Greg On The Menu: Cooking on Television

I loved watching my grandmother cook. She influenced me. I still see her in my mind. After dinner, she watched me put on shows in her Lubbock backyard; but she never saw me cook. I imagine if she saw me cooking on television, she'd drop her jaw and her cocktail.

I get a call from a producer. It's a Hollywood movie moment. One of those life-changing events that swirl about all real and surreal.

"Greg, we want you on our show. The Chili's challenge. Create a new burger to go on the menu at Chili's'" she said.

A new, nationally broadcast cooking show, On The Menu. Produced by Mark Burnett, hosted by Ty Pennington, mentored by my dream-of-a-lifetime Chef Emeril Lagasse. This TNT show provides a unique opportunity. For me, self-promotion. For the winner, a $25,000 check. I need the money and a job.

I have a month to create and taste and test and taste and test and taste a burger for Chili's. I'm sixth generation Texan. Turn my cumin-and-lace grandmother sideways, and she was the Chili's flavor profile.
From Day One, filming On The Menu was a spectacular experience.

I'm chauffeured to the studio near Sunset Boulevard in a van. A Greta Garbo rush passes over me as we ease past the gates.

I pass my hand over Greg written on my dressing room door as if I'm successfully reading braille for the first time. I meet the other three contestants. As we chat about our backgrounds, I sense we're mentally walking into each other's kitchens to evaluate our cooking skills. It's a whisk sniffing contest.

In my dreams, for my first TV show, I have backup dancers. I picture birds flying around stitching up my Bob Mackie outfit while I softly sing. But in reality, my humble, grateful, reverent fingers button up the off-the-rack grey chef coat I'm handed. The fabric feels like... honor. Casting put 5000 others on tape and chose 40 (10 episodes).


I walk onto the set. The mood is electrifying. That might be all the cables and cameras. We're shown to a huge kitchen where our recipe's ingredients wait. Surprise -- we have thirty minutes to make a test burger. What?! I wonder if I'll sweat. I look around for hair and makeup.

New-to-me kitchen; new-to-me experience. I thank the Marine Corps for teaching me to jump in freezing water and swim through fire. Cooking with a time limit is like being handed a pin-pulled grenade. Before the world shatters, I'm expected to produce a prize-winning masterpiece.

As the final buzzer sounds, I clamp the top bun on my burger as if throwing my body on the grenade before it explodes. Our plates are taken away to be photographed or interrogated.


We're introduced onto the set by Ty.  The first real challenge is to re-create Chili's guacamole, live and in front of Chili's executives, Ty Pennington and EMERIL LAGASSE. I take a breath. Like memorizing the M-16 parts in boot camp, I've done my reconnaissance work. I memorized the entire Chili's menu over the month I had to prepare for competition. In a thousand years, if you visit my grave and hold your ear to the ground, you'll hear my muffled recitation, The M-16 is an air cooled semi automatic rifle and Chili's guacamole has cilantro, lime, salt, avocado, tomato, red onion, fire roasted jalepenos....

It's a battle. Replete with injuries. Five seconds in, contestant Tara cuts her hand. As the medic rushes over, another guy (let's call him Dan since that's his name) cuts his. I look up and nick my pinkie. We're a troop, a unit. We limp on, bandaged up.

Buzzer sounds, battle's over. I ace the challenge probably because I can cook, memorized the Chili's menu and make guacamole a lot. Tara adds bell peppers to her guacamole and is eliminated. It's hard to say goodbye but the game and the war must go on.

I was raised in New Orleans, so when Chef Emeril approaches me and the other two survivors, waving his arms to show us our huge, impressive kitchens -- it's culinary magic. As if he's stirring a huge pot of precious, legendary gumbo.

We now must cook fifty of our burgers in one hour. Hungry diners wait in an exact replica of a Chili's restaurant the set wizards whipped up. I'm aided by two culinary school trained chefs, to whom I'll be forever grateful for lending me their kindness and skill.

The burger I've created is ambitious. On purpose. It's tall. In fact, it's as big as my grandmother's Texas hair.

Here's the plan of attack: First, I settle a griddled meat patty on a bun slathered with caramelized onions and chipotle peppers. On top of that I place a blistered, peeled poblano pepper stuffed with cheese that's deep fried in tempura batter. On the other bun sits a tomato I broil to cool in my famous tomatillo salsa that I just learned last week. My helper super chefs, Greg and Michelle, shoot me a look, Greg, we don't care how crazy it sounds, but we can do this.

I direct the team as if leading my squad of Marines through a field of enemies. We encounter a problem, we conquer it. Meat, peppers, flour -- and time -- fly.

Have you ever been cooking live on a television show for the first time in your life with twenty cameras on your nervous hands and Master Chef Emeril steps into your kitchen and asks you a question while you work?

Imagine you're making gymnastic, passionate love and you have one chance to make a baby. You're the last person on earth; all life is about to end (you're holding that grenade, remember?) and God himself comes into your head and whispers a tip that you want to hear so badly to save the planet and my burger. Sure! I think as I juggle buns and meat and lettuce and three sauces and realize I've never used a deep fryer or faced a griddle the size of a Buick's hood and, as my grandfather used to say, I might be busier than a whore on nickel night -- but yes, I want Emeril to speak to me.

Music swells as he gives me a tip he learned from Julia Child. She told him to layer the elements carefully to protect the bun from moisture. Soggy buns are bad on a burger and bad on a beach. (Julia had a French accent but she spent time in LA.) Emeril also advises me on flavor.

"Hit those peppers with salt the moment they come out of the fryer. And Greg, use plenty of it," he says.

I return to my billion tasks. I keep my head down and focus like I saw my grandmother do when she cooked. She was a complex lady with some regrets and I imagined a few dreams that settled in the West Texas dust. As I watched her stare and stir gravy, I wondered if she was figuring out problems deeper than the cream-to-flour ratio.

I'm a plate spinning octopus, tossing buns and flipping meat. My team finishes on time, and I throw my hands in the air like I see on Chopped. It's a move counter-active to my Marine training as we never plan to surrender.

I leave my kitchen to sit with the two other contestants at the Chili's bar (built for this episode). We talk about how insane that was. We taste each other's burgers. None of us know how the burgers are perceived by the diners in the next room. The crew whisked our plates away like babies given up for adoption. Don't let them see their birth parents -- we might bond and fuss and add a garnish.


We're called to the judges table. Dan, a nice guy, listens as they list good and bad comments from diners. I take my notes -- my burger is big and messy, but it has great Southwestern taste (like me). The Chili's COO Kelli Valade has THE sparkliest eyes. But she finds my burger not right to share on a date, and Chili's is a date place. That's the moment I know they won't pick mine. I do see a glimmer of hope in another's eye. Ty. He likes a messy date. A man after my own... napkin.

Jasmin is eliminated. I'm as thrilled to advance forward as I am sad to see her retreat.

Now that we've heard the diner's opinions and advice from the panel of judges, Dan and I are sent to our kitchens for the final challenge: 30 minutes to cook our dishes for the judges. This is the time for perfection -- and adjustments. I carry my entire family with me everywhere, use them for inspiration. My Uncle Jim is smiling down, hollering what he used to say about my indefatigable sunny disposition: Greg, you can turn shit into sunshine.

I race to my kitchen and feel the vacuum of emptiness. No sous chefs; nothing is prepped. I'd left a few stuffed peppers and sauce. I've used the term "start from scratch" a thousand times but never literally.

Having cameras and judges and producers and hair and makeup people watching you cook is like being in a fishbowl. Have you ever stood in front of an aquarium to watch the fish? Maybe you've thought about what the fish think of you watching. Well, we're freaking out! I have to blister poblano peppers, cool and peel them, griddle burgers, butter and toast buns, cook onions and chipotle, make tomatillo salsa. I move spastically, slinging ingredients towards the bowl to make tempura batter. I'm still working like an octopus, but now I resemble one who's stuck his tongue in an electrical socket.  

I learned in the Marines to adapt and conquer. The diners and judges found my burger too big. I spy the Chili's roasted jalapeño. I ask the producers if I can use that, instead of my huge poblano pepper.

"No, Greg, you can only use the ingredients that you originally proposed," they say. Were I able to use their pepper, the restaurant can put that on the menu as a cheese-filled appetizer and sell gallons of margaritas; but rules are rules.

My grandfather used to tell me, You have to dance with the one that brung you. Before final plating, I chop my stuffed pepper in half. I dispatch a smaller burger. I see gooey, tempting cheese oozing from the open pepper.

"Greg," Ty says, "you have one minute to tell us why your burger should go On The Menu at Chili's."

I tell the judges the story of my burger. How it has Texas roots, like me. I speak of the spicy women in my like that influence my cooking. Southwestern flavors dance off my burger in flashes matching Chili's own. My final plea is the most obvious:



"How can you not have my Pepper Burger on your menu. Your internationally recognized logo has a fu*#@ng chili on top!" I plead.

(I don't cuss as this is television and I kiss my grandmother with this mouth.)

We're called to final judgement. As I step into my spot, I notice a tiny wisp of my hair has dipped below the tip of my glasses. I can barely see it, so I settle in, ready to hear this monumental decision. The voice of God, or the director, booms out onto the stage, Greg, fix your hair. 

I flip my hair back and quickly re-settle to hear the decision we all are waiting for. Another boom.

Greg, fix your hair better. I rake my hand through my hair hoping I'll scrape all of my hair totally off my head. I look at Dan; I'm holding his decision up too. But we hear the boom.

Hair, come fix Greg's hair. 

They say time waits for no man; well it waits for this man's bangs.


They choose Dan's burger to go On The Menu at Chili's. As I walk off the stage, I'm confident that I created the exact burger needed to enhance Chili's menu. I win too; I own my burger and now that $25,000 has been set as a value, my price shot up. The show doesn't have time to air my exit interview. I make sure to thank Chili's, on camera, as a former Marine, for their tireless, enormous financial donation to our USMC precious Toys For Tots charity.

My burger will go on the menu somewhere. Crowned with a cheese-stuffed, fire-roasted, tempura-battered jalapeño. My creation "mexi-chup" -- onions caramelized in smoked chipotles might soon fly off grocery store shelves. (I'll share my fantastic burger recipe here soon.)

Money is wonderful. What would I do with $25,000? I think of my grandmother wishing loudly for one of those fancy dishwashers. My grandfather snatched her into his arms and tried to waltz in their small kitchen. He knotted up an imaginary tie with his strong, carpenter hands, and bowed, You have one. Me.

That reminds me that my other half is waiting at home for me to be done with this contest. He's terrified of our gas stove. As soon as this TV shoot is over I have to I rush home and cook dinner and take out the trash.

If blood tastes like a cheese-stuffed pepper, I've tasted television hosting blood and I want more.

3 comments:

  1. Oh Greg, that was painful, we think you should have won, it was a great idea and I am sure it tasted delicious! Next time ....
    See you soon, Jean and Norman xoxo

    ReplyDelete
  2. Throwing your hands up also means touchdown, and you scored big time. The idea of diced chipotle caramelized onions is another winner, i will make some for my crowd today.
    I will also use gramps analogy with appropriate discretion, it's a chuckle getter.
    XOXO jc

    ReplyDelete
  3. You and your hair were fantastic! As soon as that burger is on a menu I will be there sharing it with a few of my closest friends, xoxo deb Mariano.

    ReplyDelete

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