500 foodies paid the price -- including Rodney Chamberlain, 40, of Ellicott City. Actually, he was just tagging along with his wife Sue and 12-year-old daughter Jacquie and her friend Ashley Lam -- who were all smiles with cookbooks and autographed aprons. Chamberlain acknowledged this was the cost of keeping the cook in the house happy.

"It is worth it," he said, smiling diplomatically.

The Food Network and Chef Events, which manages and sponsors the Cooking Across America tour, are partners in the venture that began in 1997 as a 15-city tour and expanded this year. Columbia was the 16th stop on this tour, which has showcased a variety of chefs, like Emeril Lagasse, in such locales as Hawaii, Los Angeles and New York City.

Mari and Jeff Stein drove 1 1/2 hours from Gettysburg, Pa., to attend the show -- a short distance for these seasoned fans. They flew to the Chicago show in August, and "we'll probably fly to the next one," Mr. Stein said.

People drawn to the shows are not unlike rock fans, says Joe Allegro, who runs Chef Events with his partner, Richard Gore. The two men came up with the idea of taking a cooking show on tour after years of promoting the concerts of such groups as Meatloaf, Bryan Adams and the Rolling Stones.

"This is much better than a Rolling Stones concert," said Gary Dorought, 47, of Nokesville, Va. "We're having a ball."

And, in true wifely devotion, Audrey Tutko turned to her husband -- the cook in their house -- and whispered in appreciation:

"I'm so glad you're here."

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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