Lanky: Champion of the (Denton Food) World

Lanky: Champion of the (Denton Food) World
Denton's own Anthony "Lanky" Langston / Photo by Allie Grimm

Dallas, you can keep your league-topping Stars and Mavericks teams; Arlington, you can choke on all your World Series baseball champion rings; Denton doesn’t need your sportsball baubles, cos we’ve got Lanky, undisputed champion of the gloriously weird Secret Chef reality-television competition on Hulu.

Think of Secret Chef as Project Runway meets the Masked Singer, populated by food nerds, the kind who hear the question “what’s for dinner?” and immediately think “a Moroccan egg dish.” Think of it as Foucault’s kitchen, where everyone is permanently on display in a glass box and the host is an avatar on a screen (“Ohhh, Chefy,” as the contestants’ refrain goes). The set is best described in the launch materials from Vox Media production company: “a secret underground kitchen labyrinth connected by a series of conveyor belts.” 

Think of Denton’s Anthony “Lanky” Langston as the Texas Rangers of celebrity chefs. Nobody gave him a shot when the first season of the experimental show, which debuted on Hulu in June of last year, started shooting. His food journey and his arc on the show reflect the evolution of his adopted hometown – from chain-restaurant cowboy-style to subtle, unexpected depth and worldwide range. You prolly already know Lanky if you’ve ever had a brew at Eastside or a Brie at Ten: One cheesemongers. As his name suggests, he’s a tall drink of water; as it also suggests, he’s playful, self-deprecating and, unusually in this age of stress, never rushed; in short, Lanky is one of those people who would be near the top of any party invitation list (one of his non-food pics is a topless selfie emblazoned with the legend PARTY), even if he couldn’t cook like a hipster Julia Childs.      

Lanky was one of the few home chefs on the Secret Chef show, one of the only ones who had never worked in a professional kitchen in a field of 10 that included French gourmet chef and Vanderpump Villa cast member Anthony Bar, and a couple of widely followed food influencers including Alexa Santos. Not that Lanky knew what these people did when he met them on the first day of shooting.

Because…the premise of the Secret Chef was that people’s backgrounds would be a secret. The show was the brainchild of one of the greatest innovators in modern U.S. food: David Chang, founder of the legendary Momofoku restaurant group. I once had someone’s order of some kind of seasoned fries from one of the Momofoku outposts in Greenwich Village and almost had to be airlifted down from my Cloud Nine. (I could probably check this fact, but I am just running with the distilled memory; I was in some kind of hipster bar with a Betty Boop theme at the time, shoveling this frito-pie like meal into my mouth from a tiny takeout box and wishing there was more of it). 

The chief innovation in Chang’s series, as one reality-show Redditor put it, was that the contestants were the judges. All the chefs were given top-secret code names (“Why do I get the one that’s hard to pronounce, like is it Chef Macron, or Chef Macaroon?” Lanky once bemoaned.) Each anonymous chef had to score their opponents’ food, which was identified only by the chef’s code name. As in “Project Runway” and some other competition-show classics, the creators delighted in adding unconventional twists. It’s hard not to smile when someone is cooking with a clothes iron in one kitchen, and someone else with a suit steamer next door.

Lanky rose to the occasion by being the rarest and toughest thing a person can be on reality television: real.

With that hat, the captions write themselves / Photo by Anthony Langston

It was a tough lesson to learn. Lanky grew up as an only child in The Colony during that exurb’s period of exponential growth. He came to Denton in 2003 to study radio-film-television at The University of North Texas. The semesters he spent studying RTF covered all the boring stuff. Lanky knew which side of the camera he wanted to be on, and it wasn’t the side that the communications school prepared you for. His focus gradually shifted to the part of life he was enjoying, his work at local bars and restaurants. When he returned to school, he studied advertising, enjoying the scribble-book idea factory aspect of that field.

Lanky had seen enough from behind the camera to know how it can distort a person’s presence, if they allow it to. The best screen actors resist the urge to be something they are not when the camera is nearby. Someone is being themselves and then the camera enters the room and you can see them seeing the camera and they start putting on an act. It’s instinctive.

Lanky discovered who he was as a chef thanks in his ex-girlfriend’s kitchen with a circle of her family and their friends. At first, it was a joint effort. They cooked together before watching an episode of MasterChef. Soon, Lanky found he was enjoying himself so much that he said “why don’t y'all just chill, and I’ll cook tonight.” The arrangement worked well for all concerned. By 2015, the family were comparing Lanky’s dishes favorably to the ones they were ogling on tv.

Finally, the recruitment ad came up at the end of one of the MasterChef episodes: tryouts for Season Seven at such-and-such a time and date in Austin, Texas.

“‘Oh, you have to sign up!’” everyone said.

“No, that ain’t me,” said Lanky. He had envisioned a tv career, but not a competition.

“You have to!”

When Lanky entered the huge riverside conference hotel, he did not shrink before the cameras as so many of his rivals presenting their dishes on the 50-setting horse-shoe table did. As the judge winnowed the thousand-plus contestants down through heat after heat, and advanced round after advanced round soon realized he was in with a shot.

“The food was good, the story behind it was good,” said Lanky. “I cooked some beer braised pork rib and an elote salad.”

Lanky “showed off [his] Texanness,” using Shiner Bock for the beer braise and wearing a bolo tie. Showing off his heritage meant he was “not just some bozo,” Lanky said. The first judge to walk the table was usually a culinary expert, and they generally appreciated Lanky’s flavors and style. But Lanky’s RTF experience also prepared him for the second judge who went through each time, chatting to the contestants. This was a television producer who quickly ruled out the people who showed up in bathrobes and slides, and complemented Lanky’s dishes on how they popped for the camera.

Lanky realized something else during several rounds of the knockout competition in that cavernous ballroom: Lanky thrived in ultra-high-pressure situations (he credits the experience of playing youth baseball with his coach dad in the dugout). Lanky’s ex, not so much. She sat at the bar waiting for his audition to be over. She ordered a drink but later told Lanky she was too nervous to drink it. She went for a walk. And then another one. The lady got more steps in than Betty Ford.

In the end, Lanky was selected from thousands of hopefuls nationwide to be among the 40 MasterChef finalists,” who were flown to Los Angeles for their final audition. This time, the pressure finally showed a little. The dizzying thoughts of actually being on the show that he had watched religiously for so long made his head spin a little bit. The producers tried to push him into going the whole hog on the Texan thing, suggesting boots and a Stetson. 

In the LA studio, Lanky struggled with just being Lanky. He was later told that his food qualified him for MasterChef but the judges didn’t hire him for personality reasons. 

The producers who had liked him so much in Austin stayed in touch, however. During the pandemic, he was invited to be a one-episode guest on a Netflix show called “Best Leftovers Ever” (he cooked halibut with pork-n-beans.) This time, Lanky realized he had “nothing to lose” and, instead of trying to play Big Tex, he rocked his hipster mustache and random conversational riffs. 

It worked. A year or so later, the same producers reached out to him about their new Hulu concept.   

This time, he was flown out to Atlanta with little information other than the fact he’d be competing against nine other chefs.

 “I just remember everything being ‘Wow.’ I felt like Owen Wilson, ‘wow…wow…wow.’” said Lanky.

As soon as they met – on camera – the contestant/judges were sent to their glass boxes.

“’Oh, wow we're cooking right now?’ That was a surprise.”

The producers had promised no stress and less intense cooking schedules than the more buttoned-down cooking shows. This first meal was one where you were allowed to cook a specialty for a banquet dinner with the other chefs. Lanky cooked a shakshuka, a Moroccan dish, and so did three of the other chefs. He was encouraged by hints the producers later gave him that his shakshuka was the Shaqest and Shookest of them all.

Lanky usually cooks with Frank Sinatra crooning in the background. But, the tyranny of music licensing laws and the relatively modest budget of the show meant that Sinatra was out of the question. The intercom through which producers communicated with the contestants in their glass kitchens indicated they were loving Lanky’s schtick but couldn’t use a lot of it just because he was humming copyrighted tunes. One cooking ritual he did stick to was a cheeky glass of wine or two. 

“Hey, I’m a bartender….”

It’s typical of the show’s charm that the biggest reveal is when Sydney Buck – a Brooklyn/Queens based private chef – discovers that…Lanky is…a bartender!  She absolutely loses it. It’s such a powerful reaction that you wonder if Mark Hamill could have done more with that Luke Skywalker’s Darth Vader Daddy moment. The reaction made perfect sense to Lanky.

“I know my bar people, and she knows her bar people,” said Lanky.

The cast never really had a chance to hang out together until after the show wrapped. They’ve gotten pretty tight since, however. Lanky jetted out to New York to barcrawl with Sydney Buck just before Christmas. They hung out with Poonam Ribadia, among the more brutal critics. (If you want to know the difference between Poonam’s aesthetic and Lanky’s, she held her launch party in a Manhattan ballroom while Lanky and Sydney had theirs at…dive bars.)

“She’s awesome…take her as she is. She’s not going to hold out on you,” said Lanky, of Poonam, who backs up her sass by whipping up some of the most striking dishes in the show.

Last summer, Frenchman Anthony Bar, in his Instagram role as the Nomadic Chef, rolled his camper van into Denton to visit Lanky. People three tables over at Eastside swooned at the sight of the square-jawed made-for-Hollywood hunk.

Among other rivals, Lanky cites New Jersey chef Joshua Walbolt, who puts up some crazy dishes on the conveyor belt, as the most technically proficient chef on the show. And he still swaps food pics with Florida chef and arch-nemesis Leon Brunson.

I first met Lanky at the cheese shop “Ten: One” where he’s worked shoulder to shoulder with owner Justin Bonard for years. Once I learned he was in the Secret Chef, and knowing how much my younger daughter loved a bit of reality television, I put it on the watch list. Lanky had not given me any indication that he had won. “After all, it is called Secret Chef,” he later explained. So it was double the suspense for me: who is going to win this thing, and when is the axe going to drop for Lanky? There were some close things. Without revealing too many spoilers, Lanky almost cuts his hand off in the first episode…twice. Those nervy moments were the main reason, I believe, that Chang subjects Lanky to an unusual trial in the final episode…the Ultimate Boss Over-the-Shoulder Hover.

Lanky cooks some of the tastiest looking dishes on the show, including a sublime-looking risotto. “I absolutely thought I had that win in the bag,” he agrees. He’s also responsible for the show’s best comedic moments. When he finds a comic vein, Lanky is capable of stand-up quality bits. There’s a whole thing about the backwards facing statue that is part of his kitchen on set. “Monkey Butt” becomes a character all of its own.

Lanky basks in the glow of his long-shot victory / Photo courtesy of Secret Chef

The win? After several weeks cooking in a glass box and having his emotions played with as only reality-television producers can play on them, it came as a relief. Indeed, Lanky saw the win as the completion of an eight-year process that began back in Austin with those MasterChef heats.   

One of Lanky’s favorite moments of celebrity was when a friend brought their kids to the cheese shop the morning after they had watched his victory episode. They squeed for joy and asked if he would sign their Happy Meal containers.

“Anyone who knows anything about me knows I love McDonald’s. If the first autograph is on a Happy Meal Box, that’s a home run for me.”

Anthony Bourdain, the author of Kitchen Confidential and host of “Parts Unknown” is one of Lanky’s heroes. Lanky’s television persona has more in common with Bourdain’s than most. He has that rare blend of sarcasm and warmth; he can be charming without being corny. Maybe it’s the Ten: One experience, but he knows the difference between good cheese and bad cheese.

“The dream is to have a travel thing,” said Lanky. “I don’t wanna be in the kitchen all day, sweating my ass off, not seeing the light of day.”

As he told the Secret Chef camera, Lanky’s ambition is to be a television chef. To this end, he’s got an agent scouting for more Hulu shows. One day, Lanky admitted, he’d love to spend some time in New York or Los Angeles, where celebrity chefs are made. 

 In the meantime, he’s planning to build up his portfolio of show reels and air them on his social media outlets. He’s going to keep upping his food game, just like his adopted hometown.

“Man, Denton now compared to 05?” said Lanky. “Oh man, it’s night and day difference on the food-and-drink aspect of things. I feel like there’s some local business people. We’ve started to wake up and care. There’s so many great local businesses now. We’re sitting in one!” He gestured at the salubrious setting of West Oak, one of the stalwarts of the Square. “The local bars, if they don’t’ have food, they’ll get a local food truck. People try to make it in Denton, and it’s awesome and admirable. I love this town. It’s full of hardworking people trying to make their way, and make it brighter and happier. And we don’t have Subway on the square any more.”