Rachael Ray, make way: Brooklyn Heights’s Michael Salmon is hoping to become the next star chef on the Food Network. After 20 years at the stove, Salmon is one of 11 finalists vying for the title of The Next Food Network Star, a reality series in which contestants compete to win their very own Food Network series. This could give “BAM!” a whole new meaning.
Past winners now host Party Line with The Hearty Boys and Guy’s Big Bite. So when Salmon saw an ad looking for season-3 contestants, he decided to throw his toque into the ring. He was selected for the frenetic competition, complete with long shoot days, tricky challenges, and Trump-style elimination. Despite the craziness, Salmon loved it.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he grins, “once-in-a-lifetime super. Everything I cooked on the show reflects my personal point of view. It’s what I am, it’s where I’m from.”
And where he’s from is right here. “Without a doubt, everything comes from my grandmother Claire here in Brooklyn. For me, food and love started right there, in her 12th-floor apartment in Sheepshead Bay. I can still smell the tomato sauce cooking. It hit you when the elevator door opened,” he remembers. “She’d go, ‘Say ah,’ and put something in my mouth. If I smiled she gave me a kiss. It was all about the food.”
Those grandmother kisses propelled him into an career that’s included tenure at Mickey Mantle’s restaurant, as Ed Koch’s personal chef, and night saucier at the 21 Club. “We were sparing no expense,” he reminisces. “That’s when I came to love, love food.” Salmon still lives in Brooklyn, rides his bike to Fairway a few times a week, and hunts the best bites in the borough like a pig hunting truffles: “You take one of the largest cities in the country and break it down into a little town, a little community. It’s like foraging for mushrooms, but you’re doing it on the mean streets.”
For a year he shared these metaphorical mushrooms on an Air America radio show called (what else?) “Wild Salmon.” Guests included the guys behind Craft Ale, Ian Marvy from Added Value Farm in Red Hook, and of course Arthur Schwartz. “Once we did a live remote from a Nathan’s Hot Dog eating competition, and we held a monthlong search for the best pizza. Everyone called from all over, but especially from Brooklyn. Brooklynites are naturally very proprietary about pizza.” (Can you blame us?)
Salmon is sworn to secrecy on what he fed the judges, but his enduring philosophy is seasonal American. “I remember strawberry season, so I don’t want strawberries year-round. Why should I buy New Mexico this or California that when I can get what’s grown right here? And I don’t mean Jersey either. I mean tomatoes grown in the gardens of Brooklyn.”
So did Salmon dominate or what? His coy answer is, “maybe.” We won’t know ’til June 3rd. Surely every sports bar in the borough will be tuned in, rooting for our hometown kid.
Finalist Michael Salmon (center) and Patrick Rolfe work feverishly in the Food Network kitchens during a challenge for The Next Food Network Star.