Before Julia… before Wolfgang, Paul, Emeril, Jacques, Bobby, Mario, Gordon, Rachel, Jamie, Martin, James, Charlie, Thomas, Anthony and Sara and Cat*… there was Chef Tell!
“Tell started all this television madness about chefs.” – Regis Philbin
If bombs raining on Stuttgart and empty years of near-starvation had not killed him; if family opposing his dream to cook for others could not deter him; if ducking the crush of physical blows, verbal zingers and pots and pans from fiery, kitchen mentors never dissuaded him and his mother’s suicide had not dashed his creative outlook toward living or his spirited bravado… the simple task of winning an outdoor park audition for a cooking slot on a TV show would not deny Friedemann Paul Erhardt his place in culinary history:
Empty-handed, Tell steps up to his mark, faces the camera and uses his wit, personality and imagination alone to win the contest, birthing a whole new breed of television star: the TV showman chef.
“Chef Tell” is America’s pioneer TV showman chef. Within weeks, he appears on-air in 30 cities. Within months, 40,000,000 avid fans in 114 cities—approximately eight times the viewing audience of his contemporary Julia Child—tune in to Evening Magazine or PM Magazine to watch him perform his 90-second, cooking segments, three times a week. The day after, water-cooler conversationalists and radio talk-show hosts across America mimic his lines. Personal appearances on the Mike Douglas Show; the Dinah Shore Show; the Merv Griffin Show, the Jon Davidson Show, and live cooking demonstrations in shopping malls and convention centers, add fuel to the German-American prairie fire that is sweeping the nation.
No one has ever seen anyone like him: Chef Tell cooks fast, entertains, teaches and makes America feel confident enough to try cooking his way. A cavalcade of fan mail, more than 1,000 letters daily, blossoms into 14,000 pieces of mail weekly. Excited crowds cheer him at airports and laugh at his live-show quips. In Capitol Center in Baltimore, Maryland, he draws 20,000 people to his five cooking shows on one weekend.
PM Magazine gushes over their new “rock-star chef,” which in 95 percent of their syndicated outlets draws up to 50-percent market share. Detroit’s Kelly & Company conducts a “Chef Tell Look-Alike” contest, and local stations in Greensboro, Dallas and other cities and towns follow suit.
Tell’s appeal—ruggedly masculine yet comfortable in the kitchen—crosses gender and generational lines of television viewers. Kids think he is the Swedish Chef from Sesame Street. Twenty and thirty-year-old, female and male home cooks swoon over his engaging style and simple recipes.
“If a housewife, or man, sees me do something in 90 seconds they figure they can make it in five minutes,” Tell says, adding, “Most recipes are over-complicated anyway. You see recipes in Gourmet Magazine… five of the ingredients are out of the country and three more you can’t find!”
Amazingly, Tell has no clue as to how extensive his influence is: “All of a sudden, everybody knows me, everybody’s my friend,” writes Erhardt to a friend, “I just can’t believe it.”
Yet, for all the glamour and glory of the Chef Tell public persona, Tell Erhardt suffers an inner lack of peace and understanding. The scars of his childhood and his mother’s ignominious suicide drive him through three restaurants—one on Grand Cayman Island, which he promotes on numerous appearances on LIVE! with Regis & Kathy Lee, two marriages, another suicide, sporadic drug use and clandestine sexual conquests before he finds the two measures of personal happiness that he has sought all along: an honest and loyal love from a woman he can trust implicitly and love boundlessly, and the production of his own syndicated television show (after turning down, on the legal advice of another, The Food Network’s historic, first contract offer).
When a new breeze catches the mainsail of his storied career vessel, and he opens two more restaurants that flourish, tragedy strikes. Two untimely falls lead to ill health, lawsuits, marital strife and a (fortunate) discovery of a diabetic condition.
But Tell recovers everything. He kicks his medications and manhandles his diabetes with dietary changes and exercise. He loses 100 pounds, rehabilitates his marriage and begins research on his sixth cookbook—one was a 230,000-copy best-seller—loaded with diabetic recipes. In the Kitchen with Chef Tell airs on PBS locally, pulls high ratings and gets picked up on syndication. His public remembers him. Once again they tune in to watch and be entertained. Requests for recipes jam station mailboxes ten years after he left the mainland for Grand Cayman. Redemption is right around the corner!
But on Friday morning, October 26, 2007, Tell never reaches his cooking class at Chestnut Hill College. Instead, he collapses and dies alone at home, surrounded by family photos, and the tokens and tributes of his many accomplishments. Bunny, Tell’s wife, already informed of his passing, will return from her business trip late that night in a driving rain storm.
The next day messages of surprise, shock and reminiscence flood the internet, including this: “Chef Tell has died? Stick a fork in him, he’s done.”
Chef Tell would have loved that.
(* Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck, Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jacques Pepin, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsey, Rachel Ray, Jamie Oliver, Martin Yan, James Scott, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain, Sara Moulton and Cat Cora…)
Chef Tell in Grand Cayman Islands