A culinary success story: the saga of television's Chef Tell

Chef Tell Erhardt is a master chef, a television personality, and owner of two restaurants. He is known mostly for his 90-second television cooking programs delivered in a galloping, rapid-fire style. He has two cookbooks, ``Chef Tell's Quick Cuisine,'' and ``Chef Tell Tells All,'' and recently he has developed a line of non-tomato based pasta sauces.

Born in Stuttgart, West Germany, and trained in Baden-Baden and Heidelberg, Mr. Erhardt was executive chef at the Kronen Hotel in the Black Forest for 12 years before coming to America in 1973. He was the youngest person in West Germany to receive the title ``Master Chef,'' and he has received many culinary awards both here and abroad.

On a recent visit to Boston, Chef Tell answered some questions for the Monitor.

You've only been in this country for a little over 10 years and you have had an amazing amount of television exposure and culinary fame. To what do you owe this success?

First, it is of course that I know my trade. I am an experienced, qualified master chef and I work 18-19 hours a day. But perhaps my television ``break'' came on my first job here, when I was an assistant chef at the Marriott in Philadelphia and the head chef was unable to do a television demonstration. In spite of the fact I couldn't speak English, I was the substitute and I cooked half a dozen dishes on TV. The audience couldn't understand everything I said but they liked the way I cooked and we had thousands of letters asking for the recipes. I guess that's how it all started.

Now that your English is fine, speedy delivery still seems to be one of your trademarks. Is there any special reason why you talk so fast? Can people remember the recipe when you talk so fast?

I think they can. I am very analytical about these things. People remember even more when I talk quickly. When a person talks fast, you watch him and concentrate and therefore remember.

But on ``PM Magazine'' you had a 90-second segment - how do you find recipes you can prepare and cook on television in a minute and a half?

Everybody is very busy today. They want to learn shortcuts. Preparing a complete recipe in 90 seconds? No - the audience knows I'm only showing the important steps. I chop the onion or garlic, julienne the carrots, season the chicken or meat, arrange everything in a casserole for the oven, then - by the magic of television - voila! There is the finished product, golden brown and bubbling.

What are some of the most frequent questions about cooking?

Basic things - how to boil an egg, how to make mashed potatoes. We have a generation of people who don't know anything about cooking and their parents didn't cook. Of all the requests, the greatest number for one recipe was 43,000 requests for a recipe for mashed potatoes.

You have a continental restaurant in Wayne, Pa., and a new one in the Cayman Islands. Are they similiar?

My Wayne, Pa., restaurant, Chef Tell's, which serves continental food, is in a turn-of-the-century Colonial mansion, and was shown recently on a segment of the ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'' TV show. My restaurant [in the Caribbean] is in a magnificent ocean-front plantation house with gorgeous views, called Chef Tell's Grand Old House - but a fine restaurant on an island has different problems than one in Wayne, Pa.

Like what?

Like finding ingredients that are common in the United States, but not native to a tropical island. Many foods must be flown in and often supplies are delayed. ... We serve a lot of local seafood - many conch dishes such as fritters and steaks, and I have a delicious Chinese stir-fry way of cooking conch. I also serve West Indian dishes which means using lots of spices - paprika and hot sauces.

What do you think about cooking on video cassettes? Will they take the place of cooking teachers and schools?

Maybe. I've made 14 video cassettes, mostly cooking techniques that are easy, simple, with recipe cards to go along with the television. I also give cooking lessons to children. They are very responsive. They have no trouble understanding my German accent and they are adventurous about trying new tastes. They seem to like spicy, well-seasoned foods.

You've done teaching and television, celebrity appearances - how did you happen to decide to market pasta sauces?

Because there are no pasta sauces on the market without tomatoes, such as pesto and Alfredo. Pasta sauces are finally coming out of the dark ages in America. People are learning that tomato sauce isn't the only thing to put on pasta. They're having fun with all the different kinds. I developed the sauces, but it was the idea of a businesswoman, Madi Ferencz, that people would like an easy, prepared pasta sauce without tomatoes. We call them ``Chef Tell's Pasta PourOvers.''

You do so many things - cooking, teaching, television - you've written two cookbooks. Do you enjoy one more than the others?

They're really quite different. Television - that's outstanding money, financially rewarding. Cooking classes - the teaching is challenging work - I love it.

But the restaurants - that's instant reward. When you know people are happy with your cooking, pleased with a fine dinner, that's the most rewarding thing for a chef.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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