Holy Culinary Triumverate

chef-paul-farmers-market-02It was so oppressively hot this past weekend that I escaped from the outdoors to ‘do research’–that is, watch more television cooking shows than I can remember with little more than a cool drink by my side.

As I watched, I tried to fathom whether viewers would actually make what I saw if they didn’t precisely have all the (very expensive, extraneous) equipment at hand. And, who actually make duck confit at home these days?

As an admired group, celebrity chefs exert an extraordinary influence over a large sector of the food universe that is quite disproportionate to their relatively small numbers. They forge alliances with local farmers, who supply them with superior ingredients. The chefs become betrothed to the food media, who in return adore them and provide them with favorable press coverage and shower them with awards.

This powerful triumvirate—chef, farmer, and the media—influences the opinions and purchasing decisions of millions of consumers.

Perhaps there should be a new food job: TV food media critic.

So You Want to Be A TV Chef

Chef David Robinson

Executive Chef David Robinson

Chef David is a close friend and colleague. He has a cooking school in upstate New York State for wounded vets. In addition he stars on TV and has created the incredibly fabulous Learn How to Cook video series.

I asked him to give some advice about cooking on TV. He replies: “Pay your dues in smaller local markets before attempting to leap to a national screen. There are tremendous opportunities in local television, on sites like YouTube, embedding video for your own blog and web site, to promote your cookbook or restaurant.”

Here are a few pragmatic things I’ve learned while producing and appearing in cooking segments for broadcast and video:

1.    Get used to seeing your face and hearing your voice on TV. If you are uncomfortable with your own appearance, or the sound of your own voice, get over it.

2.    Start collecting original recipes that would be suitable for video. Test and practice them. TV consumes content voraciously. Be prepared for opportunities by having your recipes ready in written form.

3.    Teach cooking classes using your recipes at a local cooking school, kitchen store, club, or church. Note: if/when the class gets bored.  Listen closely to the questions your students ask.  These will help you to update and revise your recipes before you use them for video.

4.    Get free or low-cost production: have a family member run a video camera, take advantage of cable access channels, call local TV stations, contact a TV/film school.  Film students want to learn to shoot food, because it is so lucrative in the commercial market.

5.    In the local broadcast markets, get used to producing your own segments, including recipe selection, food and ingredient preparation, setup, food styling, wardrobe and makeup.

6.    Be flexible. Every video or TV situation is unique, from the cameras to the directors.  Sometimes you will have a complete kitchen set, sometimes you’ll have to bring a table and a hotplate.

7.    Choose recipes you can accomplish easily within 3 to 4 ½ minutes. Be ready to move ahead with all steps of a recipe. Have change-outs prepared for the next phase of the recipe in case you run low on time.  (You typically have to prepare a recipe 3 to 6 times to represent the different stages of cooking and a final reveal of the finished dish.) Leave time to taste the dish. There’s something wildly unsatisfying about demonstrating a recipe that doesn’t culminate in tasting it.

8.    Get someone who knows about TV makeup to teach you how to apply your own, or hire a makeup person for a few hours to help you design your makeup. Guys, get help buying natural-looking makeup and practice putting it on.

9.    If you wear glasses, get anti-glare coating on your lenses to prevent the lights from reflecting off your glasses.

10.   Don’t wear pinstripes, or thinly striped woven fabrics. They create an effect on camera called “moiré” – it’s when the pattern jumps around on camera like it’s vibrating.

11.   When you are booked for a TV appearance or taping, be there early.  Producers are nervous types and want to be confident you will show up prepared and do not cancel, leaving them stranded.

12.   Keep the patter going as you cook. For instance, if you’re chopping, keep talking. Be ready to share brief anecdotes and details about the recipe.

13.   Use clear vessels for your ingredients when possible.  Learn to pour your ingredients away from you, toward the camera.  Keep the set/work area organized and simple; don’t over-decorate.

14.  Take charge of your segment. Know your recipe cold. Finish the recipe in logical steps.Don’t let the anchorperson or guests run away with your time.  Keep one eye on completing the recipe, one eye on your host/guests, and one eye on the clock. I realize that’s 3 eyes!

15.  Be yourself. People can spot a phony a mile away. Create a TV persona based on you, perhaps not your exact personality, but a heightened sense of the best of you.  Speak with clarity and assurance.  Be kind, warm and enjoy yourself.  This is show biz.

16.  Learn everything you can about production. Be a sponge. Talk to the camera and lighting folks, watch other talent work in front of a camera, and sit in the editing room.  Always try to get copies of your appearances – record them yourself to be certain you have copies.

17.  Bring muffins or cookies for the crew; they can help you or hurt you. Bribe them. Today’s camera person is tomorrow’s director.

18. If you’re nervous, fake it. It gets easier. It’s okay to stink at first.

Executive Chef David James Robinson is the creator and host of Learn How to Cook (and eat your mistakes)!, a comprehensive 10-DVD and streaming video series for the home cook with over 100 recipes and techniques.  Chef David has also made over 50 live appearances cooking on NBC/Albany.  He is owner and executive chef of Bezalel Gables Fine Catering & Events in the Hudson Valley of New York.


Speaking on Martha Stewart Radio

You should see the Martha Stewart Sirius radio studio!

Dazzling architecture with a silver steel staircase in the center, wide enough for two Ben Hur chariots — gleaming, brilliantly lit surfaces and masses of slim, gorgeous, 25 year-olds dashing about hither and yon, carrying big smiles and clipboards.

At age 77, I fit right in!

Wonderful interview with Martha Stewart’s host, Dede Wilson who was amazingly well prepared.

I had a great time talking about food trends, food jobs and Martha’s first book — Entertaining. I went to the press party when it was first published and I still have a first edition in my library.

I’m so happy I was invited.

Ask Irena

I’m back!

I’ve been devoting every minute to writing MORE FOOD JOBS: A Compendium of Careers and Commentaries. This completely new book will be published by Beaufort next spring.

And I’ve been thinking and thinking about WHAT’S NEXT?

I love being a mentor.

What is a mentor?

The role of mentor involves a serious commitment to listening… and hearing… and understanding the words that are spoken are not necessarily a reflection of what a seeker is seeking.

A mentor draws on past experience and up to date information to make connections between present practical realities and future ambitions and goals.

The mentor can smooth a path by making suggestions about a career path that may not have been previously considered or even known to exist.

The dean for medical education at The University of Chicago explains, “Memes”, (mentors) are the cultural analogues to genes, serving as a basis for explaining the spread of idea, values, and beliefs from one generation to the next. In serving as a mentor, one has the privilege of sharing knowledge, expertise, insight and experience in a similar fashion, which can ultimately affect generations far beyond the most immediate recipient.”


A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.”

Bob Proctor
Author, Speaker and Success Coach

Lots of people limit their possibilities by giving up easily. Never tell yourself this is too much for me. It’s no use. I can’t go on. If you do you’re licked, and by your own thinking too. Keep believing and keep on keeping on.”

Norman Vincent Peale
1898-1993, Pastor, Speaker and Author

The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches
but to reveal to him his own.

Benjamin Disraeli

Ask me a question about your culinary career.


But Fear Itself

The facts in any food safety story are far less important than beliefs.  Alfred Hitchcock was a master of scary scenes. He knew a shadow was far more frightening than a well-lit villain. Many consumers subscribe to the theory it is better to be safe than sorry. Generally speaking this is a concept embraced by extreme old age — a state some folk reach before their 15th birthday.  Even so, it is important to research the facts before arriving at a firm conclusion.

Science writers (should) deal with statistics, risk assessment and replicable clinical trials.

Some in the media are in the business of selling “stories.” Storytelling is enhanced with the use of words like danger, contamination, disease, poison and death. The media encourages distrust of authority, and fans the flames of suspicion using pursed lips and pointed fingers.

Note:Every year many hundreds of people are injured by squirrels…to avoid squirrels (and dear deer), drivers crash their car into a tree or oncoming traffic.)

Science writing is a noble profession. To get started you have to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out!





Food TV

The TV Food Network was launched on November 23, 1993 at a splashy press party at The Rainbow Room in Manhattan. When Reese Schonfield, then the TVFN  president, called for HUSH, the gathering of food media hushed as he  rolled out his vision for a bold new concept: a 24/7 food channel!  What a fabulous idea.

Reese Schonfeld was a very big shot back then. He was managing editor of United Press Movietone News, Vice President of United Press International Television News. He founded the Independent Television News Association, the first satellite-delivered television news service. With his pal Ted Turner, he created CNN and served as its first President. Today more people watch the TVFN than CNN!

Today close to 100 million households can tune in to the Food Network.  There are stations in Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit and Knoxville.  There are viewers in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Monaco, Polynesia and Great Britain.

What is turning this huge audience on to all these American Culinary Idols? It’s Big Boy Mario Batali, the Nasty Bits of Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen, the Southern Belle who could dare serve grits with grape jelly and red-eye gravy. And Sandra Dee as she concocts a store-bought package of lady fingers, a plastic container of vanilla pudding, a whisper of artificial rum flavoring, a jar of jam and a squirt of whipped topping and declares it “mostly homemade.”

And the Barefoot Contessa who cooks for her well-heeled pals.  And the perpetually smiling Giada (with her revealing cleavage alluring generations of boy culinary students). And the lovely Lydia and La Bella Nigella and sweet Sara M. and  perkily determined EVOO’d Rachael   — American Eye Dolls almost all.

The food network is shamelessly derivative.  Science channels are morphing into the food channel. So are the travel programs and adventures in survival. Competition is hot. Quick.  Who can make the best ice cream while marooned on a blazing tropical island where there are no utensils and ingredients, (don’t even think of using the palm  oil).  You have just 30 minutes before the scheduled arrival of 2,602 Carnival Cruise line passengers.  The winner is…pause…pause…wild applause for the Instantly Iced Sandy Snapping Turtle Smoothie.

Who’ll take the cake for transporting turrets of spun-sugar from here to there without dropping it?  Who will be the judge of the judged?  Who will deliver forth the next incandescent banality?

Paddy Chayevsky, who wrote about the television as mass madness wouldn’t have believed just how completely mad the medium has become. We have traveled light miles from the simplicity of the Pillsbury bake-off. We remember our beloved Julia who inspired three generations to just go into the kitchen and cook.  How we yearn for Jacques and the Galloping Gourmet, (but not the frugal one.)

The genie is out of tube and we are spending way too much time searching for the next Aladdin with a new lamp to rub.We don’t want to watch anything remotely serious or educational. Just bring on the new game, the new competition. The new STAR.

If the job of celebrity TV chef appeals to you, first take media training, then try to get a start at a small television station, then study giraffes so you will be able to stand head and shoulders above all others.  Bam!