San Francisco chef Yaku Moton-Spruill knows what he wants to do if he becomes the next Food Network star and gets his own TV show.
“I want to bridge the gap between what people see in restaurants and what they can do at home,” says the 6-foot, 9-inch self-employed caterer, one of 13 competitors in the 12th season of “Food Network Star,” premiering at 9 p.m. today on the Food Network.
The positive 34-year-old karaoke lover and former basketball player may be the man to beat.
“I’m this huge, gigantic dude with tattoos, and the happiest guy in the world,” says Moton-Spruill, who lives in the Excelsior with his wife Judith, 4-year-old son Angel Sayku, and 2-year-old daughter Brooklyn.
He’s also got show business chops. After appearing on NBC’s “Food Fighters,” he competed in three episodes of “Cutthroat Kitchen,” winning once, making pumpkin pie tartlets with toasted nuts and caramel milk sauce — while wearing a one-eyed jack o’lantern on his head.
He has no animosity toward his competitors, and has, in fact become good friends with a few of them. (But he does call the difference between what he experienced filming the shows and the final edited programs “mind-blowing.”)
His road to TV cooking began as a whim, answering a call for “Food Fighters” on Craigslist after he had to leave a sous chef job at Precita Park Café due to a family emergency.
While Moton-Spruill always loved cooking (growing up in Inkster, Mich., his older sister Mahogany showed him how to make eggs when he was about 6, and his mom and grandmother made great turkey with smoked oyster dressing, mac and cheese, ham and greens), he didn’t seriously take it up as a vocation until his sports career (he had a scholarship at Canisius College in New York) waned due to a back injury.
“Playing ball, I broke everything in my body,” he says, “But food got me through the whole depression of giving having to give it up.”
In college, he cooked for friends and catered, and later learned the technical side of food preparation, and being patient in the kitchen, at the California Culinary Academy.
Travels around the world added to his love of food: He liked haggis in Scotland (because it was different) and how cooks created amazing rustic sauces in Tuscany with just four ingredients.
Working a job at the private St. Francis Yacht Club, he created dishes for cruises; favorites included watermelon ceviche, beer-braised pork belly and crab cakes with pineapple dipping sauce. He also smoked whole pigs.
He cooks what he calls “comfort food with a Latin American twist,” taking cues from his heritage; his dad is Puerto Rican and his mom, who gave him his Swahili name, is Jamaican.
But his signature dish, a “take on surf and turf,” is a 36-day, dry-aged, 14-ounce ribeye, with local king salmon, crusted potato cake and broccoli, with a pepper jus reduction.
“It’s a big dish, for multiple people to eat, to come together, to break the ice over the food, and to take a friend away from the experience,” he says.
Moton-Spruill applies that upbeat attitude to all of the “Food Network Star” competitors: “Everybody’s going to get an opportunity,” he says, and the show already has changed his life so significantly.