RIVERVIEW— Rene Marquis doesn't like to lose.
The military chef is forthcoming about his competitive nature. It makes him who he is, he said. It's also why, for the last five years, snagging a spot on a reality TV cooking show was high on his to-do list.
"I've been trying to get on a culinary show for a very long time," said Marquis, the 41-year-old Army master sergeant who lives in Riverview. "Top Chef told me I was overqualified. Chopped sent me a letter in the mail saying, at this time, they weren't looking for any military chefs. For me, it was a comedy of errors."
But then he met celebrity chef Alton Brown at the American Culinary Federation's national convention in Orlando. The Food Network was starting a new show, Brown told Marquis. He should apply.
In the spring, Marquis saw a posting for the new show, Cutthroat Kitchen. He applied, and by June he was on a flight to California.
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Culinary competitions have been a part of Marquis' life since he first decided to be a chef. As a high school student, he thought he was destined for a career as a hockey player. But a judge's honorable mention at a regional contest for professionals and students swayed him toward attending the Culinary Institute of America instead of a hockey spring training camp.
A few years later, a three-star general would encourage him to join the Army and become his personal chef.
Basic, Marquis said, was a joke compared to training under European chefs.
"They'd yell and throw knives and pots and pans," Marquis said. "Back in the day, you could get away with that."
He went to work for the general who recruited him, alternating between cooking meals for high-up dignitaries and judging and competing in international culinary competitions.
"I never thought I'd have the opportunity to go represent my country as a chef, nevermind as a soldier and a chef," Marquis said. "It's pretty cool wearing the American flag on your sleeve as a soldier, but it's even better wearing it as a chef at the Culinary World Cup and Olympics."
Marquis' experience as a military chef sets him apart, said fellow chef and Culinary World Cup teammate Joshua Spiess.
"In the military, when they go to the field to train or they're deployed, you're kind of limited to what you can cook with," Spiess said. "If something does go wrong, you have to carry on with the mission. You have to make sure the soldiers still get fed, even if you don't have something or have to make ends meet. I think just in that regard, he had a little bit of an edge over his competitors."
Marquis has competed in both the Culinary World Cup and the Culinary Olympics three times each. But Marquis wanted a competition platform that allowed him to show the world just how skilled military chefs are.
"I thought to myself, 'I need to go on one of those shows while I'm on active duty so people in America know we have military chefs that will beat any civilian chef you put forward,' " Marquis said.
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In a teaser for the show, Brown, who is the host, describes Cutthroat Kitchen as "a game where even the most skilled chefs can be played, rules can change at any second and sweet sabotage is always on the menu."
Because of a waiver he signed, Marquis can't spill any secrets about the show, specific challenges, fellow chefs or the winner until his episode airs in September.
But he did admit, he loved the sabotages.
"He's a pretty aggressive competitor," Spiess said. "He's very cocky. He likes to trash talk. But he can back it up, so he can get away with being like that."
In the Aug. 11 premiere, one competitor had all of his utensils and knives taken away and was forced to make bread from scratch. Another video hints at chefs not being allowed to taste what they're cooking, or having to take time outs.
During the competition, Marquis said he was determined to not let anyone hold him back. Regardless of who he was competing against or the rules stacked against him, he was going to put forward the best possible food that tasted the best, looked the best and that was properly prepared.
"I can't tell you if I won," Marquis said. "But I am a competitor and I am a judge. I don't go to a competition to lose."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.