If bombs raining on Stuttgart and empty years of near-starvation had not killed him; if family opposing his dream to cook for others could not deter him; if ducking the crush of physical blows, verbal zingers, and pots and pans from fiery kitchen mentors never dissuaded him; and his mother’s suicide had not dashed his creative outlook toward living, or his spirited bravado... the simple task of winning an outdoor audition for a cooking slot on a TV show would not deny Friedemann Paul Erhardt his place in culinary history.
Empty-handed, Tell stepped up to his mark, faced the camera and, using only his wit, personality and imagination, won the contest, birthing new breed: the TV showman chef.
Within weeks, he appeared on-air in 30 cities. Within months, 40,000,000 avid Baby Boomers in 114 cities—eight times more than his contemporary, Julia Child—tuned in three times a week to Evening Magazine or PM Magazine to see him perform 90-second cooking segments. Appearances on the Mike Douglas Show; the Dinah Shore Show; the Merv Griffin Show, the John Davidson Show, and cooking demonstrations in shopping malls and convention centers, added fuel to the German-American prairie fire that swept the nation.
No one had seen anyone like him: Chef Tell cooked fast, entertained, and made America confident enough to try cooking his way. A cavalcade of fan mail, more than 1,000 letters daily, blossomed into 14,000 pieces of mail weekly. Excited crowds cheered him at airports and laughed at his quips. In Capitol Center in Baltimore, Maryland, he drew 20,000 people to five cooking shows on one weekend.
Tell’s appeal—ruggedly masculine yet comfortable in the kitchen—crossed gender and generational lines of television viewers. Twenty- and thirty-year-old home cooks swooned over his engaging style and simple recipes.
“If a housewife, or man, sees me do something in 90 seconds they figure they can make it in five minutes,” Tell said, adding, “Most recipes are overcomplicated anyway. You see recipes in Gourmet Magazine… five of the ingredients are out of the country and three more you can’t find!”
Yet, for all the glamour and glory of the Chef Tell public persona, Tell Erhardt suffered an inner lack of peace and understanding. Childhood scars and his mother’s ignominious suicide drove him through three restaurants, including one on Grand Cayman Island, which he promoted on LIVE! with Regis & Kathy Lee. He suffered two marriages, another suicide, sporadic drug use and clandestine sexual conquests before finding what he sought all along: a woman he could trust, and his own syndicated television show.
When a new breeze re-captured the mainsail of his storied career vessel, tragedy struck. Two untimely falls led to ill health, lawsuits, and a discovery of a diabetic condition. Yet, Tell recovered everything. Kicking his medications with dietary changes and exercise, he lost weight, rehabilitated his marriage and worked on his sixth cookbook—this one loaded with diabetic recipes. In the Kitchen with Chef Tell aired on PBS locally and was picked up on syndication. His public remembered him. Redemption was right around the corner.
On Friday morning, October 26, 2007, Tell collapsed and died alone at home, surrounded by family photos and tokens of his many accomplishments.
The next day messages of surprise, shock and reminiscence flooded the internet, including this: “Chef Tell has died? Stick a fork in him, he’s done.” Chef Tell would have loved that.
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