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Originally published August 4, 2013 at 5:08 AM | Page modified August 5, 2013 at 10:55 AM

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‘Kitchen Circus’: Behind scenes of a reality cooking show

Competing as a chef is not as easy as it looks, writes Christine Willmsen, a Seattle Times reporter who recently appeared on chef Thierry Rautureau’s Web-based reality show, “Kitchen Circus.”

Seattle Times staff reporter

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I can cook that.

Isn’t that what many of us home cooks say, maybe in a whisper or with a boastful laugh, as we watch all those cooking shows on television?

And that’s what I thought when, with a bloated sense of confidence and the encouragement of friends, I dared to test my cooking skills by entering a local, Web-based reality-show competition called “Kitchen Circus.”

Chef Thierry Rautureau, owner of Luc and the nationally acclaimed, recently closed Rover’s in Madison Park, hatched the idea of the show last summer. He liked the concept of throwing brave home cooks into a four-star kitchen and having them cook for 45 dining guests.

Through word-of-mouth, ads and social media, Rautureau invited home cooks to complete an application and make a three-minute cooking video.

Eighteen hopefuls were interviewed, and nine semifinalists were chosen to compete in “Kitchen Circus.” Each night, three contestants had to prepare an amuse-bouche and one of three courses — appetizer, main entree or dessert. Then they were judged by those who matter most — 45 hungry diners at Rover’s. The home cook with the most points each night advanced and cooked in the finale, to ultimately determine who would rise from the steam and become the “Kitchen Circus” winner.

Last month Rautureau and Mad Valley Productions released the four-show Web series on YouTube.

While the kitchen may be my second home after my day job at The Seattle Times, I questioned my sanity once I was chosen for one of the nine spots, competing on episode 3.

As a journalist, I’m used to stressful deadlines, but I hadn’t faced this type of pressure pursuing the “fun” stuff — my passion for food. I had recently created a personal food blog, The Solo Cook, to inspire single people to cook, garden and dine out. But on “Kitchen Circus,” I wouldn’t be cooking for only myself. Facing the prospect of cameras, hot lights, microphones and service for 45 guests, my confidence quickly evaporated.

Of course there were a couple twists in the competition that made the contestants tense up even more. This was a test in creativity, skills and moxie, because you had to create a menu of four-star quality and present recipes for an amuse-bouche and all three courses to Rautureau.

To prepare, other nights’ contestants, like Atina Tan, a dog walker and avid photographer, practiced carving up a 45-pound hunk of beef and held two dinner parties for 25 at her home. Gym owner and food tourist Myrissa Yamashiro served a dozen friends her menu ideas and had them fill out score cards to get feedback.

I concocted recipes like mushroom and goat cheese stuffed pork loin and trio of profiteroles, then tested them on a small batch of friends and co-workers. In my home kitchen, I was relentless — breaking old, hand-me-down appliances, buying new gadgets and leaving piles of dirty dishes in the sink every night.

About a week before each night’s competition, contestants met with Rautureau, who picked which of the three courses we had to cook along with the amuse-bouche.

He decided I would prepare my Chipotle Beurre Blanc Glazed Lobster with Roasted Chanterelles on a bed of Micro Greens as an appetizer and Grilled Scallop in a Chilled Coconut Lime Soup as an amuse-bouche.

I created both recipes using sentimental ingredients like peppers from New Mexico, where I once lived.

Once I saw my appetizer on the “Kitchen Circus” printed menus at Rover’s, I realized I couldn’t pretend to be a chef for a day, I had to be the chef of the day.

The late morning of Nov. 20 started with hair and makeup and a brief tour of the tiny but soon-to-be-crammed kitchen.

I faced Peter Houston, a Microsoft principal program manager, who brought his own pristine Japanese knives, and Erina Malarkey, a marketing consultant and food blogger.

As I stepped into the kitchen, I saw my ingredients — including live lobsters — piled in a corner. I also met sous chef Kati Wentworth, a quiet, unflappable woman who would help me as long as I directed her to do so.

I shared my printed timeline of lists and tasks. With just six hours to prepare the food, there was little room for error, and we both knew it.

But quickly I realized that two ingredients for my amuse-bouche — poblanos and coconut cream — were missing. And, I was expecting about 18 live lobsters, but was only given 12. I would need to use every little scrap of lobster meat I could find — which is the reality of most restaurants trying to make a profit.

While Rautureau grabbed peppers from a nearby store, I poured cans of coconut milk through a sieve to capture the thick cream.

Then I set my eyes on the live lobsters.

I patted each one’s head, thanked them for their lives and then plunged a large chef knife down between the eyes. It was a juicy, messy operation. After they went limp, I dipped them into boiling water for a couple minutes. Later we chilled, cleaned and then lightly poached them.

As I chopped, grilled and killed at a frenzied pace, I realized minutes had become hours. I second-guessed the flavors and cooking times as our deadlines approached.

I ground chipotle peppers and started to incorporate them into my beurre blanc. If I added too much chipotle, then the spice would overpower the lobster. If I cooked the beurre blanc at too high of heat, then the sauce would separate. If I cooked the lobster just 30 seconds too long, then the sweet, succulent meat would have the texture of rubber.

Beside me, Malarkey curdled the curry-maple whipped cream for her pumpkin cheesecake dessert and started her second batch. Houston fought flare-ups on the stove as he seared the lamb loin to accompany the faro and oyster mushrooms.

At 6:30 p.m., I had just a half-hour to prepare and plate the appetizer. I remember Rautureau saying in his French accent, “Christine, you are not moving fast enough. Come on Christine, faster.”

Finally, as the finished plates left my fingertips en route to the dining room, I smiled and wiped my sweaty forehead. The lobster was tender, the sauce was smoky and piquant and the chanterelles were sautéed to nutty perfection. It seemed like only minutes before the main entree of lamb and the cheesecake dessert were plated and leaving the kitchen, too.

When the ballots were tallied that night, I placed second. Malarkey advanced to the finale and ultimately won Kitchen Circus.

At the end of that frenetic night I gained a new respect for what chefs, staff and servers in professional kitchens do every night when they create a magical food experience for guests.

For one night, I was part of that. I stood in their shoes, minced with their knives and sautéed over their sweltering stoves.

And I would do it again.

Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or cwillmsen@seattletimes.com

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