A Night Out With Tiffani Thiessen

"The New York Times" / Sunday, March 2, 2003 / By JESSE McKINLEY

IT'S not often you catch a star like Tiffani Thiessen slaving over a hot stove, so when it happens, people gawk. And it was exactly that scenario — woman, meat, open flame — that visitors discovered on a recent Tuesday night at Tao, the Asian fusion restaurant on East 58th Street that doubles as a singles bar up front.

Ms. Thiessen was in no mood to be hit on. Instead, she had gone to Tao for its Kobe beef, the Japanese delicacy that costs $12 an ounce and can be precooked in the kitchen or cooked by the diners themselves at the table.

"Who's in charge?" a waiter asked as he approached with a small ornate grill and six ounces of red meat.

"I am," Ms. Thiessen said. "I've done this before."

Moments later, having cooked for the table, Ms. Thiessen, whose fan Web sites insist she is a vegetarian, proved why one should be skeptical of material posted online.

"I love to cook," Ms. Thiessen said. "It's sad because I don't have a lot of time. Or friends."

The latter part of that statement is probably disingenuous, judging from her numerous fan clubs, steadily ringing cellphone and the men sending drinks to her table on this particular evening. "Raspberry Stoli," she said, tasting one. "Not my favorite." (Note for future suitors: Ms. Thiessen prefers Diet Coke and vanilla Stoli.)

Her time, however, was at a minimum. The former star of the television programs "Saved by the Bell" and "Beverly Hills 90210" was in town to promote "Fastlane," a new Fox cop-and-coiffure series, which recently caused a minor stir when Ms. Thiessen's character, Lt. Wilhelmina (Billie) Chambers, went undercover to track a murderer and ended up in a passionate kiss with one of the female suspects. "It's amazing how many people will tune in to see that," she said. (True indeed. The girl-on-girl episode had the show's highest ratings.)

She had traveled to New York with her friend and personal hairdresser, Dusty Simington, who looked a little like George Hamilton's younger brother and was wearing a T-shirt that read, "I Vacation to Get Tan."

"Dude, it's cold here," Mr. Simington, 42, said. "I'm not worried about terrorists. I'm worried about freezing to death."

Ms. Thiessen, who was wearing a lightweight Dolce & Gabbana jacket, Seven jeans and a pashmina scarf, said, "I was not prepared for this."

The two have known each other since Ms. Thiessen's days as a beauty pageant contestant in California with big dreams and bad hair. "She had the Utah claw," Mr. Simington explained, describing bangs that shot up toward the heavens. "But she was just as darling as she is today."

"I don't think it was that bad," she said of her former do.

"Trust me," he said. "It was."

Ms. Thiessen has better hair today, but retains the pretty round face and blue eyes that helped make her a television star, as well as a figure that gets her lots of play in lad magazines like Maxim, which recently named her the world's 40th sexiest woman, just ahead of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (41) and gunning for Jacqueline Obradors (39). Eyeing the dessert menu, Ms. Thiessen chatted about all kinds of food lusts, from Mexican ("It's gooey, it's fattening and it's good") to chocolate ("I kind of took up sugar for a while"). She has just quit smoking and has been studying karate for eight years.

For dessert, Ms. Thiessen and Mr. Simington settled on a house specialty: a giant fortune cookie stuffed with mousse and, of course, a fortune. Ms. Thiessen cracked it open to discover this message. "It says, 'You need to make more time for romance,' " she said, with a laugh. "Yeah, and pack warmer clothes, too."