When Nathan Lyon works at a California farmers’ market, he’s more tour guide than salesman. “I’m practically hoarse by the end of the day,” said Lyon, 35, a native of Arlington, Va.
He enjoys explaining about different types of ingredients as much as he enjoys cooking with them. Lyon said interacting and teaching others about food “is really all I want to do with my day.”
Lyon attended Long Branch Elementary School and then HB Woodlawn Program — though since the magnet school didn’t offer athletics, he wrestled for Washington-Lee High School. He graduated James Madison University with a Bachelor’s in Health Science.
Lyon had always worked “in the front” at restaurants, bussing tables and serving patrons. Then he attended the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, where he honed his skills as a chef. Prior to graduating, he was selected by his peers to compete in an Iron Chef-like culinary competition in Las Vegas. That’s where Lyon said he first got the itch to be on television, and convey his cooking technique and philosophy through that medium.
Lyon sought his big break on “The Next Food Network Star,” a competitive reality program where eight finalists battle to earn their own six-episode series on Food Network. Lyon was eliminated from the competition after making the final four contestants. The season finale is schedule for Sunday at 9 p.m. "It's not that my recipes are too complex for anyone to prepare. They just happen to be too complex for anyone to prepare in 5 minutes or less," Lyon wrote on his official web diary on Foodnetwork.com following his elimination.
He and the other contestants recently reunited for a charity event in Sonoma County, Calif. that raised over $30,000 for a children's center.
It wasn’t Lyon’s first flirtation with reality TV stardom. He tried out for the inaugural edition of “Food Network Star” and was considered for a slot on Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” He also received a call from ABC’s “The Bachelor,” whose producers were looking for a chef for an upcoming season and came across Lyon’s headshot, still circulating from his early days as an actor. “I asked my girlfriend at the time what she thought. She said, ‘I’d say go for it, but I can’t date you. There’s no way you can tell me you’re with 50 super-hot chicks and you’re making out with them and it doesn’t mean anything.’ Well then, I’ll pass,” Lyon said.
Lyon shared some time during this edition of “Food Network Star” aired and answered a few questions. Find out more about him on his website, www.goodtastechef.com.
Q. Where did your love of the culinary arts come from?
A. When I was really young, it came from my grandmother’s love for fresh produce. The reason why your grandmother or your mother or your friend’s food always tastes better is that they make it with love. That may seem a little corny, but you really put a lot of effort into it. Respecting the food, and not just taking a piece of fish and saying ‘well, this is a dead fish.’ It was once a beautiful fish swimming somewhere, and I’m sure it didn’t want to give its life to be overcooked and dry on your plate.
How do you feel you’ve been presented on the show thus far?
I worked with one particular producer, and she obviously wanted me to be that “single guy.” I didn’t know what it was going to look like, because we taped for two and a half days. I can see why they presented me in this light because two of the other guys have kids and [contestant] Reggie [Southerland] is gay, and I’m straight and single. You have to have some of that antagonist/protagonist thing going on, too. I understand that it’s a television show. If you show eight really nice people who cook well, it’s a boring show. But in my three minute promo, I wanted them to show me smiling. That’s who I am. I’m a momma’s boy, you know?
Do you think [Food Network star and show judge] Bobby Flay was intimidated by your masculinity and good looks?
No, not at all. He used to be a tough little guy when he was a kid — scrappy.
In a fair competition and an even playing field, who would win in an arm-wrestling match: you or Rachel Ray?
[Laughs] I mean, she’s tiny, man. She’s got enough spunk for 10 people, but she’s awfully tiny.
This show was taped late last year. How do you keep what happened on the reality show under wraps?
For me, it’s super-easy. I’m very big on standing by my principals. Even if I didn’t sign a non-disclosure that threatened to sue me for, like, $2 million, all they’d have to say to me is “don’t tell” and I wouldn’t.
What’s your idea for a potential television program?
It’s called “From the Market to Your Table.” There’s no one, at least on the Food Network, that has a visceral show. I love Alton Brown because I love that science thing he does. On [“Food Network Star”], we all gave each other nicknames. They called me “The Professor.”
I want to go to farmer’s markets around the county. I don’t want to alienate anybody. When I was growing up in Arlington, you had apples and squash in the wintertime. In California, we have everything you could possibly want. It kind of pisses the rest of the country off. So I would go across the country to farmer’s markets and pick a few items, go back to the farm and show you how they’re picked. Pull it right out of the ground. And then I’d go to the farmer’s kitchen and cook it right there.
If I’m one of the last two [on the show], and I get voted as the winner, then great — I’ve saved myself some work. If I don’t win, I’m so on the shirttails of this show’s momentum and I’ll turn around and pitch my show. Whatever happens, I want to make sure I’m ready to move forward.
Finally, are there restaurants you miss back here?
There’s a pizza place in Dupont Circle called “Pizzeria Paradiso.” You gotta go there. I always try to get back there when I’m in town.