What was your first big break on TV?
My big break was a phone call from a production company out of Nashville, Tennessee asking me to be a guest on butcher Merle Ellis’s show. At the time, the Food Network was trying to get as much programming as they could; the only problem was that they didn’t have a studio. They were that young and that virgin to the whole scene. So Reese Schoenfeld [creator of the Food Network] was contracting out content to this Nashville production company run by Alan Read. Read saw the segment with Merle and asked me to shoot what could be considered a pilot. They gave me this sort of dummy script. They just wanted to see how I was on-air. So I reviewed the chicken-fried steak at this country restaurant in Nashville, then I ended up getting up and making chicken-fried steak for the audience, and that was the shoot. I went home and went back to my restaurant-chef duties, which were quite hectic. Read passed the tape to Schoenfeld and all of a sudden I got this call: ’There’s this 24-hour network that’s going to start, and it’s all about food and wine and traveling and shopping. We’re wondering if you’d want to do a show for us because we think you’re great on TV.’ I said, ’Thank you but I don’t really know if I can, if my schedule will allow it. I’m working the line 11 shifts a week, so let me think about it.’"
What made you decide to do the show?
"I went and talked to a couple of my key people, who are still with me. We decided it would be great exposure, and the way I looked at it, it would be kind of like going back to school. The show they were asking me for was called How to Boil Water. I had complications because of my restaurant schedule, so I would close the restaurant at 2 or 3 in the morning on Saturday night and take the first plane to Nashville on Sunday morning. I’d get off the plane and shoot five shows on Sunday afternoon into the early evening, and then I would shoot eight more shows on Monday and eight more shows on Tuesday, and then I would come back and be in the restaurant Tuesday night for service—which was insane. My philosophy was that if I could turn one person on each day, particularly the young audience, to being a little more interested in food or wine or shopping, or in eating in a restaurant, then I would continue. Because that’s why I was doing it—to elevate the profession."
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs? What draws your audience to you in particular?
"I’m one of very few who still writes his own material. Everything that’s done we produce here at home base. So I’m a co-executive producer. There’s hardly a script: I don’t have people talking in my ear saying ’hurry up’ or ’something’s burning.’ There’s none of that. I go out and do about an eight-second monologue, and then only God knows where I’m going. I play a little with the audience, I feed off the audience. I love my team. I play off of the moment—could be the weather, could be what’s happening in today’s world. I have to be careful about dating it, because I have to be evergreen. We’re probably close to reaching 2,000 shows, which is more than Julia Child and Jacques Pépin together. Everything that we do is totally hands-on: creating it, marketing it, testing, retesting. I have about a year left on my contract, so that’s going to be the big time question. I think the network is getting ready to go through a major crossroads."
What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air, and why?
"The e-mail and Internet response we get is overwhelming. One that stands out is when I made goat cheese and tried to explain rennet. I’d gone to Reese Schoenfeld’s office and said, ’Hey, would you mind if I bring a goat to the studio tomorrow?’ And he was like, ’Are you out of your mind? You can’t bring a goat on the elevator to the 33rd floor in New York City!’ Making a simple stock [is always popular], or making a quality breakfast sausage at home without a casing, just simple patties. I always say to keep the shells of shrimp or shellfish and just put them in a plastic bag and put them in the freezer. When you have enough of them-like almost a gallon-bagful-you can make a simple shellfish stock in 20 or 30 minutes that can be used in a lot of things, like soups and sauces. Then you freeze it in ice-cube trays, so you can just pop out what you want in smaller batches. I would suggest a shrimp and corn soup to make with it. It’s yummy and pretty simple."
What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"The kitchen staff is so disciplined, there’s really nothing disastrous that gets to the camera. If anything is going to go wrong, it’ll go wrong in the pretesting. For example, tomorrow’s show is being prepped today, so we’re going to know if something’s wrong and we can correct it. Everything is tested here in New Orleans by my staff before we even go to the Food Network."