What was your first big break on TV? How were you discovered?
"I worked in Hollywood restaurants in the ’80s, and a woman I worked with and I used to always say how great it would be to have an irreverent cooking show where we could do silly skits but still have the show grounded in sound cooking. She went on to work for Turner Broadcasting, and she called me and said, ’Remember that show we used to talk about? Well, we can’t do it exactly, but...’ I sat down in my kitchen and designed the set. For the first few shows, I used all of my own cookware. The first year we didn’t have much of a budget, so they told me, ’You can do this, but it has to be with all of your own stuff.’ At first I wasn’t going to do much on camera, and I said, ’Let’s get comedians who will be fun for viewers to watch -people who aren’t trained chefs, who will have to figure stuff out.’ But then I’d get frustrated watching them hold the knife the wrong way, and I’d run out on the set and say, ’Wait a minute!’ So I started being on the air more."
What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air, and why?
"The simplicity factor is always important, because many people, if they see more than a few ingredients, they just go right to the next recipe. I always give general tips first. Like, always give yourself an extra hour, because it’s like building a house: You will always be over-budget and over-schedule, and that extra hour gives you more time to have fun. What’s Under Your Skirt Steak was a dish we did for Tootsie. It worked well and was also fairly simple. We rolled the skirt steak with pecans and some Gorgonzola cheese and put skewers through it and made them into pinwheels. It sounds like it would take time, but really it just takes 30 seconds. I grilled them on a cast-iron skillet and put them on top of a potato pancake. If the skirt steak is too thick to roll easily, place it between sheets of plastic wrap and flatten with a meat pounder. For extra flavor, try toasting the pecans. These also work nicely in miniature as an appetizer; use smaller pieces of steak and fresh rosemary sprigs for skewers.
"Another good one we recently did for the movie Drumline-based on the college in Atlanta with the most famous drumline-was Blazing Drumsticks, which are drumsticks ’on fire’ with a jerk marinade. When you have jerk chicken in Jamaica it’s always smoky, because they cook it over a wood fire. Most recipes you just put it in the oven, but for this one I used a Dutch oven with wood chips and smoked it for 10 minutes, then finished it up in the oven.
"For Dracula, we showed the Mel Brooks version and did Nosferatuna Melts, a tuna melt using poached ahi with many cloves of garlic and poached it in a really strong garlic broth. We put it on a slab of sourdough and covered it with feta. Then we took a blowtorch to it, so that the cheese was a bit crisp. When choosing fresh tuna, look for filets that are firm and shiny. They should be pink or reddish in color, with no browning or ’rainbow’ effect. Although this recipe calls for oven-broiling, a kitchen blowtorch works better—the tuna remains rare while the cheese browns."
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"With Dinner & a Movie we take the food seriously, but not ourselves. During those earlier shows, we hoped viewers watched the movie and walked away with one fact or one technique to help them have more fun in the kitchen. I hope that people realize cooking isn’t a chore. It’s not something to get out of the way, but instead something that can really be enjoyed and that people can actually do together. On the show, we’re not faking it. We’re cooking together, having fun, cracking jokes. A lot of non-cooking people watch this show, so we try to make it fun."
What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"One of the first shows we did a takeoff of a Clint Eastwood film, In the Line of Fire. He was a Secret Service agent who failed to protect President Kennedy from being shot. So we thought up Grassy Knoll House Cookie Soufflé. In the movie, he kept having flashbacks of how he failed, so I wanted to have flashbacks of my first soufflé. We had black and white footage of the soufflé falling and people running. We did a mini-film about two minutes long. I was so naive—I had this idea that we’d shoot it in two or three hours, and it took 12 hours. Everyone was so mad at me.
"On another show, I didn’t know that Paul[my co-host] was kind of sick with the stomach flu. The movie we were showing was Conspiracy Theory. Normally I’m predisposed to go into my kitchen and cook whatever I like, but this show has let me try things I’d never think of doing at home. So I thought, ’Why don’t we make It’s All in Your Headcheese, since the movie is supposed to be all in the character’s head. I was really using a whole pig’s head, but I didn’t show Paul beforehand because I like to get people’s first reactions on the set. Well, he opens the cauldron on the set, and the pig face is staring at him on-air, and he runs offstage and vomits. That’s not always the best thing on a cooking show, to have the host vomit."