A couple of real men get in a `Food Fight'

March 13, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd

Tim "Tank" Holland and Tom Szewczyk were just a couple of regular Joes from Dundalk until forced to deal with the awesome burden of celebrity.

Now friends and neighbors stop and ask when the two will get their own cooking show on TV. Now when they walk into the bar at the Battle Grove Democratic Club, where they're long-time members, a cry goes up from the regulars like the one that greeted Norm when he strolled into Cheers.

All of this stems from their coming appearance on the Food Network, on a new show called Food Fight that pits two-person teams in cook-offs against one another.

The show doesn't even begin airing until May. And then there's no telling when the episode featuring Holland and Szewczyk will be on, the one where they cook up delicious crab cakes the size of hubcaps and fried potatoes in a, um, secret sauce.

Anyway, it doesn't matter when it airs.

The two, who call themselves "Culinarily Incorrect," are milking this for all it's worth.

"We're waiting for national syndication now," laughs Holland, 42, who, when he's not beating back autograph seekers, works for a medical supplies distributor.

"America needs us," says Szewczyk, 47, a tin-mill worker at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point.

In fact, their budding fame could spawn a new pickup line on the streets of Dundalk: "Hey, baby, see me on the food channel last night?"

The story of how two blue-collar guys rose from obscurity to, OK, semi-obscurity is a story for our times, an era when celebrity is instantly conferred for everything from receiving anthrax-tainted mail to appearing on Survivor or The Bachelorette.

For years, the two buddies had railed against the proliferation of TV cooking shows featuring effete hosts whipping up impossibly complicated dishes from foods no one really eats.

Where were the cooking shows featuring real food for real people?

"What factory worker or working mom, after eight hours [on the job], picks up the kids, drives home, then whips up a souffle for dinner followed by creme brulee?" says Szewcyzk.

"No man who wears a hard hat all day can relate to a guy in a Pillsbury Doughboy hat," adds Holland, who is not called Tank because of his delicate build.

Then last fall, Holland spotted an ad in The Sun. The Food Network was looking for contestants for its new cooking show.

At the audition at the Phillips Restaurant headquarters on Fort Avenue, the two showed up in shorts and work boots, with barbecue tongs and colanders hanging from their tool belts, cracking one-liners.

They had only dabbled in cooking over the years, mostly at bull and oyster roasts for the Democratic Club, although Szewcyzk had filled in as a cook during a stint in the Coast Guard and made a mean 50-pound meatloaf.

But their "real-men-cooking-real-food" shtick won over the network reps, although one was sufficiently alarmed by their appearance to take Holland aside and ask: "Um, do you understand the concept of the show? You might be facing professional chefs."

Oooohh, the guys thought. We're scared!

"We didn't care," Holland says now. "We still had jobs to go back to."

Last month, they were officially selected to appear on the show, and a network crew filmed them at the Democratic Club grilling pit beef and sausage and peppers for background material.

The network demanded one change, though: the "Culinarily Incorrect" name had to go. The hard hats, the tool belts, get rid of 'em, the network reps said. From now on, you'll be known as the "Beer Buddies." Don't worry about why.

But two weeks ago, when Holland and Szewczyk arrived for the show's taping at the Harbor Court Hotel, the reason for the name change was obvious: They'd be cooking against the "Wine Guys" - Patrick Russell, owner of Kooper's Tavern in Fells Point, and Bill Irvin, a wine and spirits specialist with Remy Amerique.

"Man, what a handful those two were!" says Russell. "Here I'm in a shirt and tie and Billy's in a bow tie. And here are these two big guys in jeans and blue shirts with their [names stitched] on the front. But they were great."

The ground rules were simple: Both teams were given blue crabs and jumbo lump crab meat. They could prepare it any way they wanted. They could serve any side dishes they wanted.

Each team was given $20 to buy condiments and side dishes at the Canton Safeway. Including shopping time, they had two hours to prepare the meal.

Even on their trip back from the supermarket, Holland and Szewczyk stayed true to their blue-collar roots, stopping at a liquor store and buying a 40-ounce Bud with the leftover change.

"I tried to get them to drink wine, and they were ragging on us," laughs Russell. "They said it was `frou-frou.' "

From all reports, the Beer Buddies prepared a terrific real-man meal: huge, tasty crab cakes, steamed vegetables seasoned with Old Bay and fried potatoes in a cheese sauce. (Using a block of Velveeta, no less, which the guys call "The King of Cheeses.")

But the Wine Guys, who also cooked up crab cakes along with asparagus spears, were ultimately declared the winners.

"We lost on presentation," sniffs Szewczyk.

"Yeah," says Holland. "They served their crab cakes on crab shells. And they had asparagus spears in the crab claws for decoration. We're not into that stuff."

Not that they're bummed over the loss. Hey, they said, they had a blast doing the show. And now they're celebrities down at the Democratic Club!

Well, sort of.

As for when the "Beer Guys" episode will actually air, a Food Fight official said it would probably be in June or July.

After that, maybe the Iron Chef shouldn't get too comfortable

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