Friedman Paul Erhardt, the ebullient German-born cook known as “Chef Tell” who opened Chef Tell’s Grand Old House on Grand Cayman in 1986, died of heart failure Friday at his home in Upper Black Eddy, Bucks County.
During his time on Grand Cayman, Chef Tell was appointed Bali of the Grand Cayman chapter of the Chaine de Rotisseurs, a gastronomic society founded in 1246.
Chef Tell’s wife, Bunny, said Monday that he died Friday of an apparent heart attack.
Services will be Monday, 5 November, which would have been Chef Tell’s 64th birthday, at 11am at St. Luke’s Church in Ferndale, according to his wife.
The mustachioed Mr. Erhardt, who was 63, was a colorful fixture on the Philadelphia, USA, dining scene in the ’70s and ’80s, where he owned restaurants in Chestnut Hill, Wayne, Ottsville, and Upper Black Eddy. He was also a culinary educator, cookbook author, and spokesman for major cookware and food product lines.
But it was his persona as the jolly chef with an impenetrable German accent, sharp knifework, cutting wit and easy recipes that made him an indelible fixture of TV pop culture, from regular appearances on Regis and Kathie Lee to comedy spots on Saturday Night Live. He was also the inspiration for the Muppet Show‘s gibberish-spouting Swedish chef.
“Tell was able to incorporate humor and the entertainment factor into his cooking,” said Victoria Lang, who regularly produced Mr. Erhardt’s segments for Regis and Kathie Lee. “It was so funny: ‘You do like this! You do like that!’ But unlike other TV chefs I’ve known, his food actually tasted great.”
Born in Stuttgart, the son of a newspaper owner, Mr. Erhardt (who earned the nickname “Tell” after playing William Tell in a school play) trained in restaurants and hotels throughout Europe where, at 27, he earned a gold medal in the Cooking Olympics as captain of the West German team.
His future across the Atlantic, though, was sealed on a rainy night in Germany’s Black Forest in 1972 when he pulled over his sports car to aid a woman with a flat tire. It was Janet Louise Nicoletti, a former Miss Philadelphia on vacation. Mr. Erhardt changed her tire and fell in love. Three months later, he went to Philadelphia, married Nicoletti (the second of his three wives), and launched an American career.
His rise to TV fame began in 1974 when, as a chef at the Marriott on City Line Avenue, he made his first appearance on the local show Dialing for Dollars. This was followed by a nationally syndicated show on KYW’s Evening Magazine, appearances on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, specials for the QVC network, and a PBS program, In the Kitchen With Chef Tell, produced in Allentown.
Mr. Erhardt left the Marriott to become executive chef at the Barclay Hotel, and eventually opened a series of his own restaurants that have since closed: International Cuisine at the Chestnut Hill Hotel, Chef Tell’s in Wayne, the Harrow Inne in Ottsville, the Manor House in Upper Black Eddy, and Chef Tell’s Grand Old House in Grand Cayman, where the scuba aficionado lived for several years.
Mr. Erhardt’s fortunes rose and fell throughout his career. In his glory days, he thundered around town on his trademark motorcycle, boasted of his elaborate silk wardrobe (“I’m vain when it comes to that”), and schmoozed with the likes of Peter Ustinov, Princess Margaret, Henry Fonda, and Richard Nixon, who personally filed Mr. Erhardt’s application for American citizenship in 1984.
Mr. Erhardt, who was diabetic, had just completed a new book about cooking for diabetics based on his own experience of weaning himself off insulin naturally by altering his recipes. It’s yet to find a publisher.
Mr. Erhardt is also survived by a son, Torsten Erhardt; daughter-in-law, Angelica, and grandson, Max, who live in Germany. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Philabundance and the SPCA.