Food & Drink

Sacramento chef embraces role as Culinerd

Sporting black-rimmed glasses with tape in the middle, Keith Breedlove leans past a pair of toy gnomes and pokes his head out the serving window of his Culinerdy Cruzer. The lunch rush is winding down at a recent food truck roundup near Cal Expo, and a family of three – including a kid in a Spider-Man shirt – remain as his only customers.

“How ya doin’, man?” Breedlove says, his voice as big as his burgers. “I like your shirt! Guess who my favorite hero is?”

Breedlove, 45, points to his apron, which has the Batman logo emblazoned on the front. The stain-proof garment is part of a costume, as important as the Dark Knight’s cape and cowl in creating an alter ego. Breedlove doesn’t just present himself as a mere cook, though the letters “C H E F” are tattooed on his chunky fingers. Once it’s time to feed customers or appear in front of television cameras, this former line cook dons his geek glasses and superhero apron, amps up his attitude and transforms into … The Culinerd! He’s a mighty hero for hungry stomachs, on a crusade to become the next celebrity chef.

Breedlove, who once served as a corporate chef for Guy Fieri’s restaurant group, appeared in October as a contestant on the Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games” and was featured as a guest chef on “Guy’s Big Bite.” Coming next: A Dec. 7 appearance on “Cutthroat Kitchen,” and if all goes right, two other food-related shows (he’s now in the casting process and can’t mention names). That’s not counting Breedlove’s regular appearances on local TV news shows to demonstrate recipes and plug events.

“Our culture has adopted these celebrity chefs, and there’s an upside to it,” Breedlove says. “My business is not hurting right now. You have to think, ‘What sets you apart? Why should I go to the Culinerdy vs. the lonchera (catering truck) next door?’ People like that touch of fame.”

Sporting a fancy toque and earning an executive chef title isn’t the only end game for cooks anymore. Beyond owning their own restaurants, some crave the spotlight, on a mission to become their own brand. They want the star power to host TV shows, author cookbooks, release a line of culinary gadgets with dreams of maybe – just maybe – earn millions like Fieri and Bobby Flay.

There’s no shortage of Sacramento chefs with small-screen appearances on their résumés, including Adam Pechal (“The Taste”) and Billy Ngo (“Cutthroat Kitchen”). But Breedlove is taking his act a step further, relishing his larger-than-life, camera-ready character.

Customers are reminded of Breedlove’s time on the airwaves when they’re around his Culinerdy Cruzer, which specializes in hefty sandwiches with such Fieri-ish flourishes as deep-fried buns and peanut butter as a burger condiment. A large poster of Breedlove, sporting a Food Network logo and listing his various appearances, is positioned near the truck’s pick-up window, part of a décor that includes comic book covers and gnome statuettes.

But becoming “The Culinerd” requires much more than throwing on some novelty glasses and getting inked with food-related tattoos. Breedlove has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that has made social interactions difficult and left him grappling with obsessive behaviors for much of his life. His wife of eight years and business partner, Amy, serves as his de facto life skills coach.

“I’ve really seen him come a long ways,” said Amy Breedlove. “Every day, I have to realize he’s wired differently, and I had to learn patience and communication with him. He doesn’t pick up on anything. Every day is a struggle for him with his quirks and fixations.”

Grew up feeling withdrawn

Breedlove keeps his iPhone 6 Plus close by at all times, whether he’s frying bacon on the truck, or on this day, eating a burger at midtown’s Hook & Ladder during a day off.

Tapping on the iPhone serves as refuge from small talk. But he’s also awaiting important phone calls from casting directors, perhaps with news that he’s been selected to appear again on the Food Network.

Breedlove’s phone lights up – but it’s not from a number that could be a career game changer. He lets it go to voice mail.

“If it’s from New York, you’re like, ‘Yes!’” Breedlove says. “Your heart starts to skip a beat a little bit.”

The old Breedlove would have withered at the thought of being in the spotlight. A native of Pleasanton, he spent much of his life feeling withdrawn, unable to look others in the eye and clueless to perceiving other people’s emotions. He would get fixated easily, wanting to repeat tasks over and over. Breedlove says he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at one point and medicated.

Breedlove’s obsessive behavior pushed him toward restaurant work at age 16, first as a buser, then as a prep cook at local coffee shops. He could just grab a knife and chop-chop-chop, or pan fry the hours away, mostly hidden in the back of a restaurant.

“When I found work in the kitchen, it’s like I found a home,” Breedlove says. “I found people like me that were odd, that had a single-minded focus, that were usually completely awkward in social situations. I didn’t have to socialize. It was good.”

Breedlove, a trained chef via Diablo Valley College’s hotel and restaurant management program, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 40. A form of autism, it often manifests itself in obsessive behaviors, social awkwardness and an inability to read body language and other social cues.

For Breedlove, it’s taken the form of a 3,000-comic-book collection, a chatterboxlike quality when talking about cooking (and clamming up during the presence of small talk), bouts of depression, and poor impulse control with online shopping.

“He has to purchase aprons, books, cooking tools, T-shirts,” said Amy Breedlove. “He’s fixated on all these things. It’s like we’re becoming hoarders, and we’re trying to get rid of things, but the mailman’s constantly coming to our door.”

Breedlove has worked with a therapist to improve his social skills. Among the strategies: Relax your breathing, find a quiet place in the room if you’re feeling overwhelmed, look others in the eye.

But an easy back-and-forth conversation still takes effort. And when it comes to topics that capture his imagination, Breedlove still likes to monologue. To experience his chatterbox side, get him on the subject of molecular gastronomy. It’s the kind of topic that will make his wife give a gentle nudge, reminding him that others might want to chime in.

Breedlove dove into his mad-scientist approach to cooking while serving as a chef at the DoubleTree Modesto hotel in 2007. After years of cooking omelets and club sandwiches at coffee shops and hotels around Northern California, he was looking for a new way to express himself. He delved into “Modernist Cuisine,” a 2,438-page tome on molecular gastronomy, and studied its cutting-edge cooking techniques.

“I started reading up on hydrocolloids (thickening and gelling agents) and whether they were thermo-reversable, what temperature they gelled at, what they would do,” Breedlove says, his words gaining momentum. “I made an olive-oil-fried turbot with deep-fried hollandaise. I took the hollandaise and infused it with calcium lactate and dropped it in a sodium alganate bath, let it sit, pulled it out, panko-crusted it and deep fried it. It would come to your table looking like this golf ball of panko and then you’d crack it open and hollandaise would run out.”

He didn’t realize it at the time, but the first chapter of the Culinerd’s origin story was being written.

‘You’re a culinerdy artist’

“Should I put on the Batman, Superman or Farmer John?”

Breedlove mulls his apron choices with co-workers while an after-work crowd assembles at Track 7 Brewing Co., a regular stop for the Culinerdy Cruzer. A Star Wars bedsheet, a keepsake from Breedlove’s childhood, serves as a windshield curtain so Breedlove can get into character.

He settles on the Superman apron.

Breedlove earned the “Culinerdy” nickname while working in Modesto, following a discussion with a fellow chef about the merits of adding a small amount of old fryer oil to a fresh batch of oil to improve the oxygen ratio and allow the food to crisp better.

“He said, ‘You’re not a culinary artist, you’re a culinerdy artist,” Breedlove says.

Breedlove now has the nickname tattooed right below his neck line. He sees it as a point of strength and self-identification. But at one point, Breedlove was known as “Smash Mouth.” This moniker came from Breedlove’s year-long stint as a corporate chef for Guy Fieri’s Johnny Garlic’s and Tex Wasabi’s restaurants starting in 2011. The restaurant group’s then-chief operating officer, Brett Hutchinson, thought Breedlove looked like Smash Mouth singer Steve Harwell, given his tattoos, attitude and everyman’s physique.

Beyond his rocker-dude looks, the bass-playing Breedlove was considered a valued cook and recipe developer for the group.

“Guy thinks very highly of him,” Hutchinson says. “Guy feeds off people with high energy and high passion. If you compare the two at the same time in their careers, Keith is just as good if not more (skilled) in cooking technique. He also has the ability to put it on camera. I think he’ll do real well.”

Breedlove wasn’t always chasing a celebrity chef dream. He’d been on set during a taping of “Guy’s Big Bite” and also helped style food for Fieri’s appearance on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” realizing it takes about 10 hours of taping to assemble one episode. Plus, he didn’t think his Asperger’s would allow him to thrive on camera.

But he gave TV a shot, anyway. Breedlove had moved on from working for Fieri’s restaurant group and started his rockabilly-themed Papa Dale’s Diner food truck in 2013. That truck went defunct after the Breedloves had a falling out with their former business partners.

Breedlove says he was scared before going on camera that first time, but knew it was important to build brand awareness for the new truck. And once the filming started … well, in true superhero form, he realized his perceived weaknesses were actually his strengths. As long as Breedlove was gabbing about food, the subject he knows best, he excelled on camera. He ended up as a regular guest on “Good Day Sacramento,” appearing on the show about every six weeks.

And now, the more Breedlove explores his inner Culinerd, the more confident he becomes. He was recommended to appear on “Guy’s Grocery Games” by Fieri, and since Breedlove’s October appearance, he’s been fielding autographs and debating hiring a publicist. Breedlove dreams of hosting his own TV show and serving as a role model for young people with autism.

“I want them to have something they don’t have, which is someone saying, ‘You can do this,’” Breedlove says. “I have a label. I’m different. Yeah, we’re all different. Let’s embrace our differences.”

In other words, stardom or not, our Culinerdy crusader has already triumphed.

“I was never comfortable being the textbook chef with the stiff toque, but that’s what my mind said a chef should be,” Breedlove says. “Now, I feel secure enough to say, ‘This is who I am, and I don’t care what you think.’ For the first time in 45 years, I’m free.”

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.

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