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Carlos Paucar, Rod Cornish appear Thursday on Food Network program

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Wildly popular local restaurant? Check.

Second place in a nationwide Best Wings competition? Check.

What's next for Hot Rod Cafe? Network television?

Well, now that you mention it ... check.

Yes, Rod Cornish and Carlos Paucar — the respective owner/chef team behind New London's Hot Rod Café — appear at 10 tonight on the Food Network's popular new "Chef Boot Camp" series. The program stars former "Top Chef" and Season Two "Tournament of Champions" contestant Cliff Crooks, the culinary director at BLT Restaurant Group. According to a Food Network press release, each episode of "Chef Boot Camp" presents three chefs from restaurants across the country who "aren't cutting it in their respective kitchens." Through Crooks and his hands-on critiques, the chefs are "given a chance to succeed."

Cornish and Paucar were delighted when a talent scout for "Chef Boot Camp" asked them to participate on the show — except for one issue. The two are as close as brothers and, far from Paucar not cutting it in the kitchen, Cornish credits his friend's vision and work ethic as major factors in Hot Rod's success.

The Cafe is renowned for its excellent wings — 30 flavors that expand and evolve regularly — but is a cross-demographics go-to spot with two dozen draft beers, a friendly and diverse staff, and a menu that boasts clever renditions across the standard pub menu — and more. 

So what's the problem?

By design, "Chef Boot Camp" doesn't count COVID as a problem factoring in the program inasmuch as most every restaurant was and is suffering from the effects of the pandemic. The issues on the show are specific to the contestants. So while Hot Rod's is adapting to the fact Cornish invested a significant amount of money into renovation and an upstairs deck just before COVID hit — a situation their business plan obviously hadn't anticipated — it doesn't fit the format of the show.

"It's true that most of the people appearing on 'Chef Boot Camp' have some immediate problems in the kitchen that need to be solved," Cornish says by phone last week. "We told them that, as far as problems go, that doesn't apply. What we share together is a mindset that we can always learn and improve. We're very close friends who've been here more than a decade, so it's obviously working. But we knew we could certainly learn about techniques and developments that are broadening the horizons of the restaurant business — and we do not want to create problems by NOT paying attention."

More typical of the problems encountered on "Chef Boot Camp" are those of the other chefs who will appear on tonight's episode. As described in network press material, a Vermont chef named Cody, a former addict whose life was saved by cooking, suffers from self-doubt that threatens his success. And a self-taught chef named Kelly and her husband invested their life savings into a restaurant — the success or failure of which threatens their marriage.

There is no direct competition between the three chefs/restaurants on each episode, but by the end of the program, the fate of the chefs is largely determined. The Hot Rod situation provided a different spin on the show's concept. The "Chef Boot Camp" producers and creative team liked Paucar's and Cornish's shared and preventive attitude and approach to future problems, and the pair — who have hundreds of subscribers on their "Winging It with Carlos and Rod" YouTube cooking channel — landed on the show.  

As filming took place during COVID, safety measures were tight. Guests stayed in a hotel in New Jersey, and the sets were in an out-of-session high school as well as one of Chef Crooks's kitchens in Manhattan. The structure of each program includes Zoom meetings between Crooks and the restaurant owners from their respective establishments.

These meetings provide viewers with the background situations facing the chefs, who are then shown with each other as they work with Crooks to learn basic kitchen skills in a studio kitchen. Next, the chefs move to one of Crooks's kitchens and are thrust into actual on-the-line situations to see how they respond in real-time. Ultimately, the owners arrive on-site and reunite with their chefs to see whether the problems have been resolved or whether they keep their jobs.

Lessons to be learned

"It's not as much about someone winning or losing, but about learning something new for the restaurant," Paucar says, speaking by phone last week. "We're in the process of slowly reopening at Hot Rod's as things get better (with the pandemic), so for me I was happy to use this experience to learn from Chef Crooks and to think about developing a better new menu."

Watching from afar for the first part of the week's experience, Cornish says, "Carlos was gone for four days, and we were pretty excited. I was so proud of him. He's the heart and soul of our restaurant, and he just nailed it." Cornish describes one off-camera incident during the week of the show's taping in which another contestant was having a rough time. "I thought (the person) was going to lose it," Cornish says, "but Carlos was right there to help (the person) out. It didn't surprise me at all. There's so much that goes on behind the scenes at a restaurant that your customers don't see — and Carlos is so good in those situations, too."

For his part, Paucar says he totally enjoyed the experience, but there were tough moments. "I called Rod and said, 'This is fun, and it's going to help us.' At the same time, I was there to work and get better."

Paucar says it's definitely hard to get used to so many cameras all around. "I'm also used to the flow of our kitchen. It gets hectic but all kitchens are different. We got thrown right into the line at (one of Chef Crooks's restaurants) and you're told what you'll be doing and how to be plating. I just remembered to fall into the rhythm and keep it cool and keep thinking, 'It's just a TV show.'"

A long road

The experience had the unexpected effect of reminding Paucar about how far his own journey has been.

"At one point (during the taping), they sat us all down and had us share some of what each of us had been through," Paucar says. "I got pretty emotional talking about how I came from Ecuador and didn't speak the language. I remember the week after 9/11 and there was just no work. I got a job as a dishwasher because I was taller than another guy and could reach the dishes. He needed a job just as badly as I did."

At that restaurant, though, Paucar met the woman who became his wife and, he says, "Slowly I got better jobs in the kitchen, and it all came together. I never thought it would end up being my life, but it happened and it's good, really good. And it was really good on the show to remember my journey. The American Dream ... to have a family and a friend like Rod and this restaurant I helped him build. It's real, and we depend on it — and that's another reason we went on the show. To make it even better. The whole point is to keep doing what you do and to love it."

To see the show

Who: Carlos Paucar and Rod Cornish of New London's Hot Rod Cafe

What: Appear as contestants on the television series "Chef Boot Camp" starring Cliff Crooks

When 10 p.m. Thursday

Where: Food Network


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