Anne Burrell Steps Out of Mario Batali's Shadow to Become a Force on Her Own

I never noticed much about Anne Burrell other than how quietly reliable she was as the culinary Sancho Panza to Mario Batali every time he was summoned to another Iron Chef gustatory battle. She was just obscure, white smocked Anne, relegated to the anonymous, though vital, drudgery of rolling pasta or making sure Batali's osso bucco was oh-so wonderful.

Well, clearly some faceless, development suit at the Food Network must have suspected there was more to Burrell than her obvious professional kitchen competence. Because -- Wow! -- she has become quite the force of nature on her yawningly titled show, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef.

After a month tracking Burrell on her program, I'm persuaded she may be the network's most watchable professional chef-turned-star. No one comes close to her ability to combine her restaurant-honed kitchen techniques -- no time-lapse photography needed when Burrell applies blade to veggies -- with one of the most original, quirk-filled on-camera personalities.

Take a recent episode built around a Burrell jaunt to Ireland. As she was producing a homespun menu of lamb and turnip stew along with a bread-and-butter pudding, Burrell seamlessly wove in little postcards from her recent trip. While braising the meat, she shared a moment involving her father's crotchety remarks about disliking turnips.

And while dousing the beautifully caramelized lamb pieces in two bottles of stout, Burrell then packed us on her trip back to Ireland while recounting a memorable Guinness brewery's tour, ending, naturally with a welcome bottle of dark beer.

Burrell's on-air persona combines the physical heft of Batali, a permanent case of bed-head and the totally wacky comedic sensibility of a pre-rehab Robin Williams. Naturally, that implies Burrell's kitchen demeanor comes with an entire lexicon of Burrellisms, all delivered in a nasalized voice that is chafing and endearing at the same time: Think a more sympathetic Joan Rivers.

At some point during the recent Irish stew segment, Burrell became an oral symphony, rolling her r's with sensual delight as she browned the lamb shoulder, or coming up with spontaneous mottos fit for throw-pillow embroidery: "Marjoram is that estranged cousin to oregano."

But it is her own street patois, often times delivered with a growl, or a chortle, that best garnishes her program: "Burn baby burn," Burrell all but cackles while blow-torching the bread-pudding's lid. "Come with me my little cuties," she coos to some plumping golden raisins." "Now that's a party in a pitcher," Burrell sing-songs, while gazing longingly at a bowl of Irish whiskey.

And in Burrell-speak, "Let's plate this shooting match" is her off-kilter way of saying: "Let's eat."

Again, like Robin Williams in his prime, Burrell's motor-mouthed, stream-of-consciousness narration skates right to the edge of giddy incoherence, but never, ever overshadows the cooking task at hand. Which makes Burrell the most Burrell-iant of the new Food Network stars.

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Andrew Marton