News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Stafford County chef caters his chops for TV
For Chris Kyler, the television shows, catering business and years of culinary training can be traced back to a Disney cookbook that his mother gave him in his early years of cooking.
Each Disney character had its own special dishes, which he would attempt while his mother made dinner.
“Food is the center of most of our lives. Cooking brings good memories
back for me,” Kyler said.
Those days of cooking Mickey Mouse’s favorite dish recently led Kyler to cooking in front of a nationwide audience.
The Stafford County resident was a finalist on “Food Network Star,” a show that awards the winner a series on the Food Network following challenges to the contenders’ cooking style and way with the camera.
Kyler was eliminated on the July 13 episode of the show, becoming the seventh finalist to be cut.
Some judges said that Kyler’s cooking hadn’t consistently lived up to his cooking “point of view,” which he described as elevating classic dishes.
That point of view hit close to home for Kyler.
“I loved taking my mom’s classic dishes and making them more modern,” he said. “My mom is from the South so I grew up on soul food. I can’t stand just making soul food. I love to eat it and it tastes great. But to me, it is not a challenge to make.”
Kyler has also taken the philosophy of dressing up classic dishes to his mobile catering company in Stafford, Kyler’s A+ Catering. Operating out of mobile kitchen units, Kyler and his team are able to cater events with food that is prepared onsite. That gives him an edge over other caterers, he said, since most catered food is prepared ahead of time and reheated.
One of Kyler’s high points on “Food Network Star” came from a concept that he created in his mobile kitchen unit: butter coins. Kyler injected the token-shaped slices of butter with different flavors that would add a different taste to food as the butter melted.
At times on the show, Kyler felt far away from the mobile kitchens of his company.
“I’m a ‘put my head down and cook’ kind of chef. So this was like a real tough thing for me, to put all of the skills they want together: cook a great dish, be personable, be entertaining,” Kyler said. “It is a lot of pressure, but at the same it is very exciting.”
The friendships he formed with other contestants helped ease the pressure. Kyler said that he and Lenny McNab would often make jokes behind the scenes and that everybody brought a different flair to the table.
As for Kyler, he said his background set him apart from the rest.
Home economic classes, a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken and another at Red Lobster added fuel to Kyler’s passion for cooking as he went through middle and high school.
“I learned to cook fried chicken like nobody’s business,” Kyler said.
But Kyler wanted to make a bigger dent in the food industry. After graduating high school in Woodbridge, Kyler went into the Navy and received the bulk of his training at culinary specialist school.
The school taught him how to cook for the masses, but Kyler ended up only cooking for one—the captain of the aircraft carrier on which he was stationed. He climbed the ranks fast, becoming the captain’s personal chef within his first year on the USS Harry S. Truman.
Kyler also cooked for the captain’s company, which included President George H.W. Bush and Bruce Willis as the actor filmed parts of his 2003 movie, “Tears of the Sun.”
“We learned discipline, time management, how to cook for thousands of people and the varieties of the international cuisine. That is something that I use in my catering company,” Kyler said.
But it all came crashing down when Kyler failed a urine test in June 2004 after smoking marijuana. It was just three months before he was expected to get out of the Navy.
“I started to get in trouble with bad company,” Kyler said. “I felt like I let my country down, my family down.”
After he was kicked out of the Navy, Kyler was homeless for several weeks, occasionally staying at a shelter. But he began turning his life around after his mother gave him some books that inspired him, including the Bible.
Kyler moved to Stafford, and took three different jobs including the graveyard shift at Wawa. Because his driver’s license was suspended, Kyler roller-bladed to work.
“I just had to fight mentally. I knew I had to make it back up to the top,” Kyler said. “I’m all about second chances. I think everybody makes mistakes in life.”
By September 2005, Kyler had met the woman that would become his wife, and had launched Kyler’s A+ catering to serve the D.C. metro area. In 2008, he enrolled in Stratford University for hotel and restaurant management. While there, he expanded his knowledge of food presentation and different types of cooking at an internship with a catering company in D.C. called Windows Catering.
His momentum picked up even further when Kyler almost landed a spot on “Hell’s Kitchen” with his favorite chef, Gordon Ramsay.
“I just like how he is. If your food is good, he will let you know. Some of the things he struggled with I struggle with, like the timing,” Kyler said of Ramsay.
Kyler didn’t get the final call that would have given him a spot on the show. But soon after, he was asked if he would be interested in auditioning for “Food Network Star.”
He was also the champion on a January 2014 episode of “Cutthroat Kitchen,” another reality cooking show in which participants are challenged to cook gourmet dishes for a celebrity judge. At the same time, contestants must decide what to do with a handful of cash that can be used to sabotage their competitors or help themselves. Kyler ended up with $4,700 in cash.
Even though his days in the spotlight have ended for now, Kyler says he is not going to stop doing what he loves. Kyler hopes to expand his fleet of mobile units to eventually serve the entire East Coast.
“It has really been good for business,” Kyler said of the show. “It is really overwhelming. I really attribute most of it to God. I think he has blessed my life.”
Vanessa Remmers: 540/735-1975