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Chef LJ Klink created a steamed crappie en apapette using only the basic tools and ingredients given to him while at Nelson Park. The ingredients provided were sea salt, cheese and crackers, a cherry tomato and berry-flavored water. Klink had to improvise catching the fish and starting the fire to cook his dish. Herald & Review/Kelly J. Huff

DECATUR - Making a living and a reputation simply by being yourself is often the best for which any person can hope.

LJ Klink is winning life.

By day, Klink is director of Richland Community College's Culinary Arts Institute. During his down time, he's making inroads at television chef superstardom. His appearance on Food Network's "Extreme Chef" airs Thursday night.

"I'm pretty much myself," Klink said. "I say what I want and I do what I want, for better and for worse. That can get me in trouble."

For example, there's been a mild Internet storm over one of Klink's interview comments aired as part of promotion for the show.

His voice is heard saying, "I skinned a bear, I cooked it, ate it for dinner, and if that's not extreme, I don't know what is."

"I said that about 30 different ways," he said of recording the voice-over.

It's a true story, but it took place long before Klink filmed "Extreme Chef." Which he actually did twice.

Klink originally was contacted last year by the producers of the show. An apparent mashup of programs "Iron Chef" and "Chopped" - where the challenges consist of cooking palatable dishes out of just-revealed items - and reality shows such as "Survivor," in "Extreme Chef," contestants are presented with outrageous situations and "extreme conditions."

In different episodes, the show's promotional material mentions making chefs extract ingredients from a block of ice, swimming across a lake for ingredients and using a Swiss army knife as the sole cooking utensil.

The "Extreme Chef" producers said they'd been following Klink for some time, thanks to his Web presence and assorted video productions. Klink co-owns a restaurant in Washington state and did video work there as well as in Decatur. (He wound up coming to Decatur, he said, "because it's the last thing anyone expected me to do.")

"I've done a lot of television and commercials," Klink said, "so it wasn't totally out of my realm. They sent some questions, and I filmed something in my garage. I was basically myself. I said, 'You say you want a badass chef? You've got one.'

"I got asked to step up to the table, and I was willing to. I got to go and do something that allowed me to be me."

For the pilot, Klink said, "There were four (cooking challenges) they wanted to show, and I've seen those things in other episodes (that have already aired)."

"The pilot was wonderful," he added. "I got a chance to see it. I can see why the network bought it."

Wonderful for the producers, and wonderful for the viewers, perhaps, but not so wonderful for those performing the challenges.

"The pilot was brutal. Uber brutal," Klink said. "I came back with dislocated ribs, punctures, bruises. I took off my shirt, and my wife said, 'Did they hit you across the chest with a stick?' There was a purple welt across my chest."

And because of the confidentiality agreement he signed to participate in the pilot, he couldn't tell her what happened.

Klink said he was called back two weeks later and asked to participate in the actual filming of the eight-episode series by producers whose apparent thought was, "Klink is the crazy one."

In spite of the physical challenge, Klink said he had no hesitation about returning to a show he describes as " 'Iron Chef' on crack."

"It was," he said, " 'How can we make it harder? How can we make the chefs suffer more?' They were looking for 24 chefs, and their attitude was, 'We want 24 of the biggest bad asses - or at least ones who think they are.'

"I love the challenge. I'm a bit of a masochist. I don't get nervous. I get very excited."

And once the filming started, it was back to the challenges for Klink and the two other competitors in his episode.

"It's unbelievable the pressure they put you under and the situations they put you in," he said. His episode, according to Food Network promotional material, involves extreme cold. Among the words in the release: "hailstorm," "liquid nitrogen," "intense snowdrift" and "a 300-pound block of ice."

"There were times," Klink said, "when I was thinking, 'This is so twisted. Is this real?' But I've always said, 'You give me fire, something dead and a knife, and I'll cook you a good meal.' It's about saying, 'I'm tough, I can cook, and it doesn't matter what you throw at me.'

"There was one point when I apparently was smiling, and somebody said, 'You're not supposed to be enjoying this.' And I said, 'How can you not?' I just enjoyed every minute of it."

Enjoying the moments, however, didn't mean Klink stopped being himself.

"I had somebody giving me grief about my hair and makeup," he recalled, "and I said, 'You wanna have your butt kicked by somebody with better hair and makeup than your mother?' "

Klink was intuitive enough to realize that any behavior tendencies could be emphasized and multiplied based on editing and mere appearance.

"It's a gamble," he said. "If you go on and whine, that's all going to come through. You go in knowing what it's going to be.

"I have my idiosyncrasies, but I don't play the diva. As much as that can be a strength, it's also a weakness."

He's watched the show's episodes so far. (He live-tweets during the program: @Chefklink.) He feels empathy for his fellow competitors.

"I watch it, and I feel bad for the chefs," Klink said. "I know where they're at. Win, lose or draw, it takes balls to do that.

"But it's incredible to see the crew deal with it. They're in the same situation we are.

"It was fantastic. The crew and all of the people were awesome, and I thought, 'This is a great experience, if nothing else.' "

But there may be more. There are rumors of a comic book with Klink as a hero. Participants in past cooking competitions have gone on to more television work.

"I don't know what it will lead to," Klink said. "But even if it was only that I got to go on and have the cojones to say I'm a restaurant rock star and have a chance to prove it, that's enough.

"If I ever get the opportunity to be at that level, I don't want to be anything other than what I am. I want to set trends, not follow them. I want to prove to myself and everybody else that this is not just me talking smack."

The nature of "Extreme Chef" has left Klink in a unique situation.

"The arena this puts you in has never existed before," he said. "I always thought 'Iron Chef' was the pinnacle. Then along came 'Chopped,' which is similar to a cooking competition. It's so intense, and now that chefs know how intense it is, it limits the pool.

"People think of this as a reality show, but this is not 'America's Got Talent.' "

Even having done previous television and commercial work - along with a feature film that was eventually shelved - there was one thing about "Extreme Chef" that made Klink fill with delight.

"I never had a dressing room where I had a star on the door," he said. "The limo from my house to the Bloomington airport and back was cool, but when I got to the dressing room, that was a big step."

If you go

LJ Klink will be at the SportsZone at the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel on Thursday, July 21, when his episode of "Extreme Chef" is aired at 9 p.m. on the Food Network.

The event is open to the public at 8:30 p.m.

Klink also will teleconference from Decatur to his Washington restaurant.

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