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From football to food hero

Football fans are familiar with Matt Dunigan, the star quarterback. Soon foodies will meet Matt Dunigan, the celebrity chef.


Football fans are familiar with Matt Dunigan, the star quarterback. Soon foodies will meet Matt Dunigan, the celebrity chef.

On Monday, the former Canadian Football League standout will make his debut on the Food Network as host of "Road Grill," a new series devoted to barbecuing.

Dunigan has been retired from football for more than a decade but has stayed involved in the game, working as an analyst for TSN and doing a stint as coach and general manager of the Calgary Stampeders.

But Dunigan's latest endeavour is allowing him to get out of that football comfort zone.

"I think it's important to step outside of the box and try to enjoy life and try new things," Dunigan said in a recent telephone interview.

The show is produced by Knight Enterprises, an Ottawa-based production company best known for its food programs.

Dunigan, 47, grew up in Texas and went to college in Louisiana, so he knows a thing or two about barbecue, but he's not a seasoned cook. And while he may be a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, he had to audition for this job, just like anyone else.

It all started when Dunigan's wife Kathy heard about a national casting call for a new cooking show devoted to grilling and convinced her husband that he should send in an audition tape. So, one evening after they had enjoyed a couple of cocktails, the Dunigans got out the camera and filmed him cooking in the kitchen at their Oakville, Ont., home.

The tape, one of about 1,300 submitted, caught the eye of Chris Knight, president of Knight Enterprises. Dunigan made the shortlist of four or five and was asked to do a proper audition. Impressed by his presence on camera and passion for grilling, Knight gave Dunigan the job.

Knight admits that Dunigan's celebrity status in Canada will likely help draw Canadian viewers. But given that Knight's shows are picked up around the world, it wasn't a deciding factor in Dunigan being cast in the role.

"That Matt was a celebrity and a (football) legend was a bonus," said Knight. "What got him the gig was his personality. And he grew up knowing barbecue."

Dunigan doesn't pretend to be a professional chef. He's up front about the fact he's just a regular guy who happens to be into food, particularly barbecue.

"As much as I like to barbecue and as much fun as I'm having on the show, I'm not a real chef," he said. "I'm host of the show whose passion comes through about barbecuing and having a good time and eating healthy food."

Knight hopes it will also inspire at-home cooks.

"Everyone knows him because of his football and not as a chef," Knight said. "So what we're hoping is that people, by the end of an episode, will say 'Geez, I could do that."'

There's no question Dunigan is enthusiastic about the subject matter. At one point during a segment shot at a country fair, Dunigan cuts into a juicy beef brisket that has just been smoked over a low, slow heat. As he slides his knife through the mouth-watering piece of meat, he can barely contain his excitement.

"I just lost my composure," he jokes as juice oozes from the brisket. "Ah, this is awesome!"

Season 1 includes 26 episodes, which were shot last summer at events and locations in the Ottawa area. Knight hopes to eventually be able to truly take the show on the road and visit communities all over North America.

The premiere, which airs Monday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. ET, takes place at a beach party. Featured recipes include blackened scallops with avocado salsa and slow smoked beef ribs.

Dunigan is joined on camera by assistants Karrie Galvin, Charlotte Langley and Jenna Durling. All are experienced chefs who help Dunigan prepare the food, which the live audience gets to enjoy at the end of each segment.

"Road Grill" also has a companion cookbook filled with recipes developed by Galvin and Knight.

Season 2 of the show began production earlier this month.

Dunigan isn't exactly a rookie when it comes to being on camera. He's been at TSN since 1999 and says that experience was invaluable when he started working on "Road Grill."

"I've loved my opportunity at TSN," he said. "It certainly has been instrumental in getting me as comfortable in front of the camera as possible."

The steepest learning curve for Dunigan has been behind the scenes. He regularly attends culinary lessons at the Food Network's Toronto headquarters with Galvin, who is teaching him the skills he needs to be comfortable with food on camera.

"She's teaching me all types of different things," he said. "Last week I learned all about fiddleheads and artichokes and how to cook those properly."

Dunigan played for six teams - Edmonton, B.C., Toronto, Winnipeg, Birmingham and Hamilton - during his 14-year CFL career, winning the Grey Cup twice. He retired after the 1996 season with more than 40,000 career passing yards and 306 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.

He's kept busy since retiring and while he admits he misses throwing the football, he's not longing to return to the field.

"Once you step off that field that game passes you by in a hurry," he said. "The game is so physical and so fast, it just blows you away that you were able to do that yourself."

But judging from his bulging biceps, Dunigan has managed to keep in shape since giving up football.

So how does he stay fit when he's around food all the time?

"The show keeps us in shape," he said with a laugh. "Because we're all working so dad gum hard."

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Honey Mustard Chicken Drumsticks

Here is a recipe featuring chicken drumsticks from the cookbook "Road Grill" (McArthur and Company), the companion to the Food Network show of the same name.

The dish is simple, so it's perfect for a making on weekdays when you're pressed for time. Former CFL quarterback Matt Dunigan, who host the show, says you can adjust the ingredients as desired - "I like way more garlic than we call for here," he says.

Ingredients
12 fresh chicken drumsticks, skin on, rinsed and patted dry
Oil, for brushing

Marinade
125 ml ( 1/2 cup) liquid honey
50 ml ( 1/4 cup) Dijon mustard
5 ml (1 tsp) mustard seeds
10 ml (2 tsp) chopped garlic
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Method
Marinade: In a medium bowl, whisk together marinade ingredients. Reserve 50 ml ( 1/4 cup) for basting later.

In a large sealable plastic bag, place chicken. Pour marinade over chicken and seal bag. Swoosh bag so all legs are coated with marinade. Place in refrigerator and marinate for 4 hours.

Prepare barbecue for indirect medium heat: 180 C (350 F) leaving 2 burners on and 2 burners off. Oil grill on the off side.

Place chicken on grill over the burners that are off. Turn every 3 to 4 minutes, brushing with reserved marinade, for 15 to 20 minutes or until chicken skin is golden brown and chicken is cooked through or when juices run clear when drumstick is poked in the thickest part.

Remove from grill and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 12 drumsticks.

 
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