Host Carrie McCully (center) films an episode at Les Halles restaurant. (Emile Wamsteker )
Recently opened Chicago restaurant Quay will get the Food Network treatment when it’s featured on new docu-series “Chef Hunter” on Thursday. The show follows culinary recruiter Carrie McCully as she helps find the right chef for six different restaurants around the country. An earlier episode ended with the hiring of "Top Chef: Nyesha Arrington, who is also currently on “Top Chef: Texas.” at Wilshire, a restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif.
Though Food Network would not reveal the two final chef candidates featured on the show, Chicago magazine has reported that they are Dan Marquis, who has worked at Pasha and Grocery Bistro, and Cara Thompson. We spoke with McCully by phone about how she got into television and why she loves Chicago.
A lot of chef-focused reality TV shows are more competition-driven, like “Top Chef.”
Yeah, the premise is usually, ‘OK, we’re going to give you a basket of mystery ingredients and you show us you can do in an allotted time frame.’ What you’re actually seeing on “Chef Hunter” is … a chef prepare a menu that reflects the [restaurant’s] current menu and [also] … they’re creating their own dishes. I’ve had shows where the owners literally come in and had to start working the line with [a finalist] because they were so overwhelmed. We are not about competition; we’re about the right person getting the right job for the restaurant.
Being a chef recruiter by trade, did you come up with the idea for the show?
Bob Tuschman, who is Vice President of Programming for the Food Network, had the concept. They did look for over a year … and I wasn’t aware that they were looking. A colleague referred me to them … and Bob and I had a conversation about the nuts and bolts of the business and we saw that we could really bring the audience a first-hand look at what actually happens in a real professional kitchen, which is something that’s never been done on TV before.
What’s your impression of Chicago after filming an episode here?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Chicago and Chicago is a solid foodie town. It ranks with New York and Los Angeles. Chicago’s a little different because of the weather, it’s more meat and potatoes, but certainly between Grant [Achatz] and Charlie Trotter and you know, everyone’s got lots of really fresh and experimental things going on.
Did you have time to check out other restaurants besides Quay while you were in town?
I went to Girl & the Goat. I love, love, love Stephanie [Izard]. Also, one of my chefs from my Wilshire show [who wasn’t selected for the job], Chris Hora, is now cooking at Chant [in Hyde Park.] We got him a job in Chicago. I do continue working with them to help place them elsewhere. This isn’t throwaway TV. It has a beginning, middle and end, it’s not just like, OK now you’re on your own. I look after them.
Do you have any prior TV experience?
None. I wasn’t looking for television, wasn’t thinking about TV, I didn’t have anything in my mind about TV. When this came up, I think the most surprising thing is I’m absolutely comfortable [in front of the camera].
In reality TV, sometimes they have to reshoot certain scenes again and again, right?
Yes, I did actually and I can say on my first show, nothing is scripted on “Chef Hunter,” nothing at all, so letting someone go is never easy for anyone. However, try doing that on camera! I think the first guy I let go five times. And it became quite funny because he was like, “I just want to get the hell out of here.” and I’m like, “I’m so sorry, this is my first show, I’m trying to get it right!” And he’s like, “I just wanna leave.’
Are there any bloopers from filming that you can share?
I haven’t seen the final cut [for the Chicago show] so I don’t know, I can’t comment. I don’t know if you saw my show in Hawaii, but we had a chef who wouldn’t work the line. I walked into the kitchen when he’s starting dinner service, and he’s on the expediter side, standing against the wall drinking a cup of espresso. You can’t make that up! The guy’s great on paper and he’s interviewed with everyone really well, and then he goes into dinner service and decides its time to take a siesta? I was like, what?
Watch “Chef Hunter” on Food Network on Thursdays at 9 p.m. at home or at Quay, which is hosting a viewing party.