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Recently in Food Network Category

Three things to note in Reality Cooking Show TV Land:

* Bravo is holding a casting call for the next season of "Top Chef" -- the ninth season -- and for the second season of "Top Chef Just Desserts" from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 7 at the Dana Hotel, 660 N. State. Do your homework here before you show up, so you don't make a total arse of yourself.

* New York chef Marc Forgione, recently crowned the Food Network's "Next Iron Chef," stops by Macy's on State Street at noon March 8 for a free cooking demo, fulfilling an obligation as the retailer's newest Culinary Council member.

* "Top Chef Masters" got a facelift. The third season, which premieres at 10 p.m. April 6, has ditched host Kelly Choi for Aussie eye candy (and chef) Curtis Stone and judges Jay Rayner and Gael Greene for former Gourmet editrix Ruth Reichl (Saveur's James Oseland stays on as judge). Alas, there are no Chicago chefs in the mix this season.

Giada De Laurentiis, who charmed fans during the Taste of Chicago, is back in town Friday and Saturday on behalf of Target. Since she'll busy hawking her new line of cookware and food products and giving away free groceries, we got the chit-chat -- about celebrity, children and chocolate -- out of the way today.

De Laurentiis is the mother of a 2-1/2-year-old girl, the author of five cookbooks (the newest, Giada at Home, was out this spring) and a bona fide Food Network star who makes it all look so breezy and easy but, refreshingly, gives credit where it's due (her clothing designer husband's flexible schedule allows her to travel and fulfill her many commitments, she says).

Mostly, she just sounds like the rest of us parents -- concerned with figuring out the work-life balance and making sure her kid isn't eating total crap. Today Show Giada De Laurent.jpg

On not getting a true taste of the Taste of Chicago (she and buddy Mario Batali were the cooking demo headliners this year): "It was overwhelming and I didn't get to walk around as much as I would've liked. When I asked to go out for a walk, it was very brief, and it got a lot of people very stressed out."

On not being a sandwich-at-lunch person: "I don't believe in sandwiches. And I know a lot of parents give their kids sandwiches. For lunch, my daughter usually gets pasta with protein and a vegetable. I put it in a Thermos and it stays warm."

On Americans' tendency to scare themselves out of the kitchen: "We have time to cook. I think it's how much do we want to do it. . . Maybe you cook twice a week. And if you cook twice a week, it'll last you four days. And then maybe after that, you go ahead and open a package of something to eat. People think they have to change their entire way of thinking and eating, but truly, it's baby steps. If you just cook one night a week, that's a big difference."

On why you probably won't see a Giada talk show anytime soon: "I feel like for me, because I have a small child, I have to be very careful as to what I spend my time doing. Because obviously we can't do everything and we can't do everything well. I've been trying to figure out how much can I do and what can I do well. I don't want to wake up one day and say, Oh my gosh, my daughter's 10, where have I been all this time."

On her mini-me daughter: "In her preschool, they have a little kitchen set up. She'll go up to [classmates] and say, 'I'll cook you something. Do you want me to cook you something?' "

On her guilty pleasure: "Frozen chocolate chips."

On Twitter: "I don't do Facebook, but I do tweet. I think I like to because it's immediate. It's really been fun. And it is me doing it."

Follow De Laurentiis on Twitter at @GDeLaurentiis. Or catch a glimpse of her at noon Friday at 435 N. Michigan - she'll be doing a cooking demo, signing books and handing out food.

Here's what you need to know about last night's Top Chef Masters:

-- Our only Chicago hope, Tony Mantuano survived, thanks to some perfectly cooked a la minute ouzo shrimp and a classic potato gratin (his mom's recipe).

-- Cool as a cucumber seems to be a winning trait in this competition, and while Mantuano does well in this category, Jonathan "Obi-Wan" Waxman has this down.

-- Susur Lee is nuts, and we love it.

Both challenges had the chefs split into teams. The quickfire was a tag team cookoff -- each team had to make one dish, the catch being each chef had to cook one at a time, they weren't allowed to talk to each other and while waiting their turn, had to wear a blindfold.

Mantuano's team -- Lee, Marcus Samuelsson and Carmen Gonzalez -- lost by half a star. "Now I'm pissed, I have to kick it up a few notches," warned glint-in-his-eye Lee, who in the previous episode called himself a kitchen ninja.

The elimination challenge was to cater a wedding reception for 150 guests. Mantuano's team cooked for the groom, a self-described meat and potatoes guy. The overachieving Lee went ... nuts ... with dessert, making an impressive croquembouche, raisin bread pudding, chocolate profiteroles and his first ever carrot cake ("When I lived in British Columbia, it was full of hippies. They made the best f---ing carrot cake!" Lee exclaimed). Mantuano stayed cool, though we worried when he admitted feeling really tired because, man, he looked it.

The judges thought the team's menu was too dessert-heavy and wished Gonzalez would have cooked more. (Points to Mantuano and, in a rare ego-less moment, Samuelsson, for defending Gonzalez at judges' table as the uber-organized one who kept them all on track).

Gonzalez got the boot, and Jody Adams continued her slow and steady march, winning the challenge with a lamb dish, despite the bride's declaration that she didn't much care for lamb.

The Food Network is looking for more hapless cooks for its second season of "Worst Cooks in America," a sort of culinary boot camp starring chef Anne Burrell (a k a, that chick who takes hair style tips from Guy Fieri).

So if you have zero cooking skills but really, truly want to learn how, head to the April 17 casting call at the Affinia Chicago Hotel, 166 E. Superior. It runs from 9 a.m. To 3 p.m.

"We are looking for the types who are always asked to 'just bring the napkins' to the potluck dinner, the ones who consider scrambling an egg overwhelming, people who over-season, under-season, over-cook, under-cook or just plain never set foot in the kitchen," a press release reads.

For more details, go to worstcookscasting.com.

Terrible way to start to the week.

Early-morning fires swept through the buildings that house the award-winning Cakegirls bakery (2207 W. Belmont) and foodie favorite Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown Square (2172 S. Archer). In the Cakegirls case, the building was completely gutted (details on the damage at Lao Sze Chuan are sketchier.)

"We built this from nothing," Brenda Maher told the Tribune. She and sister Mary Maher are the faces behind the Cakegirls, considered one of the city's finest wedding cake specialists.

The Mahers have won four Food Network challenges with their fondant-covered, gravity-defying cakes, and star in WeTV's "Amazing Wedding Cakes." They just finished filming the third season in the fall.

Their wedding cakes start around $900 and can cost as much as $2,500.

"I think we come from that school of 'Never say no.' We work long hours because of it," Brendha Maher told me earlier this year for our cover story on custom wedding cakes, explaining their philosophy when a bride comes to them with a specific vision for her cake.

Lao Sze Chuan, which chef and owner Tony Hu opened in 1998, has spawned a mini-empire of eateries, including an outpost in Connecticut.

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Graham Elliot Bowles has yet another gig: sidekick to the notoriously salty chef Gordon Ramsay.

Bowles will join Ramsay as a judge on the Fox series "MasterChef," debuting in July, the network said Thursday. New York restaurateur Joe Bastianich will round out the judging panel.

The show is said to be a culinary version of "American Idol" -- only hobby cooks allowed. Ramsay, Bowles and Bastianich will put contestants through a series of challenges designed to whip them into professional shape.

Bowles, chef and owner of Graham Elliot in River North, is getting used to this thing called food television. He has competed on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America" and will take another stab at the "Top Chef Masters" title on Bravo; the second season of the show pitting the nation's preeminent chefs against each other premieres April 7.

Early this summer, Bowles will open Grahamwich, a sandwich shop, at 615 N. State. He also will head up food operations at Lollapalooza in Grant Park.

And the food TV shows just keep on coming.

TLC, which is on the road filming Art Smith's new series on comfort food, debuts yet another food-obsessed show at 9 tonight: "BBQ Pitmasters," an eight-episode "docu-series" that delves into the competitive barbecue circuit.

The show follows pitmasters from Texas, Georgia, Virginia and California as they tackle six competitions, including the Murphysboro Barbecue Cook-Off in Downstate Murphysboro. (But what? No Gary Wiviott? Something's not right.)

TLC is really getting into this food game. Their Discovery Channel's Planet Green is responsible for Homaro Cantu's Future Food series, also filming now, in which the moto chef applies his culinary derring-do to environmental issues.

Meanwhile, for lighter (for lack of a better word) fare, head over to the Food Network for the new series, "Worst Cooks in America." Yup, it's just as it sounds -- 12 hapless, hopeless souls (and two hosts you've never heard of) vying for their time in the spotlight. It premieres Jan. 3.

Reminder: Vie's Paul Virant and sous chef Nathan Sears are the latest Chicago entrants to the Iron Chef America fray. They battle Japanese master Masaharu Morimoto on Nov. 1. 6-22_Lachat_can_1.jpg

Join Virant, Sears and the rest of the Vie family to watch the episode (8 p.m., Food Network) at the Tap House Grill, 6010 S. Cass in Westmont. The chef there is Virant's friend.

And keep an eye on Sears, who we first met back in January. He's "ripe and ready" to head the kitchen at Virant's second restaurant, location t.b.d., Virant says.

Virant was thisclose to signing a lease on Vie Part Deux (our nickname, not his), just south of Grand Avenue, near May Street Market, but things just didn't work out.

"We're still looking," Virant says. "We do want to do something downtown.

"Obviously, it'll harbor the same style of food, the same philosophy of food as far as trying to support a lot of local farms, but it'll be more casual."

The battle is on: Vie chef and canning/preserving champ Paul Virant and his sous chef Nathan Sears will go head to head with Japanese master, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America." The episode airs Nov. 1. No word yet on whether pickled, Nichols Farm sugar snap peas will make an appearance, but one can hope.

We're skeptical of those 5-dollar, 3-ingredient approaches to cooking that are all the rage these days in the food mags and on blogs. Mostly because, well, the dishes never sound appealing. Stir together a bag of frozen broccoli florets in "cheese" and a can of Ragu ... Mmm, no thank you.

This is not to say that we don't believe in the less-is-more approach. Start with prime ingredients -- a clutch of greens from the farmers market, say, or a fabulous piece of fish -- and let the food speak for itself. We're all for that.

Enter "Five Ingredient Fix," a new Food Network show hosted by one Claire Robinson. Robinson has a background in TV, food (she's a French Culinary Institute grad) and food TV (she was a "culinary producer" for several food shows, including Michael Chiarello's and the PBS Everday Baking show).

The premise: every dish uses five ingredients or less (not including salt and pepper, but including olive oil). The first episode featured roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, shortbread and gingered carrots -- and it all looked pretty tasty.

We're rooting for Robinson. On the annoying FN personality scale, she ranks pretty low. She may never bump the Barefoot Contessa from her top spot on our very short list of FN people we want to be/break bread with. But Robinson has potential, if she can stay true to her premise -- and to the food.

"Five Ingredient Fix" airs on Saturdays at 8:30 a.m.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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