CHEF TELL the Biography of America’s Pioneer TV Showman Chef
“Rezepte sind nur Rezepte … im Rahmen des Zumutbaren Sie sie ändern können.”
(“Recipes are only prescriptions … within reason you can change them.”)
— Chef Tell
“The recipe for making a star-bound chef/restaurateur goes like this:
First, rise with the morning twilight. Visit the fish, meat and produce markets daily to ensure your menu and daily ingredients are as fresh as possible. Chastise your vendors, if needed, for quality slippage in your last order; yet, make them feel like they are part of your success.
Second, walk several miles daily within the same four walls. Regularly add water, salt, chicken stock and splashes of wine to foods and to yourself. Even though you know it will take a toll on your body, taste everything you cook.
Third, ensure that your kitchen wait staffs arrive on time, prepared and sober. Mix in your waitpersons, bartenders, hostesses and accountants. Keep them honest with your cash register – every day.
Fourth, bring the first, second and third steps to a boil by simmering under low heat in the first few hours of the day. Gradually turn up the heat.
Fifth, repeat the routine 312* days a year, year after year, despite how you feel, as long as you make your patrons happy. (* Six days a week)
Sixth, (optional) add a pinch of television and media notoriety to the slew of photos with celebrities draped around you on your walls. Voila! A celebrity chef is born.
For super-star ranking, add one more requisite: “Culinary genius: the capacity to take consumable ingredients and envision them into remarkable, repurposed foods, flavors and presentations; the capacity to be ‘avant-garde,’ innovative, iconoclastic, visionary and … in the case of Chef Tell … funny.” (Author’s definition)
Remember, superstar chefs never follow rules; they make their own.
Who was Chef Tell?
The night Friedemann Paul Erhardt (later to be known worldwide as “Chef Tell”) was born, bombs dropped and hunger was a constant. When suicide took his mother, and his brother was separated from him, he became a cook’s commis at 13½. For the rest of his life he was forced to work his way out of one predicament into the next, and then out of the next into another, as he blazed a trail on which other chefs would walk.
No chef-by-the-numbers road map existed in his era. Up to his time, master chefs, for the most part, stayed hermetically inside of their kitchens; yet, he ventured outside where very few – from America only James Beard and Julia Child – ever tread…
Erhardt credited his TV superstardom to his mother, Giesela Gerber Erhardt. Her lessons, born of post-war necessity and the lack of pre-schooling in those days, enabled him to reach a nationwide audience in America and then internationally. He entertained and taught TV viewers how to cook like his mother.
He soldiered his way to the top of his profession, becoming at 27 the youngest master chef in German history. He championed foods and food-product innovations, which today are considered staples in any kitchen, commercial or private.
The Lure of Two Worlds, the Best and the Worst
The enticing sights, sounds, smells and flavors; the excesses of fortune, fame and connection … excited his imagination. His world of cooking ran white-hot active – full of innovation, opportunity and competitive challenge. A melting pot of fresh ingredients, newly acquired acquaintances and creative culinary challenges, made for a live-action reality show played out on themed stages. Cooking, for Erhardt, was nothing less than, “Showtime, folks!”
He possessed talents to cook and teach on television that were extraordinary. Fires that burned others were mere sparks on the tail of the energy that propelled Erhardt’s comet. He never stopped thinking about new ingredient combinations, improved ways to cook and innovative cookware. Curious as a child, he sought and unearthed better ways to please more palates, which he then shared with America.
Fernand Point, elite Master Chef and the “Godfather of Modern Cuisine” wrote,
“As far as cuisine is concerned, one must read everything, see everything, hear everything, try everything, observe everything, in order to retain in the end, just a little bit.”
Erhardt pursued “everything” from sunrise to bedtime for a lifetime.
In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Chef Tell performed on television screens in over 200 cities as 40,000,000 people watched weekly. But, for most, he was only the man behind the apron, the moustache and the smile, who told us, showed us, how to live through our taste buds.
Vulnerable, Like Us
The man Friedemann Paul Erhardt was as vulnerable as the rest of us, as imperfect as any of us. His extraordinary lifetime, for better or worse, ran a mercurial course. When he won, he broke off pieces of his good-fortune cookie and shared them with everyone he liked, even though some took advantage of him in return. When he lost, he lost big-time, making mistakes and enemies under the powerful magnifying glass of the media.
Erhardt might have succeeded in any profession but he had a passion to cook for people and to make them laugh.
“If you are not a generous person you cannot be in this field,” wrote Fernand Point, trainer to a generation of French master chefs, which included Erhardt’s contemporaries.
Possessed with unusual charm and charisma – a joie de vivre that set him apart from the crowd, Erhardt mingled well with queens, kings, politicians, housewives, janitors, lawyers, musicians; men, women and children, celebrated or uncelebrated.
In a sense, Tell Erhardt’s life defines ours. How he conquered the long odds and devastating barriers that he faced helps us to navigate our minefields. With him in mind, we realize anew that even the biggest of our dreams, if nurtured and continued, can and will come true.
If truth were told, in the culinary arts, as in the art of living, excellent sustained achievement is accomplished only by superb execution of details in the face of harsh realities. Chef Tell’s life is the perfect template for us to examine that notion.
Skimping will not do, where a five-star experience is desired. We must, therefore, start at the beginning.”
Philadelphia Inquirer promotional photo
© 2012, 2015 by Ronald Joseph Kule. All Rights Reserved.