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A glass of wine -- and a chat -- with Jacques Pepin

Posted by: Lee Svitak Dean Updated: November 24, 2014 - 11:11 AM
Rochelle Olson and Jacques Pepin, Photo by KQED

Rochelle Olson and Jacques Pepin, Photo by KQED

By ROCHELLE OLSON
Star Tribune

 
In more than two decades as a reporter, I’ve met/encountered/interviewed the famous and the infamous – presidents, star athletes, rock stars, movie stars and convicted killers. It’s my job. After all this time, I don’t get nervous, but I can be apprehensive when the celebrity is someone I’ve enjoyed for years. I worry the person won’t live up to the image.

Like my brief brush with Mick Jagger years ago, my studio interview of Jacques Pepín exceeded my hopes.

I’d like to say I’m a devotee of Pepín’s method, that I’ve worked my way through a third copy of “La Technique,”  but I’m mostly a fan and a Francophile with a passion for Paris dreaming of the next time I can walk past the Tuilieries at dusk.

On his shows, Pepín charms, slices, dices and sautes while sharing sweet anecdotes and mildly mischievous asides. He seems so familiar and friendly it’s easy to forget he cooked for Charles DeGaulle and created food with Pierre Franey for the entire Howard Johnson hotel chain in its heyday.

He quickly assuaged my concerns with his calm, relaxed attitude. (If you’re unfamiliar with him, google his YouTube videos on omelet making. Fun and informative as always.) 

On camera, Pepín’s flawless. No fumbling or mumbling, just ease. Only a couple of times was he asked to do a second take for this episode. And each was a notch better than the first.I watched the taping on Monday at San Francisco’s KQED and expected to return Wednesday for an interview. But after all the audience members had  posed for photos, Pepín and his producers called me over for a shot. I followed orders.

Since I was standing next to him, I started asking questions. Then he asked if I wanted a glass of pinot noir. He was still drinking his wine from the show. I don’t usually drink on the job, but at this time, on the set with Pepín, I responded,  “When Jacques Pepín offers a glass of wine, who am I to say no?”

Pepín decided he had time before his afternoon taping to sit for an interview in the green room. Once inside, he asked a producer to get some more wine for us – chenin blanc left over from the show.

Now remember I had gone into the interview wary that the real-life Jacques would be justifiably less amusing than TV Jacques. Instead, here I was relaxing and on my second glass of wine with the great Jacques Pepin  – the man who cooked with Julia and any other significant chef in the past 50-some years.
And he was more down-to-earth and direct than I expected. He didn’t bristle at any questions. He was also much more handsome than he appears on TV. He has these deep brown eyes and is as handsome as an older George Clooney  –  if the movie star had that adorable French accent.

So here are a few snippets I learned that didn’t make my recent story in print:

Rochelle Olson and Jacques Pepin, Photo by KQED


When I asked about Julia, he told the story about how his neighbor, reporter Morley Safer, asked for an introduction to Julia ahead of a planned “60 Minutes” profile. Safer, most likely, was hoping to warm up his subject before sitting down with cameras.

Pepín shook his head as he recalled telling Safer, “I can introduce you, but it won’t matter. Julia is Julia.”
Still, he and Safer attended one of Julia’s public events. Pepín  didn’t recall the first question from an audience member, but he did recall Child’s response: “What a stupid question.”

He met Julia after a publishing agent asked him to read her manuscript for “The Art of French Cooking.” Pepin recalled the agent saying, “I’ve met this very big woman with a terrible voice.” He gave the manuscript a thumbs up  – and eventually teamed with Child for their own famous cooking series.

Pepín won’t retire. “What would I do? Now I get up every day at the crack of 10 a.m. I am not an early riser.” But he’s got a heavy schedule of public appearances, cooking events, petanque playing (a French game of tossing metal hollow balls, similar to bocce ball), walking his dogs and hanging out with his wife of 49 years, Gloria.

He hasn’t been to Paris in more than a decade. In the past when he would travel to France, it was to see his mother near Lyon where he grew up. He saw her last summer and she died soon after at 99 1/2, he notes.

He paints as a hobby and considers Picasso the master of the 20th century.

Because he never owned or ran a restaurant, Pepin said, “I didn’t have to worry much about what I said.”

As he’s grown older, Pepin said, “I like things much more spicy than I used to.”

He repeatedly praised simplicity. “Imagination is not something I’m crazy about. Sometimes they can really screw up the meal,” he said.

He likes teaching his granddaughter Shorey how to cook. “The kitchen is the right place to be after school  – the noise, the smell of it – all that stays with you the rest of your life.”

Follow Rochelle Olson on Twitter: @rochelleolson
 

First glimpse at "The Victory Garden's Edible Feast"

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: November 17, 2014 - 3:12 PM

Minneapolitans and two-time James Beard award-winning filmmakers Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine of the Perennial Plate are back in the news, this time with a preview of their soon-to-debut effort on PBS.

It's a reboot of the network's popular and groundbreaking "The Victory Garden" series, this time seen through the couple's storytelling prism, with an assist by the national network of Edible magazines.

TPT hasn't announced when it's running the show (the series launches, network-wide, in December), but look for an upcoming announcement on its website.

Catch the preview here:

The Victory Garden's Edible Feast TRAILER from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.

A culinary song-and-dance from Alton Brown

Posted by: Lee Svitak Dean Updated: February 11, 2014 - 10:24 AM
Photo by David Allen, from Alton Brown Live!

Photo by David Allen, from Alton Brown Live!

Have to say it was the first time I've seen burping and farting take center stage at any theater.

And hopefully the last.

The sounds, as presented by sock puppets on a large monitor, opened Alton Brown's "Edible Inedible Tour" at the State Theatre last Friday, an event that played to a multi-age full house who was clearly enthusiastic about his long-running "Good Eats" TV show, now in reruns on the Cooking Channel. (The sound effects, repeated during the intermission and at the close of the show, depicted the action of yeast molecules releasing gas.)

Alton Brown was his madcap self, a grand storyteller with a sly sense of humor, during the 2 hour, 45 minute culinary variety show, which celebrated what he said were "things you're not allowed to do on TV -- you can't rant, rave or pontificate or you'll piss off advertisers." (The excess "sound effects" reflected him thumbing his nose at the Food Network, which he said enforced a burp-to-fart ratio on "Good Eats.")

The puppets that provided the sound effects. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean.

The puppets that provided the sound effects. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean.


No sponsors, no advertisers means all fun, right? Well, as we say in the news biz, everyone needs an editor. And this show could have used a scalpel at times, starting with the interminable burping and farting. You know the little kid in kindergarten who would do that and get a laugh, and then wouldn't stop doing it? Well....

The show ran 45 minutes longer than expected, in part because Alton got chatty (often commenting snarkily, in good fun, on the cold weather and other Minnesota-related tangents) and, at the end, because he chose a volunteer in the audience who liked being center stage (she talked almost as much as he did).

But the unwieldy length was more than someone not watching the clock: His musical trio (with Alton on both electric and acoustic guitar, then saxophone) really didn't add much to the evening with food songs that were, well, half-baked, worth a smile but not much more. And some of his TV antics didn't hold up on a theater stage (breezing through a science lesson, for example, had to cross more eyes than just mine).

Two cooking "demos" were delightfully quirky, though took far too long to complete. In one he makes carbonated ice cream using a fire extinguisher (the only single-use piece of kitchen equipment that has his approval).

Making ice cream with a volunteer from the audience. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean

Making ice cream with a volunteer from the audience. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean

The other was what turned out to be a long-winded demonstration of his Mega-Bake Oven, a variation on the girls-only Easy Bake Oven of his youth. Though the store version uses a single 100-watt bulb, his monstrous variation, presumably built in his garage or so he implied, gathers power from 54,000 watts of stage lights. "You can see this from space," he chortled as the blinding lights were turned on.

From this powerhouse of light, he and a volunteer (the Chatty Kathy aforementioned), cooked a pizza topped with (what else?) lutefisk and pepperoni.

What 54,000 watts looks like. Hot enough to cook a pizza. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean

What 54,000 watts looks like. Hot enough to cook a pizza. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean

The best part of the show was his rant on "10 Things I'm Pretty Sure That I'm Sure About Food," an eclectic list that apparently changes from time to time, Here's the Minnesota version:

1. Chickens don't have fingers (where he tells the tale of shocking his daughter's friends with chicken feet).

2. The most critical cooking skill is to use salt (from here he goes on to talk about the bakery dough he discarded in an outdoor dumpster on a very hot day, resulting in an oozing Son-of-Blob scenario that needed commercial trucks to remedy). 

Alton Brown's high-tech version of Power Point, illustrating the trout ice cream. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean.

Alton Brown's high-tech version of Power Point, illustrating the trout ice cream. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean.

3. Trout doesn't belong in ice cream (he tells the story of chef Sakai who did just that on "Iron Chef America").

4. The best cook on Earth is your wife, and the sooner you accept it, the happier you'll be (as he relates a story on making the mistake of "correcting" the seasoning in his wife's dish).3. Trout doesn't belong in ice cream (he relates an episode of "Iron Chef America" in which chef Sakai does just that).

5. The best ingredient to learn to cook is eggs. ("It's liquid meat, premeasured, cheap, and even if you mess them up you can eat them. Conquer eggs and the rest of the culinary world follows.")

6. The most important tool in the kitchen is the dinner table. This follows his comments in an earlier interview that, "The most magical thing about food is its ability to connect human beings to one another. That's the real miracle of food." As for the food? "In 12 hours, it's poo." 

7. Wash mushrooms.( "That's not dirt they're grown in; it's horse poop.") 

8. Buy American. ("We have the best farmers, the best fish, the best laws overseeing food. Odds are you can't do worse than that.")

9. Raisins are always optional. (Who can disagree with that, says this writer?)

10. Never eat a shrimp cocktail in an airport. (Enough said. Though that led to a very long song about what happens when food poisoning hits.)

For more on Alton, see my earlier interview with him in the Star Tribune.

Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste

The State Theatre audience. Photo by Alton Brown.

The State Theatre audience. Photo by Alton Brown.


 

Twin Cities' Sara Johannes exits 'Top Chef'

Posted by: Marcus Michalik Updated: December 4, 2013 - 11:28 PM

At some point during the ten seasons of Top Chef, the annual Restaurant Wars episode became an even bigger deal than the finale. The appeal of the challenge is obvious. Not only does the task force our chefs to step out of their comfortable roles at the midway point of the season to complete the seemingly insurmountable task of building a restaurant from the ground up in a day, but it’s also one that’s rife with the type of explosive drama reality show producers crave. Orders need to be placed! Flatware need to be classy! Padma’s cleavage must be acknowledged the second she walks in the door!

You have to assume local chef Sara Johannes wanted more fireworks in her mostly stagnant season of Top Chef, but I can’t imagine she wanted to make the impression she made on tonight’s episode, which unfortunately saw her exit. This was cringe TV at its worst (best?), an hour of television that made me wince on more than one occasion.

Things just didn’t go well for Sara’s team from the start. Based on names alone (Nina, Shirley, Carlos, Justin), the team appeared poised for victory from the beginning, but quickly became derailed over a lack of commitment on their restaurant’s theme. Naming themselves Found, the team’s idea was to center their menu on “Modern America,” an all-encompassing melting pot that would effectively allow each chef to stay within their chosen style of cooking. The other team took a more direct approach with Fin, a seafood restaurant that was unified by both style and flavor profiles. Travis is praised as the best front of the house person in Restaurant Wars history, while Nicholas wins for combining black drum and oxtail. That's hardly the story in this episode, however, but congrats to them both.

I have no idea why Sara decided to be such a martyr in this challenge, but I was practically screaming at my TV when she volunteered to not only take the front of the house position, but to also make a dessert. Restaurant Wars is never an easy challenge. There’s absolutely no need to make it as hard on yourself as possible.

I’ve written before that Sara’s sleepy yet direct approach can come off as slightly condescending, but dealing with Justin (who also volunteered for his role as Found’s executive chef) in a productive way couldn’t have been a walk in the park. Justin showed a petulant side during last episode’s judging panel, and it’s an attitude he’s now made his calling card. From tantrums over Nina buying the wrong plates to his sharp words to Carlos at Whole Foods (apparently they went shopping before solidifying their menu? Why?), Justin was in bad spirits the entire episode, an attitude that surely contributed to the chaos in the kitchen. At one point Sara rightfully points out that they don’t have a big enough coffee maker to serve 120 people and his retort was to say “Can we be positive?” in the least positive way possible.

But Sara’s just as guilty, if not more, for Found’s failures. It’s expected that there will be some backlog in the kitchen and some unwanted waiting time for the VERY IMPORTANT Chase Sapphire Preferred diners, but Found didn’t even seem to have a shell of an ordering system in place. Meals went out in random segments, wrong plates went to the wrong people, and Sara apparently broke a dining taboo by issuing a “verbal fire” for the judge’s appetizers instead of submitting a formal ticket.

The judges were impatient, especially Padma, who was absolutely dismayed by Sara’s very strange choice of not formally introducing or explaining the dishes. She offers no details for three of the dishes, is prompted by Padma to explain one, and then remembers to explain her own, a choice that struck Padma as conceited. Sara was clearly frazzled despite her icy demeanor (and killer blue dress with matching head scarf), but all of this was truly bizarre to behold.

Found had a few good dishes (Shirley’s poached cobia and Nina’s pork tenderloin drew judges’ praise, as usual) but the rest of the restaurant was dragged through the mud. Carlos’ fish wasn’t cut properly, Sara’s nectarine brown butter cake was missing its crucial mascarpone ingredient (the emulsion broke due to the kitchen’s high heat) and Justin revolting-looking rabbit drew an audible laugh from Tom Colicchio.

I didn’t expect Sara to survive this week due to how weird the vibe was at Found, which is why I actually wanted this to be a double elimination. Sara and Justin both let their sides of the restaurant down, while also delivering subpar dishes. Executive chefs often go down with their sinking ships. That wasn’t the case here, but I at least hope Justin’s stock is severely diminished after his display in this week’s challenge. 95% of the viewing public blamed the loss on Sara’s attitude (more of that bossy bitch narrative I can’t for the life of me grasp), but Justin was the one who had a clear lack of faith in his team from the onset and was a bit too eager to blame them for their loss in front of guest judge David Chang.

Unfortunately, Sara wasn’t able to defeat Louis in Bravo.com’s Last Chance Kitchen tonight, which means her Top Chef career is officially over. Sara might have gone home in pretty mortifying fashion, but at least she did it on an episode where she got to show off a Twin Cities area code t-shirt, proudly emblazoned with both “612” and “651.” Minnesota is still proud.

Why isn't anyone rooting for Top Chef's Sara?

Posted by: Marcus Michalik Updated: November 27, 2013 - 11:37 AM
Photo provided by Bravo

Photo provided by Bravo

We’ve officially reached the halfway point of this season’s Top Chef, and while we’ve well established that hometown chef Sara Johannes hasn’t quite risen to the top level of competition yet, an equally pressing concern remains unanswered: Why don’t viewers like her?

That’s not to overblow the amount of ire Sara faces from the online trenches. She’s nowhere near as hated (she’s not even hated, per se) as Top Chef: Texas' resident bully, Heather, nor is she as divisive as John Tesar, the know-it-all jackass from last season who embodied the coke-bloat of the 80s dining scene with every fiber of his being. But Sara definitely isn’t loved, which might have more to do with a systematic problem of the long-running Bravo series’ current season than it does any of her actual actions.

I appreciate that Top Chef producers don’t feel the need to manufacture as much fake drama as any version of The Real Housewives franchise would, but I’d also bet you’d be hard pressed to find any dedicated Top Chef fan who would rank this season as one of their favorites. There are a number of problems: few chefs outside of Nina have broken away from the pack, challenges have been middling at best, and very little kitchen drama outside of a grill fire has been generated. With creepy Michael and pretty boy Jason eliminated after just a few episodes, this has turned into the Top Chef season without a true villain, which might just have made Sara one by default.

But what has Sara really done to deserve the rude online comments and tweets? Her personality troubles seem to have festered in the fourth episode, in which the chefs were asked to work in teams to create Vietnamese dishes. It was in this episode that show editors started threading together their very flimsy “Bossy Sara” narrative, a label that originated when Sara’s barking orders in a supermarket rush apparently ended with a key ingredient being left out of the cart. 

The fact that Sara had her worst showing in an Asian challenge (Shoyu, where Sara is an executive chef, is a modern Japanese restaurant) also lost her viewer support. Following the episode, Television Without Pity commenter Gagic wrote in the site's forums, “Sara was awful as well. So controlling and know-it-all because she works at an Asian restaurant. Then she screws up cooking rice.  Her stupid hair and fake crying can't cover up her lack of basic cooking skills.” Yikes – and that’s before the next commenter accuses her style of Asian food of being like a “fancy Panda Express.”

Since then, Sara has been shown voicing a few strong opinions about food and offering Louis some unwanted advice about how to butcher a pig. Could these moments be read as bossy and rude? Objectively so - but Sara’s sour notes thus far appear to come more from dissatisfaction in her own performance than they do spiteful jealousy or pot-stirring.  I don’t consider a cheftestant a true Top Chef villain until they start claiming winning dishes actually sucked or insisting that they’re more talented than anyone else in the competition, regardless of what the judges have to say. Sara hasn’t done anything of the sor yet, which is why the “Sara as antagonist” narrative just isn’t sticking to the ribs.

Still, without a top three showing since the first episode, a good chunk of the hostility and/or ambivalence around Sara could just be viewer impatience in anticipating her elimination. If Sara wants to gain some fans, the first and easiest step is to impress us with some high-caliber dishes.

Top Chef: New Orleans airs Wednesdays at 9 pm on Bravo.

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