Local restaurants, chefs shine on TV

But with Food Network fame come adoration and anxiety.

By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published December 12, 2007

The Tampa Bay area has culinary talent and here's how we know: Local faces and places are turning up on the Food Network with regularity.

Guy Fieri has showcased Keegan's Seafood Grille in Indian Rocks Beach and Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fishin South Pasadena on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

The former owner of St. Petersburg's Pacific Wave, Peter Tanhnavong, appeared as a teppanyaki challenge judge on the Food Network challenge Flying Knives. Clearwater native Vinny Dotolo, 28, even co-hosts his own show, 2 Dudes Catering.

So how does the Food Network find out that these local restaurants and restaurateurs are, to borrow Fieri's terminology, "off the hook" and the "real deal Holyfield"? How are people chosen?

"They Googled me," says Tanhnavong.

Well, that's just one tool in the network's shed.

"How restaurants are chosen is a question we get quite frequently," says Allison Page, vice president for prime time programming for the Food Network. "There's no specific formula. We get recommendations and listen to viewers. They know of places we haven't heard about."

Keegan's Seafood Grille owners Linda and Cesar Labrador are still mystified about how they were picked.

"Everyone I asked either said they didn't know or said, 'it was brought to our attention,' so I never figured out how they found out about us," says Linda Labrador.

No matter, it was still a glorious experience: The couple got a call out of the blue last July and the two-day shoot took place the first week in August, with a cameraman, soundman, producer and "some guy named Mark" crowding into the Keegan's kitchen along with the spiky-haired host. The aim was business as usual, filming the elaborate process of making gumbo and other signature dishes, ending the two days with detail or "beauty shots" of finished dishes.

Diners, Drive-ins and Dives airs at 10 p.m. Mondays and draws more than 1-million viewers. The Keegan's segment has run a number of times, driving a heap of new business to the restaurant.

"We've increased business at least 50 percent, especially at lunch time," says Labrador. "People are so happy to tell us they've seen us on the Food Network. People have come from all over the country."

Generally, once a place has been featured, their time in the limelight is up. But not always.

Dotolo, who went to Countryside High School in Clearwater before studying culinary arts at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, recalls how he and his partner, fellow Floridian Jon Shook, were noticed by the Food Network while catering in Los Angeles.

"Going to people's houses, you're bound to run into someone from the network. Two years ago they invited us to come on Iron Chef America and we did really well. We were talkative and they loved our personalities. Within a few months they came to us and said they wanted us to do a show."

Their personalities: good. Their hair: not so good. Food Network brass pushed hard for a major shearing for these two long-hairs. The Dudes stood firm. The luscious locks stayed, a shorthand of sorts for their iconoclastic style. Though the series has finished filming for now still on the air, the next episode runs at 10:30 p.m. Dec. 25, Dotolo and Shook are far from washed-up stars. A Clarkson Potter cookbook comes out in 2008 (tentative title: Two Dudes, One Pan), and they will open a restaurant on up-and-coming Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles.

Though the two dudes feel confident that their current projects would have occurred without the help of the Food Network, all of these local chefs and restaurateurs point to their TV exposure as a major boost to their businesses . . . and their egos.

"People would recognize me. They would come to see me and my staff would say, 'Yeah, that's him.' It really improved my business," says Tanhnavong, who now works with his brothers-in-law at Yama-Taiyoin Palm Harbor.

Still, by most accounts it's nerve-racking. Subjects don't get to preview the rough cuts or have much say about exactly how their craft is portrayed.

"We don't share the show outside the network until it airs. And things change. What can happen is you go in thinking the story is the hamburger and it's really the pot pie. It becomes the lead because it's so compelling," explains the network's Page.

And it's tough to be upstaged by a pot pie.

Laura Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or lreiley@sptimes.com. Her blog, The Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.