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Food Network's fresh dish

Lieberman, 25, goes from college student to culinary star

Busy Lieberman
In two months, Lieberman's show debuted, cookbook hit shelves and dishes appeared on Song flights.

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Dave Lieberman
Food
Television
Yale University

NEW YORK (CNN) -- In his prime-time cooking debut, Dave Lieberman put the finishing touches to his centerpiece -- roasted salmon wrapped in romaine leaves and seasoned with Italian dressing -- and brought it to the table.

So was it a gastronomic masterpiece? A succulent sensation? Actually, in Lieberman's opinion, "a disaster" was a more fitting description.

"It was the most disgusting thing -- and my parents had to kind of like it," he said, recalling the messily oozing dressing; yellow, wilted lettuce; and the overcooked and shrunken fish, its bones oddly protruding.

Then again, Dave was seven years old at the time, and the meal represented his first major culinary offering to parents Dale and Jane.

"See, I never got turned off by having those disasters. And I'm glad."

And so is Lieberman's growing legion of fans. The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, native has come a long way since he began concocting "magic potions" as a child.

In April, Lieberman became the Food Network's fresh, young face as host of "Good Deal." Around that time, his first cookbook -- "Young and Hungry: Making the Most of Fresh and Affordable Food" -- hit bookshelves. The next month, Song, Delta Air Lines' low-fare service, debuted seven menu items specially crafted by Lieberman.

Not bad for a 25-year-old two years out of college, much less one who has never attended culinary school and long shunned the prospect of working as a professional restaurant chef.

"I'm really happy doing what I'm doing," he said. "I feel like I could do this forever."

In and out of the kitchen

Lieberman has been "cooking," in the very general sense, as long as he can remember. As early as age 4, he'd mix and match ingredients, sometimes to his parents' dismay.

"They were like, great, now look," Lieberman said, with a smile, of the foreseeable mess spawned by his early culinary adventures. "I was always drawn to the kitchen."

His father -- a lawyer who stayed home with Dave and younger brother Dan, while their mother practiced as a doctor -- served as young Dave's first, and still favorite, instructor.

As a teenager, Lieberman delved into the food business by working in Philadelphia eating establishments. But rather than fully commit to a culinary career, he went north to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree at Yale University.

In between his studies, Lieberman continued to experiment with food, routinely preparing meals and appetizers for classmates at tailgates, in the dining hall, at barbecues or wherever else ingredients were handy.

Those experiences eventually led to "Campus Cuisine," a cooking show dreamed up by Lieberman and a few of his friends. In his senior year, the student-centered cooking show debuted on local access cable in New Haven, Connecticut.

start quoteI'm pushing myself, but I am still at heart a home cook.end quote
-- Dave Lieberman

"We had a great time," said the former political science major. "[But] we never thought that it would lead anywhere."

But it did, thanks in large part to a New York Times article by Amanda Hesser on college dining that featured Lieberman. Soon thereafter, he -- by then, the head of his own catering company -- was fielding offers for book deals, national television shows and more.

'Food is more than just food'

Now, the 2003 Yale graduate divides his time writing cookbooks, rehearsing and filming his show, promoting all his endeavors, and testing out new recipes.

The kitchen, his favorite place to connect with family and friends, is both Lieberman's workplace and his outlet. That mindset is central to his approach to preparing and eating food, which he sees as fundamentally a social activity.

"The idea ... is taking common ingredients that everyone can find, that everyone knows, and doing something special [for] friends and family," Lieberman said.

"Food is more than just food. It's a means to an end, a means to getting people together."

Lieberman admits to devouring his share of take-out meals, like many of his friends too busy to spend an evening in the kitchen. But whether creating a romantic meal for two or an all-encompassing buffet for 100, he insists that cooking cannot only be affordable and tasty, but fun.

Tasting
Lieberman, who experimented with ingredients as a child, tastes one of his more recent creations.

"Cooking isn't for everyday," he admits. "But on the weekends, when you have free time, that's [when] you can really enjoy the experience, and share with people."

A flash in the pan?

His current hometown, New York City, teems with talented chefs, many of them trained in elite culinary institutes and incorporating exotic ingredients into their dishes.

Yet Lieberman prides himself on being more comfortable in the neighborhood supermarket or a family kitchen than he would be working in an upscale, cutting edge restaurant.

By keeping shopping costs down, using a small number of readily available ingredients and making his dishes easy to make, he says that his meals aim to fit the lifestyles and tastes of people from all walks of life.

"[Some chefs] who come from the restaurant kitchen have a hard time identifying with the needs of the home cook," Lieberman said.

"So I'm pushing myself, but I am still at heart a home cook, and I use that to my advantage when talking about food."

How long people listen -- or watch his show or buy his book -- remains to be seen.

"People out there will decided whether I'm a flash in the pan," he said. "But I sure hope not."

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