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Lights! Camera! Cook!

Amateur cooks from the Tampa Bay area match culinary skills as Food Network cameras roll, with no second chances.

By JANET K. KEELER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 15, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Food Network comes calling, it's best to be cool as a cucumber. That way you won't wilt when a very big camera is trained on your nose.

Every silly statement, bead of sweat and woeful sigh becomes permanent record during a TV show taping. Double dips, licked fingers and spilled milk are faux pas particular to the cooking show genre.

Producer Don Wood will have plenty of those moments to review as he pares 60 hours of film shot in St. Petersburg and Tampa last week into two 22-minute, 15-second episodes of Food Fight, a program debuting on the cable network this summer.

Food Fight is an Iron Chef for the everycook. Two teams of cooks get two hours and $20 to shop for and prepare an entree for three judges. The hook -- just like on Iron Chef -- is that the main element of the meal is a secret ingredient revealed at the last minute, which is really a few hours before cooking time. The St. Petersburg contestants cooked red snapper, and the Tampa teams wrestled alligator.

On Iron Chef, Chairman Kaga oversees the show from the mysterious, well-appointed Kitchen Stadium. On Food Fight, toothsome host JD Roberto slings one-liners on camera and hands batteries to the camera crew off camera. There's not much call for a prima donna on this busy set; when the cameras are on, everyone is working.

Cecil Stokes, executive producer and co-creator of the show, says the pilot episode tested well enough for the Food Network to order 26 episodes, double the normal pickup. Shows also have been filmed in Chicago and Washington, D.C. A half-hour show such as Food Fight costs $40,000 to $70,000 to produce, Stokes says, and that includes travel, location fees, supplies and salaries.

Stokes grinned while he watched the contestants cook with color-coordinated KitchenAid equipment at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort's Sunset Ballroom. Sassy banter among competitors would ensure a lively show, and there was plenty of that, with one team spying, not so slyly, on the other.

Each show is themed: French chef vs. American chef in Washington, and firefighters vs. police officers in New York City. In Tampa, Food Fight featured sibling rivalry, with twins Natalie Khawam and Jill Kelley cooking off against brothers Mike and David Shofstall. Old school vs. new school was the theme in St. Petersburg. Newlyweds Joann and Harold Quinn of Tampa drew spatulas against retirees Don Paettie and Barbara Negri, neighbors in Dunedin.

"We're high energy, but we're not high strung," Harold "Call me Q" Quinn says. The Quinns needed that energy when they realized they would be shopping at an Italian market for ingredients. That dashed their plans for an Asian dish.

Flexibility wasn't reserved just for the contestants. The shopping venue for the St. Petersburg shoot fell through, and Mazzaro's Italian Market saved the day by opening on Sunday. Kurt Cuccaro called in a few employees and lots of family members to bring the store to life in the background.

It was reality on television's terms.

"This show is vastly different from other Food Network shows because this is really a live show," producer Wood says. "It's called 'live on tape,' and we're capturing whatever is there."

So there would be no retakes. Whatever happened in that two hours would be the basis of the show; a burned meal would be a burned meal on national TV.

At 12:25 p.m., Roberto hollered "Go!" and for the next two hours, the contestants' every move was filmed, including their drives to the market, about 3 miles away. They were cautioned to wait until getting into their cars to talk cooking so the conversation could be recorded.

"We don't want quiet time," Stokes says.

Two shopping carts at Mazzaro's were fitted with cameras, and each pair of cooks was followed by camera and sound technicians.

"I can't find rice," Paettie yelled across a couple of narrow aisles to Negri. "Let's use orzo instead," she boomed back. In the end, there was no need. The rice was there all along.

The Quinns quickly rounded the aisles, realizing that $20 would not be enough for some items they wanted. At more than $4, an already-made sauce remained on the shelf.

Both teams were back at the ballroom/TV studio in less than hour. Roberto monitored the stopwatch while talking with the contestants.

With an hour to cook, teams A (the Quinns) and B (Paettie and Negri) got focused. Well, not that focused. There was still time for Negri, a retired bar and cocktail lounge manager, to tease her teammate, the Quinns and even host Roberto. The old school cooks were using lots of butter, and their opponents -- a personal trainer and a trading supervisor -- were creating a spa dish, with less fat and lots of flavor, they hoped.

"We don't want to kill anyone over here," Joann Quinn says.

Negri was adamant that there would be no tomato or cheese in her team's dish. "That doesn't go with fish," she says.

Joann Quinn wanted both but was kicking herself for forgetting Parmesan cheese. Someone said there was time to go back to the store, but no one mentioned that the store probably would be closed up again. She cooked without it.

Wood, an independent TV producer based in Largo, began working on the two episodes in August. He has produced several episodes of Food Finds, one on the food of the Everglades and the other about Portland, Ore., and he has worked on shows for Court TV. For Food Fight, he auditioned about 20 of the 75 people who applied. He found the Quinns at a wine tasting event in Tampa and met Negri at a seniors expo. She introduced him to Paettie.

"These are real people," Wood says. "But the camera sort of turbo-charged their personality."

While the teams cooked, three judges were being instructed in a separate room. St. Petersburg cookbook author and publisher Joyce LaFray, Renaissance Vinoy Resort executive chef John Pivar and St. Petersburg Times newsfeatures deputy news editor Sheila Reed awaited the final dishes with just a little more makeup on than when they arrived.

In the end, the new school cooks, with their red snapper cooked in a light tomato sauce and garbanzo bean salad spilling out of a bell pepper, beat their competitors' garlic-sauteed snapper with yellow rice and wilted broccoli rabe. (The winners of the Tampa competition will be announced when the show airs this summer.)

In about a month, Wood will have created a show from the mountain of tapes. If approved by Stokes, the Tampa Bay area shows will win a place on the schedule.

And eight amateur chefs in the Tampa Bay area will get their 22:15 minutes of fame.

-- Air dates have not been set for the debut of Food Fight or the local episodes.

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