F&W talks to Joanne Weir, host of PBS’s Joanne Weir’s Cooking Class.
What was your first big break on TV? How were you discovered?
"I was doing a ton of national stuff and lots of television when my first book [From Tapas to Meze, 1994] came out. I put all of the clips from that together on one tape, and a friend who worked at KQED-TV San Francisco heard about the tape and said she’d love to look at it. Once she saw it, I immediately heard back from three producers. I had already been offered a Food Network show, but I had always loved Jacques and Julia because they were amazing teachers. They were my heroes. I’d watched them since the time I was very young, especially Julia, so I really wanted to go in the [public television] direction and not the Food Network direction. I talked with the three producers at KQED, and I felt so lucky to get that station interested in a series."
What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air, and why?
"We did this Tuscan pork, a dish that I learned in Florence, Italy, where you take a tenderloin of pork and put on fennel pollen, rosemary and sage—the same herbs and spices in porchetta—and roll it in olive oil and sauces, stuff it into a hollowed baguette and tie it up. You want to put this on the top shelf of the oven so that it gets crispy on the outside. You don’t want the bread to steam. I use an instant-read thermometer to get to 150 or 155 degrees and let the pork get nice and juicy inside. My new show, Joanne Weir’s Cooking Class, has students on with me, so I am really teaching, and you can judge how successful a dish is."
Are the students surprised by how easy or difficult it is to make certain dishes?
"I had a fireman on the show, and he was so excited to do a risotto. If you can make a basic risotto then you can make 1,000 risottos. One tip I learned in Italy, outside of Verona, was the five-minute trick for risotto: You get it just beyond the al dente stage and add a ladleful of broth or butter or flavoring. Then take it off of the heat and let it sit for five minutes. It renders the creamiest, most amazing risotto. I also remind students that risotto doesn’t wait for you, you wait for it.
"Making pappardelle with brown butter when your students have only worked with pasta in a box was a real experience. People’s eyes bug out when they’re rolling fresh pasta. I talked about what to look for in terms of texture when you’re making the dough. We first went over the basics of rolling. But if you don’t want to do homemade pasta, you can still make this using store-bought; it’s so good with the brown butter and Parmesan cheese and a little lemon zest.
"To watch people make their own soufflé when they think it’s the most difficult thing in whole world is incredible. There’s lots of technique there. I teach my students to whisk it by hand in a copper bowl versus just with an electric mixer, because the volume and texture are so different. For a soufflé you also want the bowl to be clean, because the egg whites won’t work in the presence of fat. For roasted-corn soufflé, you take the corn off the cob and then scrape the cob, and you puree the corn with the scrapings from the cob and combine it with béchamel. Instead of baking it in a soufflé dish, I bake it on an ovenproof platter so that it rises up and only takes 10 minutes. Making a recipe on a show is so different from just making one from a cookbook, because you can actually see the process rather than just read it. You see what is happening."
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"I think it’s important to see the ’how’ part; I want to show viewers how to chop an onion and mince garlic and whisk an egg white. I think that instills confidence and teaches the basics. I think I also show how to make doable, easy recipes, and they’re recipes that people oooh and aahh over when they come out of the oven. Having this show in my home kitchen is unique, too. It’s the shortest commute I’ve ever had, but my whole house was taken over by 30 people on the production team. I had to move everything out of my home except for the kitchen and living and dining rooms, but was nice to be able to open a drawer and know what to find there. Every single recipe has a story behind it, and that’s what students relate to and what gets their attention. First the story, then they listen to technique."
What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"I’ve been lucky; I haven’t had any real disasters, but once on the wine-country show, someone bought out-of-season calamari that was one foot long. At that size it’s no longer squid; it’s some other creature. I was trying to act like it was okay, but really it was not okay. They edited it out. It was horrible. It was gigantic. Another time, on Weir Cooking in the City, the producer thought it would be fabulous for me to have a blind date on the show. I said, ’I hope he’s not a vegetarian,’ because I was making veal. Then I was grinding pepper, and the pepper grinder broke, and pepper went all over the food. I just looked at the camera and said, ’I hope he likes pepper.’"