Chef Tell, "short order gourmet cook of TV's 'PM Magazine,'" sat with his plate of bratwurst and suckling pig. Surrounding him were 80 or so friends who had gathered in his back yard yesterday to greet his father and stepmother on their first visit from Stuttgart, West Germany, since he became a four-corporation, near-half-million-dollar superstar TV chef. "I see you," he crooned to the cameras, the now-famous sign-off for his TV cooking spot. The friends, on cue, cheered. The cameras rolled briefly and stopped.
"Got it?" Chef Tell asked the men behind the cameras. The smile and the plate were left at the table as Tell made a quick retreat with his mug of beer. He wandered through the crowd under the large tent on the manicured lawn. An oom-pah band played German dance music.
The guests, including chef Georges Perrier of Le Bec-Fin, Philadelphia's leading restaurant, county politicos, members of gastronomic societies, the consuls from the Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian embassies and a hefty portion of media to record the reunion, were largely unable to communicate with Tell's parents, who spoke no English.
So his father, Max, standing in brief corduroy shorts -- German style -- just smiled over his beer and occasionally checked his watch, having given up on his German-English dictionary. He did volunteer that he was surprised to find that Americans didn't eat only out of cans, and that he never had wanted his son, Friedemann Erhardt, now known as Chef Tell, to be a cook. Still, for his parents' welcome, Tell had Chef Tell mugs, Chef Tell T-shirts, Chef Tell aprons and several of the beautiful women often seen with Tell since he disassociated himself from his Philadelphia restaurant and his wife-partner.
The restaurant had been successful. But it couldn't compare with being a TV chef, for which shopping mall demonstrations alone -- and there might be two a day -- bring $2,500 each.
Supervising a kitchen is hard work, but Chef Tell said it can't compare to flying "18 hours a day" promoting a cookbook in 45 cities in 55 days.
When, four years ago, Tell Erhardt started his 90-second cooking spots nationally for "PM Magazine," said Washington producer-director Steve Howard, "Who knew? There are stories about when he walked in there and they said, 'Could you lose a little of that accent?'"
Now, Tell claims, "The accent is worth $50,000 in this country," and he wouldn't change it for a year's supply of caviar.
The Tell organization also has discovered that the accent -- and he -- are sexy. In the past year, says Howard, there has been a concentrated effort to capitalize on that. Tell's clothes have become what Howard describes as "open-collar macho," and his haricuts have become more professional.
Despite one of his first shows, which demonstrated "Italian" tuna salad with ketchup as the Italian touch, Chef Tell is a serious cook. At 27 he became West Germany's youngest master chef. But now his TV spots focus more on the man than the process. Early programs showed primarily his hands and their rapid-fire technique. Now the camera concentrates on Tell and his setting. The food, says Howard, "becomes pretty unimportant."
"It's exploded," says Tell of his career. But he hardly has time to enjoy all that money. Or all that much money to enjoy. He moans over large legal fees he owes and the cost of buying his wife out of the restaurant they owned. He does however, enjoy the special treatment he gets at airports and from traffic cops. As for the adoration of women, he says, "You can't just meet a woman and take her to bed, even if you want to. My lawyer said 'The next thing you have a paternity suit.'"
When he has time, he spends his money on scuba diving in the Cayman Islands, flying to New York for the theater, enjoying his Mercedes and Porsche, and drinking better wines than he could in his poorer days.
He knows there can be a price for being a media star. "Sometimes you can get a big head on that stuff, huh?"
And what is his advice for the nation's cooks? "Stay away from the freezer."