It’s just before 10 on a recent Friday morning when Brian Boitano begins his energetic display of craft and showmanship.
The figure skater’s arena -- a sun-streamed kitchen in Santa Monica -- couldn’t be further from a chilly ice rink, and his lace-up skates have been replaced by a pair of white Nike kicks. Even so, the guy still finds a way to work a blade. In this case, a Henckels knife, which he’s employing to slice and dice an avocado with a precision that Bobby Flay would appreciate. He wastes little time in adding his handiwork to an olive oil and Meyer lemon vinaigrette he’s already prepared. “Gotta get the lemon juice on the avocado so the avocado doesn’t turn brown,” he explains, before adding just a dash of Austin Powers-esque gusto: “Yeah, baby!”
Boitano, who won a gold medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics, is making his own carefully honed recipe for crab-and-avocado crostini, a dish he also whips up in the premiere episode Sunday of his new daytime cooking show on Food Network, “What Would Brian Boitano Make?” Skating champs have been known to go on to enjoy second careers as coaches, on-air commentators, even a “Dancing With the Stars” victor (hello, Kristi Yamaguchi). But cooking-show hosts? Not so much. So what on Earth would possess Brian Boitano to want to make “What Would Brian Boitano Make?”
It’s a mouthful of a question, particularly when Boitano has just fed you an impossibly large bite of crab and avocado. (“Tell me what it needs more of,” he instructs. “Pepper? Salt? Lemon?”) But he gets the point. “It’s like, ‘What the hell is this cooking thing about?’ ” he says with a booming laugh as he removes a tray of perfectly toasted baguette slices from the oven. “But it’s a natural thing for me.”
Turns out Boitano, now 45, has turned into a hard-core foodie. Before the Olympics, “I was always on a strict diet and couldn’t eat the most healthy way,” he says about his former 1,800-calories-a-day regimen, most of which were carbs. His first post-victory meal was a burger and milkshake at Denny’s, but it wouldn’t take long to expand his culinary horizons. Whether at home in San Francisco or touring with various ice shows, Boitano indulged in eating out, giddily sampling a myriad of dishes he’d never been able to before. Eventually, he stayed home long enough to polish his own skills. “The most relaxing thing he’d do when he was home was always to cook and entertain, have friends over to his house,” says Linda Leaver, who began coaching Boitano at age 8 and now serves as his manager. “That would be his vacation.”
Or at least as much of a vacation as Boitano seems to allow himself. “He’s a perfectionist,” Leaver allows. “He wants the food to taste good, look good. Just like he had to have the technical part of his skating exactly right, he has to have the technical part of cooking exactly right. He doesn’t know how to do things halfway.”
Boitano became so committed that he even toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant but realized he wasn’t quite ready to give up his first love. Post-Olympics, “I thought, ‘I’ll [skate] for four years, maybe eight if I get really lucky, and then go on to something else,’ ” says the athlete who, save for cropping his shaggy ‘80s “Richard Marx” haircut, still looks much the same as when he defeated Canadian Brian Orser in Calgary’s famous “Battle of the Brians.” Twenty-one years later, he continues to hit the ice for two-hour practices most mornings and pull off triple lutzes in exhibitions, as well as the annual holiday skating specials he stars in for NBC.
Ironically, Boitano’s impressive longevity initially concerned Food Network executives. “Celebrities have always been a little bit of a hard sell for us,” says Bob Tuschman, the cable channel’s senior vice president of programming and production. “Viewers think if someone’s a movie star or, in this case, a skater, that’s what they put their energy into. The [feeling] is, they couldn’t possibly know enough about food.”
The Boitano pilot convinced Tuschman viewers could be persuaded otherwise. “Brian was so passionate about cooking and had such a command of it,” says the executive, who calls the self-taught chef “one of the biggest, happiest surprises I’ve gotten in my career.”
You’d certainly be hard-pressed to find another TV chef with his own “South Park” song. “What Would Brian Boitano Do?,” a highlight of the 1999 animated movie, not only serves as the opening theme for Boitano’s new show but provided the obvious inspiration for its title. In each episode, Boitano hosts a get-together at his home, creating a custom menu for his guests, who range from his single-and-ready-to-mingle friend and 20 bachelorettes to a bacon-loving all-girl roller derby. His take on mostly rustic home cooking is inventive, yet straightforward enough not to intimidate the casual cook. But the show’s biggest revelation is Boitano himself. Known for his laser-like focus on the ice, he reveals an irreverent side in “What Would Brian Boitano Make?”
“People who watch skating think I’m so serious, and I am when it comes to skating,” says Boitano. “But my off-ice personality is kind of goofy, and one of the things I like best about the show is that everybody will finally get to see that.”
Boitano’s cheekiness is on full display as he serves up his crostini. “I’m like an Italian mother,” he says, encouraging second and third helpings. “I just push food in front of people, like ‘eat, eat, eat!’ ”
At last, he pauses long enough to take a seat himself at the dining room table. He claims he’s not nervous about how the four episodes he shot will perform in the ratings. Why should he be? “It’s like, sorry, after skating in the Olympics in front of millions of people for a gold medal, nothing’s gonna make me nervous,” he says, unleashing another body-rocking laugh.
But what if this second career should actually take off? Would Boitano finally consider hanging up his skates for good? “I don’t know,” he says. “Skating truly was a calling for me, that kind of thing where people just know they’re supposed to do something. So I figure I’ll do it until something tells me that it’s time to [stop]. And then I’ll cook and get fat!”
He pauses for a moment to reconsider. “No, I’m not gonna get fat. I can’t let myself go!” Another pause, and one final big laugh. “Well,” he says, “maybe just a little bit.”