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Cheftestant Lisa LaFranca won't spill the Hell's Kitchen beans

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By Greg Summers

Each weekday morning, a group of men meet inside the Humana Cafeteria on Main Street to discuss the ills of the world, the weather, college football, crime and politics between sips of hot coffee.

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“This is one of the places I get my marching orders from,” said Lancaster Mayor Joe Shaw, who is a “first-shift regular,” along with Charlie Bundy, Larry Cauthen, former Sheriff Wilford Faile and Donald Hunter.

They arrive some time between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and leave just before 9 a.m. when the “second shift” reports in.

The second shifters include John Howard, Hazel Knight and Sam Robinson. These fellas are carrying on a 50-year morning coffee-drinking tradition started by the late Steve Williams at City Drug Store. At one time, the coffee club included Col. Elliott White Springs and Lancaster High football coach Wade Corn.

“He’d come by every Saturday morning to give us the lowdown from Friday’s game,” Shaw said of Corn.

In eavesdropping, you’d think this crew has the ability to find a cure for the common cold and answer most of the nagging issues that trouble the human race.

They usually come up with their share of well-intentioned answers and conclusions at these impromptu social gatherings.

“It’s a sight what we’ve been able to solve around this table,” Cauthen said.

But right now, this thought-provoking think tank is at a loss when it comes to cracking one local nut that’s about to break into the national spotlight. 

Try as the may, they can’t get find out what will happen on the 2-hour season premiere of FOX Network’s “Hell’s Kitchen” on Wednesday night.

The only thing they know for sure is that Lisa LaFranca – the corporate food director at Humana who brews their morning coffee – is one of the 16 “cheftestants” for the show’s eighth season.

LaFranca, the 48-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., transplant who now makes her home in Fort Mill, is tight-lipped about the whole matter.

LaFranca’s sister, Angela Alfredson, isn’t surprised.

“She’s always been good at keeping secrets,” Alfredson said. “She’s pretty much stuck to it as far as the guidelines and rules go.”  

Even Faile’s best interrogation methods have come up flat.

“She’s not talking at all and won’t tell us nothing, not one bit. It may mess you up on the show if you say anything,” Faile said.

“We don’t know anymore than you do,” Cauthen interjected, as Faile sipped his coffee.

The former sheriff nodded his head in agreement.

“You know, I know all about it, but I’m under a gag order and can’t talk, either,” Faile said, as Cauthen and Shaw snickered.

“See how it gets around here?” Shaw said.

The show was filmed earlier this year in Los Angeles. Starting Wednesday, LaFranca will be competing against 15 others in a winner-take-all, pressure-packed culinary academy.

“Somebody actually dared her to do the show and Lisa has always been the one in our family who won’t back down from a challenge,” Alfredson, a registered nurse, said. “I’m willing to take risks every now and then, but she’s always been pretty fearless.”

The challenges must be performed under the watchful eyes, barking voice and caustic tongue of Gordon Ramsey.

Ramsey, a super-chef, has been known to turn up the heat on all the contestants.

The grueling challenges of Season 8 include baking in new pizza ovens, catering a high school prom, adding sushi to the show’s menu, serving breakfast to a hard-working group of medics and celebrating the show’s 100th episode with a black tie affair.

“I’ve watched it,” Faile said. “It’s pretty tough.”

It isn’t for the faint of heart, but it can be rewarding.

If LaFranca survives, her one-woman job at the Humana Cafeteria will become a distant memory.

The winner of the competition gets a job as the head chef at LA Market inside the JW Marriott Hotel Los Angeles and will be the spokesman or spokeswoman for Rosemount Estate Wines.

“I’d sure like to find out how she did,” Shaw quipped as LaFranca walked over to the table to check on her morning regulars.

“These are my men. They come by to see me every morning,” LaFranca said, flashing a bright smile.

“Shucks, we already knew that much,” Shaw said.