08.25.09

Cooking With Brian Boitano

Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano has gone from triple axels to double boilers for his new Food Network show. But, Rachel Syme asks, can he prepare skate?

Brian Boitano, 45 and spry, is displaying all the signs of a newly minted Food Network host. He can’t quite figure out how to chop peppers and look at the camera at the same time, he is jittery and rattles on about every recipe step, and he is so impressed that he managed to create an actual dish that he applauds himself as he places the final parsley garnish. He is still in the ultimate-pleaser phase, asking everyone if they liked the bacon corn muffins about five times, and remarking on the perfection that is his signature red pepper relish. “Do you love the relish?” he asks, eyes wide. “Isn’t it like, completely bodacious?”

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If anyone else tried to use the word bodacious while spoon-feeding his guests spicy relish, they might be laughed out of the kitchen. But Boitano, as anyone who watched the Olympics in the 1980s knows, has other talents—and has earned the right to use surfer language, not to mention to right to his own Food Network time slot. If the 1988 gold medalist, the first American to do a triple axel, the proud conqueror in the legendary Battle of the Brians, wants a cooking show, then by golly, the man will have a cooking show. Or so was the psychology of one intrepid Food Network producer, who convinced the skater to put his considerable home-cooking skills to good use on cable. “I originally came to him with a different idea,” says Boitano. “I wanted to do skating exhibitions, then cook with local chefs wherever I was. But he said, why don’t you just drop the skating? And I was floored. No one has ever asked me to be anything but a skater, you know?”

“Do you love the relish? Isn’t it like, completely bodacious?” The result of the producer’s mad scheme is What Would Brian Boitano Make?, a Sunday afternoon program (it premiered last week) that features Boitano in his own San Francisco kitchen, entertaining a different group of guests each week. In one episode, Boitano visits the mother of a close Spanish friend, and deconstructs classic paella ingredients into a more modern menu. “I put the chorizo and sausage on a skewer,” he says proudly. “And made paella burgers. Stuff like that.” For another show, he cooked for his single friend Tony and a gaggle of beautiful women (“I’ll admit, we cast them,” Boitano says), passing fried polenta squares with spicy sausage (and the famous relish) around the party. “For me, cooking and drinking go hand in hand with entertaining,” the host says. “I have that Italian thing in my blood, it’s all about pleasing others. I don’t even talk about what I cook on the show, because it’s just vegetables and fish and light meals. But I am happy to indulge others.”

As he says this, Boitano is whisking together cream cheese, honey, and hot sauce to create a sort of savory frosting. He works quickly around the kitchen—today we are at the Food Network headquarters, though Boitano films the show in his California house. “My kitchen was so gorgeous; they thought it was a set! I gutted it, and the only thing I left an antique Wedgewood stove that has a griddle in the middle. It’s a French country kitchen with pine floors, and I have this amazing view of the wisteria and Japanese maple, with lavender growing in window boxes. I just have the neatest house.”

It was in his gutted kitchen that Boitano taught himself to cook at 25, right after his gold medal win in 1988. “I was doing all these tours and I knew what I wanted to eat, and so I learned to make it. My mom was a total casserole girl, and my dad was just used to eating a whole pound of pasta at a time, so I had to basically teach myself everything. And that’s who the show is for—the self-taught home cooks who might not have the best skills but love to do it. If my friends can’t make it, I don’t want to make it. The best compliment that someone can give me is that my recipes are easy.”

“I have that Italian thing in my blood, it’s all about pleasing others. I don’t even talk about what I cook on the show, because it’s just vegetables and fish. ”

The show’s title, as the pop-culture savvy might have divined, is a play on the South Park cartoon that brought Boitano’s name back into the lexicon in 1995. A prototype episode of Comedy Central’s South Park called, The Spirit of Christmas (which Boitano is quick to note, “George Clooney got a hold of and sent to everyone he knew”), featured an animated, lutz-jumping superhero version of Boitano. The children sing a song—a take on “What Would Jesus Do?”—asserting that Boitano can do anything from fighting evil robot kings to building the pyramids. He was the original revived-iconic hero, long before Chuck Norris ass-kicking T-shirts were everywhere. “I was pleasantly surprised to see what they had done,” admits Boitano, who skated to the song in an exhibition and penned the foreword to a South Park book. “I thought they were gonna rag on me more. I mean, I’m a figure skater, look at me. They could have done worse.”

And though his having leaped in spandex on ice is never going to escape parody completely, Boitano has cut a lot of critics off at the pass by embracing his kitschy image. The opening to his Food Network show is a take on the South Park theme (he crosses out “Do” and scribbles in “Make” at the end), and he made it as over-the-top as possible. “I flip in the air in this Spanish outfit and then magically turn into a chef, holding a plate of Shrimp Louie.” When he was told that might be the campiest thing in the world, Boitano was quick to come back: “Camp is the heart of figure skating.”

Boitano still takes to the ice for two hours a day (“I’ve gotta work off the corn muffins somehow,”) and says that skating, not cooking, defines his identity, but that they are ultimately very similar. “It’s all layers, like choreography. Knowing when to take something out of the oven, when to chop that. It’s all structured and done under hot lights, so it’s not so far from being on the ice.”

As he serves up the last of his Bourbon-Bacon Apple Tarts, Boitano tries out a couple different catchphrases, including Julia Child’s “Bon Appetit!” and the classic Italian “Mangia!” He decides, in the end, to stick with bodacious. And, hey, he’s earned it.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.