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It’s no fluke

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The chef wouldn’t dish. I wasn’t asking for a secret recipe, I only wanted to know who won the reality show.

But Michael Salmon, a Brooklyn Heights resident and a contestant on the chef showdown, “The Next Food Network Star,” wouldn’t spill the garbanzos about whether he — or one of his 10 toque-wearing rivals — will end up winning the contest and getting his own show.

“I really can’t tell you,” he said.

That was the only moment in our meeting when the usually chatty Salmon — “like the fish” — was at a loss for words. At 53, the tall, bald-headed restaurant professional is no newcomer to interviews. From 2005 to 2006, he was the host of “Wild Salmon,” a radio program on Air America, and, before that, he stared in “Secrets From the Kitchen,” a 1980s cooking show. It was his on-air rapport with the audience that led Salmon to his current gig.

“I was on the radio when the first ‘Network Star’ program was running,” he said, clad in a well-cut suit and not his chef’s whites. “One of my listeners called in and said, ‘You should take your mouth and put it on television.’”

When Salmon checked the requirements, though, he realized he only had a few days to meet the show’s application deadline. In that time, he had to produce a three-minute video that answered the question, “Why do you think you should be a Food Network star?”

Despite the crunch on time, Salmon met the deadline. “I got a call the next Wednesday saying they’d love to have me. The call left me speechless which doesn’t happen too often in my life.”

He beat out thousands of other contestants, but this guy is certainly well prepared. After receiving his degree from the Culinary Institute of America, Salmon worked at the famed 21 Club and for Alain Sailhac (now the dean emeritus at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan) and Jeffrey Zakarian (chef at Country, Town and 44 in the Royalton Hotel).

For the past seven years, Salmon has been the director of operations for Cucina & Company in Macy’s Cellar, as well as Macy’s Cellar Bar & Grill. But all that work in Manhattan hasn’t made Salmon resistant to the charms of a Brooklyn restaurant. He cited Robin Des Bois on Court Street and Le Petit Marche in Brooklyn Heights as his favorite local eateries.

With a work history like that, joining a group of younger — contestants ages range from 25-39 — and less-experienced finalists still fazed him.

“It was humbling,” he sighed.

Like any reality show, the contestants are chosen as much for their skill as their personalities, and this season’s series has a formidable roundup of characters. Salmon plays the role of the elder statesman: helpful to the others, but always competitive. His experience and know-how is paired with that of contestants like the stiletto-wearing Nikki Shaw and the cigar-chomping, Tony Soprano-like Tommy Grella.

With all of these chefs, surely Salmon had beef with someone, right? None that he would cop to, at least.

“They were all great,” Salmon said. “There wasn’t a single one who couldn’t be a Food Network star.”

Salmon wouldn’t rag on the judges, Bob Tuschman or Susie Fogelson. He didn’t even have a bad word to say about icy guest chef Robert Irvine, he of the Austrian accent that could make a Gestapo guard shake in his well-polished boots.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the man,” Salmon said. “He didn’t scare me.”

What did rock this seemingly unshakable chef wasn’t pulling off a wedding dinner for 100 guests in just six hours or any of the other challenges thrown his way, but, as he put it, “the challenge of being myself.”

“You have no access to the outside world: no TV, no magazines or newspapers, no telephone,” he said. “They took away me being the boss, me being a father, a son, me being a boyfriend. I had to be myself without all those relationships defining me. That was the challenge.”

Cook like a star

Michael Salmon and other finalists had to submit 30 recipes to the selection committee to even be considered for “The Next Food Network Star.” His “Orange-Rosemary Brisket with Pan Gravy” is the kind of “comfortable, simple food” he told GO Brooklyn that he enjoys preparing. His recipes, said Salmon, are “like instructions from Betty Crocker’s kitchen. They work.”

Orange-Rosemary Brisket with Pan Gravy

Yield: 8–10 servings
8 lbs. kosher brisket, first cut, trimmed of excess fat
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces olive oil
2 large Spanish onions, diced
2 large carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 cup red wine
2 naval oranges, zested and juiced
2 large sprigs rosemary, picked from stem, plus 2 more sprigs for garnish
6 cups beef stock

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Season meat liberally on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over med-high heat. Place meat in pot, fatty side down. Brown the meat on both sides, about 5 to 7 minutes each. Remove meat and all but 6 tablespoons fat. Add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic to pan and cook until deep golden brown. Add the wine and deglaze. Add orange juice, zest and rosemary. Bring to a boil and add the meat. Add beef stock until it almost covers the meat and bring this mix to a boil. Cover pot and place in oven. Bake for approximately two hours.

To test doneness, stick a large fork into the center of the meat. If it slides in and out easily, it’s finished. Remove meat from the liquid and let stand at room temp for 30 minutes before slicing.

For the gravy: Degrease the remaining liquid in the pot. Pour into a food processor and blend. Adjust seasoning. Transfer the gravy into a 2-quart saucepan and warm up before serving. Adjust thickness with beef stock if needed.

Cut the meat on the bias, against the grain. Place on a large serving platter and top with hot gravy. Garnish with rosemary springs.

“The Next Food Network Star” airs on the Food Network on Sunday nights at 9 pm through July 22. For information, visit www.foodnetwork.com.

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