A couple of Top of Utahns get cooking on reality TV shows

Story by Valerie Phillips
Mon, Apr 29, 2013
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Utah chef Viet Pham has been showing up a lot on the Food Network this past year. Viewers can see more of him beginning June 2, as he’s been announced as a contestant on the ninth season of “The Next Food Network Star.”

Pham, the co-owner of Forage in Salt Lake City, beat chef Bobby Flay on an episode of “Iron Chef” last January. He was also runner-up on the “Extreme Chef” series last fall.

“The Next Food Network Star” makes a group of chefs compete in nerve-wracking challenges, with the grand prize being a series on the Food Network. Past winners include Guy Fieri of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and Melissa D’Arabian of “Ten Dollar Dinners.”

Pham is the only Utah contestant in the group, according to a Food Network press release. Judges are Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis and Alton Brown, with a “focus group” of food fans taking part as well.

The last Utahn to compete on “The Next Food Network Star” didn’t win, but eventually ended up with her own cooking series, “Kelsey’s Essentials” on the Cooking Channel. In 2008, Kelsey Nixon, of North Ogden, made it all the way to the final four contestants before being eliminated. Aaron McCargo Jr. went on to win his own series, “Big Daddy’s House,” but viewers voted Nixon the “fan favorite.”

At the time, the Food Network’s senior vice president Bob Tuschman commented that, at 23, Nixon seemed too inexperienced to be a cooking authority, and needed to “live a bit first.”

But the network kept in touch, giving her smaller projects for two years.

“I felt like I was on the farm team and they were trying me out to see if I could do more camera work,” Nixon told me in a 2010 interview.

When the Food Network launched its Cooking Channel for a younger demographic, they tapped Nixon for “Kelsey’s Essentials,” which is now filming its fifth season. Last year, Nixon began hosting “The Perfect 3” on the Cooking Channel as well.

“I guess Bob Tuschman was right in saying I was too young,” Nixon told me. “I don’t think I was ready then. Now I feel confident and clear about my message in the kitchen. It’s all about understanding how I can help the viewers at home. The timing couldn’t have been better.”

Last year when I spoke with Nixon, she jokingly described her “Food Network Star” experience: “I had no idea of what I was getting into — the million-dollar experience you would never pay a dollar to be in again!”

And, she credits part of her success to Bobby Flay — the same guy Viet Pham beat out on “Iron Chef” in January. Flay’s Rock Shrimp Productions became her show’s producer.

“Bobby Flay became a great mentor to me,” Nixon said.

It will be interesting to see if Flay’s judging during “The Next Food Network Star” will be influenced by the “Iron Chef” experience with Pham.

As far as nerve-wracking challenges go, Pham already has a head start due to his turn on “Extreme Chef.” The chefs had to be physically and mentally tough to do things like salvage their own ingredients from a capsized fishing boat. Fans will remember Pham’s rallying cry, “Beef tongue, baby, beef tongue!” as he improvised a restaurant-quality dish from a can of pickled beef tongue in the scorching desert.

When I interviewed him in January, he said that, while filming “Extreme Chef,” he managed to impress judge Simon Majumdar, who passed along his name to his own agent.

It seems as if this agent is doing a bang-up job of getting him on all of the right reality cooking shows, and Viet is connecting well with viewers. This isn’t just “15 minutes of Pham” we’re seeing. Even if he doesn’t win “The Next Food Network Star,” I expect he’s got a bright future in food TV.

Valerie Phillips blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

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