How did you get started on TV?
I did a show a long, long time ago called Cooking Mexican. It was a studio show as opposed to on-location like the one I do now. Before my first show, I was a cooking instructor and I did a whole lot of classes for home cooks about Mexican food. It was more than just procedure; I wove in history, ingredients, culture, plant life. So even in those classes I was already packing that sort of thing in; it’s more interesting than sweating the onion in the pan. I was teaching around the Detroit-Ann Arbor area and the people at the public TV station there were looking to do a Mexican cooking show aimed at migrant workers; something that would bridge the gap between the Mexican food they knew and their new country. The station put an ad in the newspaper and my friend saw it and told me I should talk to them. They realized I was their guy.
What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on air?
One of my favorites is chilaquiles. It’s corn tortilla chips in a simple, brothy tomato sauce with a little chile for heat. It’s wonderfully homey. It has irresistible crispy bits and I love to eat it. And you can play around with it-add chicken, sliced red onions or all these different things that can easily dress it up. That’s what I really look for when cooking a dish on TV. I like that I can say, "Look how much liquid is in the pot. Add enough chips so it looks like this." It’s so much better than exact measurements. For the audience, a lot of it is about those fabulous visuals. Anything that will make the mouth water. A lot of people don’t like to eat on camera, but I eat on camera all the time. I’m standing in for the viewer. I’ll buy something from a street stall and the camera will show me putting some salsa on the taco and then do a close-up of me eating it. It should make people hungry.
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
I don’t know if there’s any other show out there that is as steeped in culture and history as we are. Most people don’t do it because it’s very hard to weave in. Alton Brown does a great job explaining the science of food. We replace the science with culture and history. Despite of the fact that we do a niche cuisine, people really love the show because they learn something. People get to see a different side of food than they usually do. I’m taking them off the beaten path to places they will probably never go. Also, it’s one of the only shows that’s shot with only one camera, so it can be edited really easily. Plus, it feels more like a dance with the viewer that way. I have to do an awful lot of rehearsal, so the camera knows where I’ll be, but shooting with one camera adds a lovely rhythm. It makes it feel like the camera is the viewer, like the viewer is there with me. I try to make it very realistic.
What was the worst experience you had on TV? Any Disasters?
Once I was spinning some lettuce and it threw all the salad in my face. Ha!
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of cooking on TV?
The hardest thing for me is when you have something that looks beautiful. I’ve learned that when you’re grilling, it really pays to make sure the grates are superhot. I’ve had things stick or they don’t get even marks. There’s always a moment when I’m grilling and I’m afraid it won’t work. The secret is to preheat the grill for a long time. I also never use a chrome grill grate unless I’m grilling something really fatty that I know won’t stick. Fish is the hardest. It has a tendency to stick. Especially something like red snapper. You don’t want to grill red snapper on air. I did it once and we ended up having to fudge the end shot. I think the payoff for the viewer for sticking with you through the entire show is that last visual. They can’t taste it so it’s not a flavor payoff; it really has to be visual, so we try to have a great close-up at the end. On my show, if there’s no close-up at the end, you know something went wrong.
Another big challenge was the time I cooked a whole pig in a fire pit. I had all kinds of contingency plans in case it didn’t work, but luckily, when we unearthed it, it was beautiful. We did it in the Yucatán style, where it’s wrapped in banana leaves and buried in this fire pit. The pit has to be 900 degrees when you put it in and the pig cooks for about six hours.
What were your contingency plans?
I knew it would probably be done enough that we could show certain parts of the pig, but we also planned an extra 2 1/2 hours between the time we took the pig out of the pit to when we’d have to finish the shoot, so we could finish cooking it in the oven if need be. It was very complex to shoot. In this particular show, it started with me and my daughter in Mexico with a fellow who does this for a living. We say, "Wouldn’t it be fabulous to do this in our back yard?" Then we dug a three-foot deep pit, lined it with bricks, marinated this pig and cooked it. It was so fun but really stressful.