'Deadliest Chef' brings his Alaska cred to TV pilot

January 11, 2010 

As a chef, John Stryjewski has cooked his way from one adventure to another, in institutional kitchens, in swanky private ones. Atop wood stoves and over campfires. On oil rigs, boats and trains.

He's fed 'em all -- drillers, miners, construction crews, firefighters, cannery workers, lodge guests, bear hunters, vegetarians, vegans, street people and "fruitcakes," his term for Hollywood celebrity types.

He's been doing this long enough that Stryjewski -- or "Juice," as most call him -- may be the only person alive who can bill himself as "Alaska's Deadliest Chef" and get away with it.

After 35 years, he's so been-there, done-that. He's 51 now, and a little restless.

What next?

Getting his own cooking show would be a hoot.

So when he saw an ad on Craigslist along those lines, he couldn't see any reason not to answer it. It was from an East Coast production company looking for chefs with fresh ideas and great stories to tell.

Juice had both. One thing, though. He doesn't exactly fit the snooty foodie mold.

"I'm more interested in feeding men on a mission," he says, "than getting all highfalutin."

Which is just the kind of personality these producers were looking for.

So when Juice answered the ad placed by Cooking Show Pilots, he got an answer back. It didn't hurt that Alaska's bunny-boot glamour has a certain appeal, judging by the recent string of Alaska-based, working-man reality TV shows.

Back and forth Juice went with these producers, first by e-mail, then by phone, until he got a letter saying he'd been chosen as a candidate for his own cooking show, a show Alaska's Deadliest Chef ("who won't kill your wallet") is calling "Alaska on a Platter."

The journey from idea to TV is a complicated one involving a lot of wheeling and dealing and, occasionally, a certain alignment of planets.

The simple version of how this works is that the production company, which produces the pilot, pitches it to distributors, who pitch it to networks and cable.

Cooking Show Pilots solicits potential clients each quarter and gets as many as 1,000 to 2,000 responses, according to executive producer Barney Stevensonne. And does it ever get some doozies.

"One guy wanted to talk about food as he jumped out of an airplane," he said, "and that wasn't going to fly. Another guy wanted to do a cooking show in the jungle, kill animals right there on the spot. And then he'd eat them. Lots of crazy stuff."

Stevensonne thought Juice had big potential, the way he talked up Alaska, his wildly varied background, his lack of over-baked ego.

"He stuck out because he kept talking about the fact that if you eat Alaska food you live longer," Stevensonne said. "And his knowledge of cuisine is incredible. We're in the food business; we talk to chefs all day long. We felt this guy was not reading from a book.

"I think he's an example of someone who's paid his dues in the industry and is really going to reap the benefits now."

TAKING A CHANCE

Juice has paid his dues, although living out of a wall tent, splitting firewood and baking bread in a coffee can is his idea of a great gig. But, then, this is a guy who describes himself this way:

"Never been married. Not a deadbeat dad. Never took no one down with my drinkin' except for me."

And he doesn't do that anymore.

His current day job is a sweet one, cooking for seniors at Chester Park Cooperative. He's been out the past two months, however, after slipping on ice and breaking his leg, and is just now getting back to it.

"Oh my goodness," says resident Myra Barnes, "we've missed his cooking but we also missed him. Juice walked in here and just made himself at home. He sits down and talks to people. People just love him here."

He feels the same. But there's that restless thing. So having a shot at being on TV has added some serious spice to his life.

There was just one catch to all this. Juice had to commit a chunk of his own money to the project, a $6,400 chunk. That gave him pause.

"I wanted to make sure it wasn't a scam," he said.

He poked around the Internet and found accounts from those who had good and bad things to say about going this route, including one guy whose pilot went nowhere. It helped seeing testimonials on the company's Web site from Barbara Seelig Brown, host of "Stress Free Cooking," and others whose cooking-show careers the company helped launch. He even contacted Brown by e-mail; she helped convince him to take the chance.

Brown's show, aired on CoLours TV, AMGTV and DISH networks, as well as a few cable stations, just filmed its third season. She has only good things to say about working with this group of producers.

"It's a long, slow process, no question about it," Brown said by phone. "Very slow. I think I discussed that with John."

The company didn't always ask for money up front, Stevensonne said. It changed its way of doing things after investing in pre-production for a client who then never showed up for the shoot. Clients willing to invest in themselves are more likely to give 110 percent, board members figured. In return, the hosts own all rights, which, according to Stevensonne, is not typical in this business.

Once he was satisfied the company was legit, Juice went for it.

He did a ton of legwork lining up sponsors, from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to the Alaskan Brewing Company, which he finds kind of amusing.

"You quit drinking and then someone's willing to give you all the beer you want. It's like losing your license and getting a free Corvette the same day."

Juice flew east in October to film his pilot, carting the 100-pound tote of donated Alaska products he'd mustered up. The shoot took place in a state-of-the-art studio kitchen in a converted garage in Levittown, N.Y., about 25 miles outside New York City, and involved a director, two cameramen, a sound technician, a makeup artist, a food stylist and others.

Wearing a white chef's coat and an Alaska ball cap, he talked up the virtues of Alaska and its cuisine as he prepared scallops stuffed with smoked Alaska king crab and wrapped in smoked razorback clams. And poached red salmon, blackened and served with an amaretto cream sauce. And a medley of vegetables. And a wild cranberry cobbler parfait for dessert.

So he does do highfalutin after all.

But the way he envisions it, "Alaska on a Platter" would be part cooking, part travel show. He'd like to take viewers on a ride, to show them what it takes to feed people at remote Alaska lodges, on a fish processor in the Bering Sea, on guided hunting trips, on a Princess Tours excursion aboard an Alaska Railroad train, where he says his blackened salmon with amaretto sauce once got him a standing ovation.

According to Stevensonne, "Alaska on a Platter" is getting network interest.

The only thing for certain is how uncertain this all is.

"If I wouldn't have gone through with it, I would have always wondered what could have happened," Juice said. "Even though it might go nowhere, I had the experience, the opportunity.

"It's still in its infancy, but in my heart of hearts I feel something is going to happen."


Find Debra McKinney online at adn.com/contact/dmckinney or call 257-4465.

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