If there's one thing you'll always find in Gustavo Romero's refrigerator, it's eggs; the Nixta chef will eat breakfast any time of day. But you won't get to see that for yourself.
"Relish," a web series from Twin Cities Public Television, originally invited viewers into the home kitchens of local chefs as they prepared dishes from their cultures. That scenario would be too COVID-unfriendly these days. So as producers and co-creators Amy Melin and Brittany Shrimpton were preparing for the show's third season, which drops its first episode Feb. 18, they had to find another way to highlight the vast diversity in Minnesota cuisine from roomier, albeit less personal, spaces.
Cooking shows are one more ecosystem that has had to adapt in the wake of the coronavirus. Hosts can't lean in close to chefs to talk about, smell or taste what is happening in front of them. Camera operators can't follow the action up close, and have to leave tight shots to zoom lenses. Masks go on between takes, and small indoor spaces are off-limits.
Following TPT's guidance for shoots, which limits the number of staff on set, Melin and Shrimpton have to do most of the work themselves. They set up lights and operate the cameras, while also giving direction to host Yia Vang and the guest. But that's how the scrappy show started, and "it has been an easy transition," Shrimpton said.
Instead of getting a glimpse of Romero's home kitchen, his episode will show him grinding colorful corn kernels into masa for tamales on a counter at Kitchen Window cooking school in Minneapolis. Other episodes were filmed in a kitchen studio at the Lynhall.
Home kitchens are "more personal and intimate, and because we were also hoping to feature nonprofessional chefs, it leveled the playing field," Melin said about the show's original premise. "Usually commercial kitchens are kind of impersonal. But now they are our best friends."
Despite having to forgo the homey vibes of the earlier shoots, the team behind "Relish" is making the most of its new reality.
At a recent filming session, a table held a couple of boxes of fruit snacks and granola bars, and "about seven gallons of hand sanitizer," Shrimpton boasted.
As host, Vang, of Union Hmong Kitchen, kept a strict 6-foot distance from Romero while he asked questions about the ingredients and the process of nixtamalization. But as Romero described corn's significance in Mexican cuisine and culture, Vang instinctively crept closer to the chef. It was up to Shrimpton to try to telepathically nudge Vang over to his right without ruining the shot. She made a hand signal and he got the message without interrupting the take.
Filming the show in commercial kitchens was an adjustment for Vang, who felt right at home peeking into other chefs' fridges and pantries.
"I loved it because it was away from the hustle and bustle of a restaurant, you know? We're just two cooks who are passionate about food who get to talk to each other," he said.
The way Vang occupied physical space was an integral part of his interviewing style, too.
"Pre-COVID, we were shoulder to shoulder, understanding and seeing. There's just something about it when it comes to cooking, that intimacy of being close," he said.
But conversations that dig deep into family history and heritage can happen anywhere, from any distance. Filming a recent episode with Myriel chef Karyn Tomlinson, whom Vang considers a friend, he said, "I know her so well that if you were in her home kitchen or here, we still have a rapport."
Another way to personalize the shoots: The producers ask the chefs to do a show-and-tell of items of significance.
"So many of our stories have a cultural element to them, so sometimes there are just other knickknacks or flavors of the home that illustrate that," Shrimpton said.
For Romero, that special item was his tabletop ½-horsepower grinder that transforms colorful kernels of corn into masa.
"The little grinder has been with me forever," Romero said. "Without it, I would never be able to do what we do." Now, at his takeout-only restaurant Nixta in northeast Minneapolis, he uses a much larger machine. He hopes to put the original one on display for future customers to see.
For another episode, PinKU chef John Sugimura brought in a platter that had belonged to his grandmother. A Japanese restaurant owner, she had lost the platter when she was sent to a U.S. internment camp during World War II. The platter survived the war and she got it back. It made its way to the Japanese American National Museum, an official Smithsonian affiliate, and Sugimura borrowed it for the shoot.
Stories like those are the essence of "Relish," no matter where the episodes take place, Shrimpton said.
"We're still learning these beautiful stories and lovely memories," she said. "People choose recipes or things that are near and dear to their heart, and family comes into that. For this time when we don't get to be with family, still hearing these stories is really heartwarming to me. We might not be able to be together in person, but we can still re-create these memories."
Season 3 starts Feb. 18 with guest Karyn Tomlinson. Future episodes feature the following chefs:
John Sugimura (Feb. 25), Nettie Colón (March 4), Jorge Guzmán (March 11), Gerard Klass (March 18), Masooda Sherzad (March 25), Jyotiee Kistner (April 1), Gustavo Romero (April 8), Beth Dooley (April 15), Heather Jansz (April 22).
Sharyn Jackson • @SharynJackson