Glenn S. Alai
Monday, Jan. 6, 2014 | 12:38 p.m.
The Rio magician headliner Penn Jillette is hoping to win another $50,000 for his favorite Las Vegas charity Opportunity Village when he competes on Season 3 of the celebrity cook-off competition “Rachael vs. Guy.”
It premieres tonight on the Food Network, and Penn is teamed with former “The Bachelor,” “Dancing With the Stars” and Chippendales at the Rio star Jake Pavelka, comedy actress Judy Gold and Nevada Ballet Theater’s Woman of the Year 79-year-old Florence Henderson, the former “The Brady Bunch” star who will be honored at NBT’s Black and White Ball on Jan. 25.
Penn’s foursome represent Team Rachael Ray, and they compete against UNLV alumnus and celebrity restaurateur Guy Fieri and his team of rapper and Las Vegas regular Vanilla Ice, NFL Hall of Famer Herschel Walker, former teen idol singer Tiffany and comedy actor Chris Kattan of “Saturday Night Live” fame.
The six-episode series with a seventh-episode finale special starts with the heat being really turned up tonight — with Penn being able to show off his fire-eating tricks at a Renaissance fair.
“You have to watch to see how far I go,” Penn told me. “I feel pretty good, but it is top secret. One of the things I did to prepare for the show is I went around to different chefs in Las Vegas and was taught a lot about how to cook on television.
“That’s a lot different than how to cook at home. When you cook at home, you just put peanut butter on one piece of bread and jelly on another, and you’re done. It turns out that on TV, you have to do more than that.
“I really am a great peanut and jelly man at home — always! You can’t do better than peanut butter and jelly, so why bother with anything else? But that does not work if you’re from Vegas and on television.
“You have to be able to cook a perfect steak. Even with all the great restaurants that pop up here, we still have the best steakhouses in the world. So I really worked hard on making a perfect steak.
“The most adventurous stuff I did was creating Vegas-type dishes like halibut … and I also had a lot of fun cooking Thai food. I love Thai food, and my favorite restaurant of all in Vegas is Lotus of Siam. That came in very useful on the show.”
Penn and his Rio partner Teller work with many charities locally, but the “talkative one” selects Opportunity Village when he’s getting national exposure.
“I like the Opportunity Village project because the idea is so important. I’m hoping that it will grow even more and in other areas of the country. People who saw Opportunity Village when I competed on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ have thought about doing it in other cities.
“That was really my reason for doing Donald Trump’s show and now on Rachael Ray’s team. Besides raising money for Opportunity Village, we get to show there are other ideas for how to assist people with disabilities.
“I’ve known Rachael for many years, and this was really cooking and really cool. She knows everything there is to know about cooking, so with her chemistry, she was our perfect mentor for the 90-minute cooking challenges. It turned out to be tough like ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ but a lot more fun.”
In each of the six hourlong episodes, the celebrities test their culinary chops in such demanding challenges as a Hawaiian-inspired meal for a luau and going head-to-head in a chicken wing cook-off. New this season, each episode will feature a Food Network guest judge who will determine which celebrity is sent home.
In the season finale, the remaining competitors will prepare a three-course meal aboard a cruise ship. Guest judges Las Vegas chef and restaurateur Scott Conant, Sunny Anderson and Aaron Sanchez help Rachael and Guy determine which celebrity will earn the $50,000 prize for their charity and be crowned the Celebrity Cook-Off Champion.
Florence commented: “The show is all about fun and goodwill. I was very surprised by the skill some of these people had. I think everybody always gave it their best shot.”
In addition to “Rachael vs. Guy” and the Rio residency, Penn & Teller are hoping for Oscar success with their new documentary “Tim’s Vermeer” about a digital editor using computer-animation tools to unravel an art mystery that has baffled experts for 350 years. How did painter Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch master, create the world’s most realistic paintings?
Teller made his feature-directing debut with the film, which was written, narrated and produced by Penn. They had 2,400 hours of footage to show the process, and Teller and his editor spent a year trimming it down to the 80-minute feature.
“We had to do a quick week in New York and Los Angeles to be eligible for an Academy Award, but it will be released around the world at the end of this month, hitting everywhere,” Penn told me. “It was an amazing accomplishment, and I think we’ll change the way people see the realistic figures of the Golden Age of Dutch art.
“You can certainly tell the difference from the original because he didn’t want to do an exact copy, but he re-created it, so he actually does a slightly different version with the same techniques. If you were doing a photo shoot, it’s four or five frames later. The big question for audiences as they leave the theater is can you tell the difference in the two styles?
“In this particular system of art and in magic, it really is all double mirrors. I don’t think we can actually take anything we learned from the process to put into our Rio show, although people ask about it, so maybe we’ll get inspired to do something from it.
“We had the film pretty much completed before I began my own crowd fundraising for my own ‘Director’s Cut’ horror film. The script for that is finished and is now in the hands of our first star choice with the hope that filming can begin in two months. Her managers and agents love it, and so far from reading it, she’s very interested.
“Doing the live Rio show, the books and the pod cast, about one movie at a time is about all I can handle. The two films followed each other, so they don’t conflict or affect each other.
“I’m hoping we can make a deal with our first choice star and announce that very soon. Filming would start based on her schedule, but as soon as possible. We’re hoping to do some of it here in Las Vegas. The police station sets and department sets are all available in L.A., but I’m hoping that we can do some of the exteriors in Vegas.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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Carnival lasts all year at the Rio. With a float occasionally passing overhead and dropping beads while feathered dancers fire up the gamblers below, the Rio tries to keep its 120,000-square foot casino jumping with excitement. Special Brazilian mixed-drinks are also served throughout the casino. The hotel suites tend to be larger than similar priced rooms on the Strip and many offer excellent views with floor to ceiling windows.
The Rio offers some quality shows like "Penn & Teller" and "Chippendales." Many come to the Rio for the nightlife at the VooDoo Lounge, located on the 51st floor, or McFadden's Irish Pub on the casino level.
Others come for a bit relaxation at the Rio Spa or pool area and still others come to shop at the hotel's 60,000 square feet of shops. In each of these endeavors, the Rio attempts to make the experience a bit more fun and spontaneous.
The Rio also offers guests a variety of dining choices from all-American food at the All-American Bar & Grille to Gaylord India Restaurant for something a little spicier and even Carnival World Buffet for the indecisive.