Monday, August 16, 2010

The Unreality of Reality TV Cooking

It looks a lot harder, takes a lot longer, and is a lot more expensive to make cooking look easy and real on television than it does is in my own recipe testing kitchen. I thought teaching and cooking for cooking classes was tough enough, something a friend once aptly described as similar to scratching your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. But, as decorated chef (formerly of Charleston Grill) Bob Waggoner recently demonstrated at a (mostly) live taping of his soon-to-air television series, U Cook! with Chef Bob, this is a wholly different kind of cooking beast.

The studio is housed in a huge old warehouse off Highway 162, deep in the bowels of Lowcountry country, which was cringing under the oppressive weight of the brutal August heat last week when I was invited to attend as a guest. Wine was being poured at 10 a.m. as a group of about 40 people waited in the holding tank prior to the show. I ambled off to find water instead, and it was then that I came upon the prep staff in the rear off of what I would soon learn was the studio. It was the portable version of a restaurant prep staff. There was Bob, working alongside his sous chef Jason Houser, peeling carrots and turning turnips. It was hot and the pressure was on, not unlike a real kitchen, I thought, but definitely not as convenient. For one things, the tables were very low. Both Bob and Jason, being tall men, had to hunch over and bend low to reach their cutting boards. In fact, they were prepping not just for Bob's show, but for the lucky audience members who would be offered a taste, gratis, near the end of the taping.

Soon, we were merrily guided to our round, petite tables, which were decorated with fine linens, cutlery, glasses and plates. More wine arrived and the taping began. Due to an "equipment malfunction," Bob was forced to repeat his agreeable opening comments three times. Heat was building fast as the fans were turned off in advance of the taping, and the cooking. A make-up girl with a plumber-like tool kit wrapped around her waist, enters, as if on cue, and powders the chef's face. Neither the 86'd fans or the make-up would ever make it into a real kitchen, let me tell you!

Still, Bob's a natural and his humor was on high as he walked and talked his guests and his audience through the steps of making an emulsified, cold grapefruit and avocado soup, which was absolutely impeccable. A mystery, never-to-be-identified malfunction of another sort took place, not shortly after this. It led to approximately a 2 hour long, wine-induced haze of a wait for the audience, while Bob patiently chatted with his producers and guests.

But the show, as they say in the biz, must go on, and ultimately, it did. Bob worked with his assistant to create squab seared in butter and served with a bacon, shallot, thyme and Bordeaux sauce. Though patient and kind, it was clear that his well-practiced boning skills were aching to come out to cut-away the breast from the rib-cage of the baby pigeon as his young assistant labored over the task. He showed her how to tip and then toss the beautiful baby vegetables that were eventually served with the squab and how to pluck thyme from its stem. Quickly, a stage-hand took the seared squab from the (fake) stage oven, and ran it off to the prep area where it would finish in a real oven.

Another pregnant wait as our still unfed (save some cookies and crackers that were generously provided) and mildly sodden bellies rumbled into the early afternoon, and the squab returned, all pink and pretty and ready to be plated. The assistant did the plating as Bob looked on, expertly tasting and finishing all the seasoning. Next, Bob was seated with his assistant and her friend as they finally dig in and eat what they've prepared.

Then, we all ate. Here's the most unreal part of it all. Despite all of the unnatural contortions for a natural, professional real- life chef, the food was amazing. The squab, tender, meaty and gamy, dressed with a generous mild sauce and al dente vegetable gems, was perfect, and served at just the right temperature. And, none of it had to be, not for television. It just HAD to look good. But, Bob and his staff, despite all the distractions, made it happen. Bet the food doesn't taste this good on Rachel Ray's set!

Bob's show is currently scheduled to start airing on Public Television affiliate stations across the country this November. For more information, visit

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Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site ( , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"

Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.