Thomas Mann crafts brilliant baubles by day and dazzling dishes by night.
The nationally known New Orleans jewelry designer and metalsmith takes his personal culinary expertise to the Food Network’s new reality cooking competition series, “All-Star Academy,” starting Sunday night.
For “Academy,” network casting culled 10 skilled home cooks from around the country. They’ll compete in cooking challenges each episode while being mentored by Food Network chefs Bobby Flay, Alex Guarnaschelli, Curtis Stone and Michael Symon.
The plated results of each intense task must please not only the mentors, but guest judges, who’ll decide which contestant is eliminated each week. The last cook standing brings home $50,000.
“I’ve been cooking since I was a kid,” Mann said recently from an American Crafts Council Show in Baltimore. “When I decided in 1968 to become a vegetarian, at that time, if you didn’t cook, you didn’t eat.”
Rather than the lifestyle limiting his culinary choices, Mann said he dabbles in a broad range of dishes.
“It’s fusion cooking, but not just Asian, it’s Greek, Italian, I mix it up,” he said. “I’m kind of interested in the baseline of every cuisine, what you need to have, know to make the dishes. I must have 100 cookbooks. One month I’ll do Thai, the next month Italian. It’s the way I relax when I get home from work.”
Known among friends for his delectable dinner parties, Mann said he often cooks in the same manner for just himself.
“I’ll make an elaborate dinner, but basically I’m just experimenting with technique and materials and ingredients,” he said.
The Pennsylvania native did a lot of experimenting in the kitchen in preparation for the show, both during the lengthy application process and once he finally got the call that he’d been picked, he said.
An avid Food Network watcher, a friend suggested he apply to become a competitor. He submitted the 10-page application and video in October 2013.
“And then I never heard a word,” Mann said, laughing.
Fast-forward to October 2014, when Food Network contacted and said they were interested in him. They asked for more platings, so Mann whipped up, plated and shot video of 14 different dishes, and a video of one of his dinner soirees. A Skype interview followed.
Again, he waited. In late November, while doing a trunk show at Caffery Gallery in Baton Rouge, he got official notice he’d made “Academy.”
He flew to New York one week later for the two-week shooting.
“So I engaged the advice of my friend Poppy Tooker (well-known chef and fellow New Orleanian). I said, ‘Hey, Poppy I need a training period. What basics should I learn?’”
Tooker brought her books and culinary brain over and they set to work.
“I practiced this little technique of taking three eggs, and making a souffle and an omelet and a poached egg, and I did it over and over again seven or eight times so I could do it without thinking,” he said. “I learned a helluva lot getting ready for the show.”
Mann said he was nervous about his traditional skill set and had to learn how to multitask in the Food Network’s kitchen. “The one thing I was upset about is they wouldn’t let me make a list,” he recalled of the show process. “You had to remember and keep track of everything in your head.”
Show rules prevent contestants from discussing how well they fared at “Academy.”
Back in New Orleans, Mann’s in his familiar kitchen, part of an unusual home — an Uptown building he transformed from its previous life as a bar. There, cooking is his way of unwinding.
“It’s just a wonderful way for me to complete a day.”