'Cooking Showdown' Lights Fire Under Celebs

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We know Big Kenny can sing, Allison Sweeney can act and Tony Gonzalez can go over the middle. But can they cook?

NBC will provide the answer to that question this week, when Kenny, who's half of country duo Big & Rich, "Days of Our Lives" star Sweeney and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Gonzalez, along with six other celebrities, don aprons and wield knives in "Celebrity Cooking Showdown."

The five-night event, which kicks off at 9 p.m. ET Monday, will pit three celebs against each other in culinary competition, each receiving help and guidance from famous chefs Wolfgang Puck, Cat Cora and Govind Armstrong. The winners from each of the first three nights will face off in a final battle Thursday, with the winner announced Friday.

And in answer the question above, it's yes. At least after a little help from Puck and his colleagues.

"They came to boot camp at Spago and Chinois, the ones who worked with me, and we taught them the recipes," says Puck, the celebrated chef-owner of both restaurants and culinary entrepreneur. "Tom Arnold [another participant] never cooked in his life, and he went for it like I used to do as a kid at the ski races. I said I would either kill myself, or I win."

The skill level of the participants ranges from that of Arnold and Cindy Margolis, who Puck says "barely knew how to boil water," to music legend Patti LaBelle, who's authored two cookbooks. (Margolis and LaBelle were late replacements for model Naomi Campbell and rapper Ja Rule.) The other participants are volleyball player/model Gabrielle Reece, current Miss USA Chelsea Cooley and Ashley Parker Angel, the former O-Town singer and star of MTV's "There and Back."

Alan Thicke ("Growing Pains") will host the show, and event planner Colin Cowie and food critic Gael Greene will judge the finished dishes.

Someone like LaBelle or Sweeney, whom executive producer Ben Silverman calls a "real foodie," may have had an advantage before the competition started, but the culinary crash course offered by the three chefs leveled the field some.

"When you watch the show, you'll see -- we didn't know who was going to win, and we were surprised a lot," says Silverman ("The Office," "Blow Out"), who's producing the show with Sean "Diddy" Combs.

After teaching them the basics, though, Puck, Cora and Armstrong for the most part step aside during the competition. The celebrities are on their own save for a couple of minutes during the cook-off and five minutes at the end of each battle, when their professional mentors can lend a hand.

"It wasn't like we were cooking and telling them, 'You chop the parsley,' or whatever," Puck says. "They actually had to marinate the meat and make the pies. ... We came in at the end for five minutes to help out with plating and maybe some final touches. But if the lamb is overcooked, you can't undercook it afterwards."

Prime-time cooking shows have been a dicey proposition on network TV in recent years. FOX had some success last summer with "Hell's Kitchen," but "The Restaurant" (which Silverman also produced for NBC) and the fictional "Kitchen Confidential" struggled. Silverman, though, thinks the competitive aspect of "Celebrity Cooking Showdown," and the fact that viewers will see the competitors not exactly in their element, will appeal to audiences.

"Even though it's a cooking show, it's full of high energy. It's got a real sports feel to it -- the competition is real," Silverman says. "It's so exciting to see these celebrities give their all and put themselves out there in an environment where they're not normally at home."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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