Sara Pokorny

Pittston Chef Gene Philbin competes on holiday episode of ‘Guy’s Grocery Games’

Pittston Chef Gene Philbin competes on holiday episode of ‘Guy’s Grocery Games’
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Episode filmed in March airs tonight on Food Network

In all his years as a chef, Gene Philbin of Pittston has been around the grocery store time and again – but never quite like this.

The chef/owner of Peculiar Culinary Company in Pittston – a team well-known for its pop-up dinners throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania – found himself speeding down the aisles of “Guy’s Grocery Games’” famed, enormous store. The popular Food Network competition show with host Guy Fieri airs Sundays at 8 p.m., and tonight the episode that Philbin filmed in March will air.

The call came in January after Philbin applied to be on another Food Network show, “Chopped.” He’d applied for that show “two or three times,” but when the call came, it was for “Grocery Games,” a spot the network thought he’d fit best in.

“They told me it was for a holiday episode, so the first thing that popped into my head was, ‘I bet this is for the Fourth of July,’” Philbin said, “which would be awesome because the Fourth of July is a big time for the Food Network; they do a lot of specials. And then they said, ‘No, no, it’s the Christmas special,’ and I was like, ‘What? OK, sure!’”

Philbin went through nearly two months of interviews, which he said took place over the phone and via Skype and consisted of sending a lot of video and pictures.

“There was a lot of talking, a lot of getting to know each other.”

It was a Friday when the network called to tell him he officially landed the show – and that they would need him to fly out that Thursday.

“At the time, on top of running Peculiar, I was still the executive chef at Wilkes [University], so my plate was full to begin with,” Philbin said. “To leave both things for three days… I was pretty nervous, but I knew I couldn’t pass the opportunity up. I said yes, and I would just figure everything out later.”

He soon found himself in a warehouse in Santa Rosa, California, ready to take on three other chefs in up to three challenges for the grand prize.

Challenges vary each episode and, though Philbin couldn’t give too much away before the air date (“I just… no, I can’t say that, that’ll give it away,” he said many times as we spoke to him. “I wish I could just tell you!”), he was able to talk of the very first, one that sent him careening from end to end of the store.

“The place is huge,” he said of the setup for the show’s store. “It’s kind of a classic setup, though. Usually to the left is produce, the back wall is meats, seafood, a freezer section on the other side, a bakery. The setup was similar to that, so at least you knew the three walls. The middle, however, you have to figure out for yourself.”

Philbin also said that everything a viewing audience sees is real, and not just for show.
“If you see a shelf four cans of tomato sauce deep, there are four cans of tomato sauce. They had a craft beer section most grocery stores dream of. They even had a section of cat and dog food.”

It was along the outer perimeter where Philbin and the other chefs found themselves visiting each of three judges and Fieri at tables filled with samples. The first challenge required assembling a holiday meal, and each chef had to use at least two of the given samples.

“When they told us the challenge, I had in mind what I wanted to make, but then they go “Three, two… wait a minute,’” Philbin said of the twist Fieri pulls before each round of the show.

Fieri was handing out gingerbread men; Melissa d’Arabian, winner of the fifth season of “Food Network Star,” had pre-made latke mix; Beau MacMillan, who defeated Iron Chef Bobby Flay and co-hosted the first season of “Worst Cooks in America,” had smoked salmon; and food critic Troy Johnson was offering canned sweet potatoes. Philbin chose the salmon and sweet potatoes, incorporating them in unique ways for his dish.

“The tables were tricky because they were all over the store,” he said. “It took me a solid 30 seconds to find Guy. He ended up yelling for me because he could tell I couldn’t see him.”

Timing is everything in the “Games,” as each challenge is allotted only 30 minutes, which includes the time it takes to shop for items.

“I kept trying to tell myself I had all the time in the world,” Philbin said of how he handled the time crunch.

“I kept trying to tell myself, ‘You put out dishes in minutes all the time.’ We’ve had pop-ups for 60 people where we plated each course in seven, eight minutes. I kept trying to jazz myself up and say I could do four plates in 30 minutes. But, hey, when you’re running around that grocery store, before you know it, you’re five minutes deep.”

The time spent running, however, is when Philbin collected his thoughts and planned out his meal.
He said Fieri was a pleasure to work with, a warm and welcoming guy who just wanted everyone to have a good time.

“If someone seemed nervous, he’d pull them aside and say, ‘Hey, it’s all good.’ He just wanted us to have a good time and to be ourselves.”

The one person on the show that gave Philbin pause was MacMillan, someone whose work Philbin admires and who he said is the “real deal.”

“This guy is on the line a lot. He’s a chef; he’s it,” Philbin said. “We had no idea who the judges were, so as I was walking through the production area to get mic’ed, I saw him and was like, ‘Oh, shit.’”
It was also a bit daunting that Philbin’s cooking station was right next to the judges, so he could hear every word they were saying.

“At one point, I was doing something with a specific herb and I heard Melissa say, pretty much, she had hatred for this herb and I was like, ‘Oh, crap. I’m doomed.’”

But, at the end of the day, Philbin knew all that mattered was that he did what he does best – cook.

“The whole time you’re up there, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, I hope they don’t hate it.’ But I told myself to just cook my food, put my heart into it. If they hate it, they hate it, but you know you like it. If I didn’t like it, I’d never put it on the plate.”

“Guy’s Grocery Games”
“Dashing through the Aisles” featuring Chef Gene Philbin
Date: Sunday, Dec. 14
Time: 8 p.m. EST
Channel: Food Network
Future airings are at 3 a.m. on Dec. 15, 4 p.m. on Dec. 20, and 7 p.m. on Dec. 22.