Interview with TV Chef Joey Altman
What was your first big break on TV? How were you discovered?
"Bay Cafe was the real break. I started out doing appearances on the local morning-news show, and one appearance led to another, and they started having me as a regular contributor. I did a Halloween special where I was making ghoulish-looking appetizers and entrées. One of them was a bucket of worms with maggots—actually a hollowed-out turnip poached in soy and ginger, filled with greens and ahi tuna shaped into night crawlers, with sushi-rice ’maggots’ and wasabi-sesame oil ’slime.’ Another was called ’stake through the steak’—a steak topped with sun-dried-tomato butter with a steak knife driven through it. After that the executive producer, who was working on creating new shows, invited me to audition for Bay Cafe. I auditioned and interviewed for it with a bunch of different people, and then out of the blue, they said, ’We’re just gonna let you do the show.’"
What are some tips you’ve learned from doing your show?
"Getting lobster meat out of the legs. Chef Jasper White, from Boston, was on the show doing lobster bisque, and he showed me how to remove the meat from the tiny little legs. Normally in restaurants the legs would just get thrown in the stock, or the chefs would chew on them. He lined them up on a cutting board, took a rolling pin and rolled over them, and out of the ends, like little tubes of toothpaste, came these perfect little delicate, delicious lobster legs. Pure meat. We used those as garnish for a lobster gnocchi dish instead of throwing them away.
"Also cutting corn off the cob. Most people stand it up on an end and cut straight down with the knife, but when you do that, the kernels tend to fly off the cutting board. In restaurants, prep cooks take a large metal bowl and put a small metal bowl upside down inside it. Then they put the corncob on top of the small bowl, on a towel so you’re not cutting onto metal, and they shave it and the corn flies off the cob and collects in the big bowl. This is the setup that I had for 20 years. It works fine; it’s a little cumbersome, but you manage. And then one day on Bay Cafe, a chef was making corn chowder and said, ’OK, we’re going to cut the corn off the cob,’ and he just laid the corn flat on the cutting board and dragged his knife across, and it just sat there. I was staring at this going, I’m the biggest idiot on the planet. Why have I had this ridiculous setup for 20 years when I could have just simply laid the corn down like this? It was just so neat and easy, one of those things that was just too simple to be thought of. I remember going back to the restaurant totally jazzed to show the prep cooks this new, improved way of removing corn from the cob."
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"You never know what you’re going to get on my show. There’s always going to be good cooking, but you never know where I’m going to be. For the last four years, we’ve been out of the studio going to people’s homes, restaurants, wineries—wherever food is being made. Sometimes I’ll be doing some adventure thing, or playing guitar and making margaritas and Mexican food with Sammy Hagar. Or skiing at Squaw Valley with chefs and then making an incredible venison dish. When chefs are on, it’s not just two minutes, thank you very much for coming, buh-bye. They interact and get to really spend time with the audience, so people get to know them. It’s not the same format every time, it’s something different, but it’s always the Bay Area. So when people watch the show, they feel like, Wow, this is really cool to know that this is in my backyard."
What was the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"The worst was when my producer was being featured on the show Hard Copy for a piece about stress in the workplace. The show was about what it’s like to be a television producer, when you’re in the booth and you’re calling the shots and your guests are showing up late. So the Hard Copy people were with her in the booth while I was doing a show about making macaroni and cheese. We weren’t allowed to have open flames in the studio, so we had an electric black-glass cook top with an infrared burner underneath. I had a pot of boiling water that the noodles were in, and I had a pot next to it where I was making the cheese sauce. I dumped the noodles into a big glass bowl that was sitting on the cook top. Then I poured the sauce into it, and somehow, the bowl moved on top of the part that was really hot. Well, the bowl exploded, and glass and pasta and cheese sauce literally went flying. I jumped back a good five feet but got covered with muck—all on camera. Then we had to clean it all up and do it all over again. But that was all the pasta we had! So we had to rinse the cooked pasta and put it back into the pot, with the glass and everything else that was in it, and take different shots of it, not just close-ups. You could hear glass scraping around as I was stirring it! And they wound up using a clip of me in slow motion, as the bowl was exploding and I was jumping back with my face all contorted, on national television."