Meet the chef and Food Network champion who's shaking up the California countryside
See why Bakersfield has fallen in love with Cafe Med and its chef, Meir Brown.
For the other 364 days of the year, Meir Brown is just a humble restaurateur serving up steaks, pasta and hummus in California's San Joaquin Valley.
But for one day, he was a jet-setting, hobnobbing culinary champion. The 61-year-old Israel native is fresh off his cable TV debut with an appearance on season 5 of the Food Network series "Cooks vs. Cons," a competition designed to blur the lines between professional chefs and culinary amateurs. Of the four contestants, two were real cooks and two were cons. The fun part – for the celebrity panel of judges, at least, and hopefully for viewers at home – was guessing who was who.
So who was who? And who won?
If you haven't watched yet, cover your eyes for the following paragraph:
Brown won! He beat one other actual cook, the head chef of a cooking school, and two amateurs who had unrelated careers but love to cook at home.
Thus came Brown's big reveal: He's the real deal. when he's not wowing the TV judges with his impeccably plated fish curry and creamy edamame hummus, Brown is chef and owner of Cafe Med, a landmark restaurant in Bakersfield, California. He bested four other contestants who were probably half his age and walked away with a $10,000 prize. And, from where we sat, it looked like he had a ton of fun doing it.
"It was a long day of filming, and I was extremely nervous," Brown told From The Grapevine after the show aired. "But man, what an experience. It was an amazing process. I'm very impressed with the Food Network for the work that they do."
And to think, it almost didn't happen.
"My secretary went online and read about the show, and sent an application in without telling me," Brown recalled with a laugh. "A couple of weeks went by, I got a call from them, we went through a few interviews, and then the holiday season was coming up and I didn't hear from them for a long time, so I assumed the whole thing was dead."
The week before Easter 2017, he got a call from an unknown number with a New York area code. He normally wouldn't answer such a call, because, he says, "I'm not in the stock market." But he did – and it was the production staff of "Cooks vs. Cons," asking if he was still interested in appearing on the show.
"I said of course!" he told us. "Then they asked me if I could be there in five days."
Brown is no stranger to travel, but the thought of making the cross-country flight on such short notice was a little daunting. Still, he obliged, hopped on a plane, and arrived on Easter Sunday for filming.
And with that whirlwind week, he said, came a lot of pressure to win. After all, Brown is considered one of the most respected chefs in his town of 375,000. He didn't want to let Bakersfield – or his family, or that sneaky secretary of his – down.
"If I had lost, I never would have been able to come back home," he quipped. "I have too much of a reputation in this town for me to come back a loser."
It was a big risk, he said. "If you're at home in your kitchen and you mess up, you can just start over again. Here, I couldn't do that. If I messed up, I was done. If you don't take risks, you don't get rewarded."
And rewarded he was. Aside from the $10,000 prize, Brown got to go home with his head held high, and his reputation as a top Bakersfield chef fully intact.
And if there was one thing that clinched the win for him, he said, it was probably the pita – made from scratch, just barely finished in the 30 minutes the show's producers gave him to complete the full meal. Pita is one of Brown's favorite things to make at Cafe Med, which he opened initially as a Mediterranean restaurant 27 years ago but later expanded into a more universal menu.
These days, the name of the game at Cafe Med is steak. Customers know Brown's got a knack for it, and they come in droves, seeking juicy, tender ribeyes and optimal New York Strips with those precise proportions of marbling that means it was just the right cut for Brown's clientele.
That kind of precision didn't happen overnight for Brown, though. Born in Tel Aviv, he grew up near Nazareth. When he was older, he moved to California and started out waiting tables. He got married and embarked on a successful career in the dairy cow industry, eventually moving up to the executive level. When his partnership disbanded in 1991, Brown was left feeling a little displaced.
"I was wondering what to do with the rest of my life," he told us. "But people were always telling me I should open up my own restaurant. So finally I did it."
He found a small storefront and brushed up on the basics – falafel, hummus, pita. He called it Cafe Med. It wasn't an easy sell – after all, Bakersfield is better known for its guitar-driven country sound birthed by such honky-tonk gods as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens than its taste for Mediterranean cuisine. But he believes people everywhere – not just in Bakersfield – are always looking for a good meal, and when they find it, they don't let go.
Twenty-seven years and one expansion later, they still haven't let go. Now, he likens Cafe Med to a "culinary wonderland" of sorts – he's added a deli, a patio, a bakery, a Sunday brunch buffet and even live music, all encompassing an elegant expanse of white tablecloths and romantic ambiance that is the epicenter of Cafe Med's sophisticated fine-dining vibe.
And when he's not running this so-called wonderland, Brown can be found spending time with his three kids and two grandkids, and weaving in the occasional appearance on local cooking shows. Oh, and he even landed a deal with two nearby Costco locations to sell his fresh, puffy pitas there in bulk.
"I've worked hard at this for many many years," Brown told us. "I like to think of it as a good payoff."
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Related Topics: Chefs & Restaurants