All eyes are on the giardiniera.
After making the cut and practicing with likely ingredients, after surviving two quick rounds in which Cracker Jack, Vienna Beef franks, smoked cheese, deep-dish pizza dough and kielbasa had to be charred into cohesive, edible submission, it has come to this: A contestant has left a jar of Italian pickled vegetables -- a must-use ingredient -- untouched. In tortured unison, onlookers count down the final seconds.
The tension in the air is as thick as a two-inch T-bone, which also happens to be a mandatory ingredient -- the one that commanded most of the contestant's attention. Does the contestant realize it yet? See the forgotten relish that might end up costing a cool 10 grand?
It's not happening on some highfalutin studio set. The competition in this new show, called "American Grilled," has wound tight through 11 hours of a changeable Chicago spring day, outside the main entrance to Wrigley Field.
Its host is no buttoned-down big shot. Anchoring the judge's table is David Guas, all sideburns and denim and muy macho voice. Back at his Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Va., weeks after filming in 13 cities, he's able to admit that, yes, there was something "pretty bad-ass" about the experience.
"I had this surrogate, adopted family" that was the production company, the usually humble chef says. "The more they shot, the more they understood who I was."
If the chef fits ...
Whether or not America needs another competitive cooking show, programmers keep stuffing time slots with them. Those that feature spatula wars outdoors, with fire, have coast-to-coast appeal, perhaps because they highlight regional styles. Or because we, the people, are drawn to smoke. In any case, the brains behind "American Grilled" on the Travel Channel are certain they've got a contender.
"It's my favorite show," says Patrick McManamee, the Travel Channel executive producer responsible for fun fests such as "Xtreme Waterparks" and "Bikinis & Boardwalks." Headset disengaged for the moment, he is on location at Wrigley, an eager adviser at the command-monitor setup dubbed Video Village. "When I saw David grilling burgers in a guest shot on 'Today,' I knew he was our guy."
The concept: "American Grilled" rolls into town. Guas is the sole recurring member of a judging panel that includes a barbecue personality and a relevant local figure. (The judges and production company heads have gotten acquainted at dinner the previous night -- required each time, deemed a "brilliant" move by Guas.) Four self-proclaimed "grilling geeks" from the area must cook with products from local purveyors and can draw from a pantry of staples and carefully curated, local fresh foods. Video footage and references to the city will reinforce the network's brand.
Neil P. DeGroot is another reason why McManamee is so keen. Watchers of TV credits have seen DeGroot's name scroll by on eight seasons of "The Biggest Loser." He has earned two Directors Guild of America awards; a bystander on the set, even for a day, can see how many hats DeGroot wears, and how well he wears them. For this gig, he's executive producer of Original Media, the production company hired to film "American Grilled."
He and McManamee "spitballed and theorized" about the show; could someone even complete a grilled dish in 20 minutes? DeGroot recommended unexpected locations and made sure that Elayne Cilic, whom he'd worked with before, was brought on as his co-executive producer. Other places on "American Grilled" besides Chicago: Annapolis; Charlottesville; Asheville, N.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Pensacola, Fla.; Louisville; St. Louis; Savannah, Ga.; New Orleans; Memphis; Austin; and Latrobe, Pa.
"The city itself is a character. The show is regional and the food is local," DeGroot says. "That's what sets us apart." He was also adamant that the process be "organic." Contestants cook in real time. They suffer no character arcs or trash talk. Judges decide who wins.
Guas and DeGroot, who with his wife owns a farm near North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains and feels passionately about the farm-to-table movement, hit it off right away.
"He's a stress eater," Guas says, referring to the way DeGroot absorbs pressure yet stays calm and loose and very much in charge.
As comfortable as Guas is on the small screen -- he has appeared on "Today" 20 times since 2001, plus on various Food Network gigs -- hosting has not been a cakewalk.
"The first three cities were bumpy," he says. Shooting for "American Grilled" began last summer, and Guas was hired a mere two weeks prior. A format in which he chatted up contestants during each round was scrapped. It was too distracting for them, and too much like "those other shows." He had to learn how to handle seven or eight pages of script yet exude an off-the-cuff vibe.
Mostly, he was reminded by DeGroot that the host's on-camera work was not like the contestants'. " 'Dude, if ain't right, we can do it again,' is what he reinforced through that bug in my ear," the 39-year-old chef says. "I can get into a business-y, get-it-done mentality." By the time the team shot in the last location several weeks ago, he adds, "I tried not to have 'judges' face,' at least."
Guas' own posse got to visit Latrobe, the last shoot. It's safe to say that his publicist wife, Simone Rathle, has summoned all her professional acumen to help navigate her husband's career. She's his biggest fan.
Elder son Spencer, almost 12, says: "My father's my father. That won't change. He'll always come to my baseball games" -- although the rising seventh-grader says that when his teacher "unexpectedly did a report in class about my father having his show, it was cool." Nine-year-old son Kemp wonders, "Now, is a limousine going to come and take us to school?"
The third-round giardiniera drama in Chicago seems like small potatoes compared with all that production manager Mo Krishna has to deal with. The 38-year-old Windy City native works 12-hour-plus days for weeks at a time. He scouts locations before the talent arrives and is responsible for a 30-person staff and the equipment that fits into one 25-foot truck, a 14-foot camera truck, a nine-foot "grip" truck, a cargo van, a jib trailer and five traveling vehicles. That's how this Original Media team rolls, a separate entity hired by the Travel Channel.
"I'm proud of it," Guas says, adding it will be awkward for him to watch at a preview party back in D.C. "Maybe it'll remind me to be funnier if there's a second season. Maybe the country will get to see the real David."