F&W talks to Al Roker, host of the Food Network’s Roker on the Road, weatherman and co-host of NBC’s Today.
What was your first big break on TV as a food personality?
"I did a special for the Food Network on the Memphis in May BBQ Fest, and that led to another special, and another, and then to Roker on the Road, which is like Charles Kuralt meets the Food Network. [Kuralt was a CBS correspondent who traveled around the U.S. finding unusual stories about regular people.] It’s the network’s first show that is really from a layman’s point of view. The show is really me meeting and talking to people; some are professional chefs, some are authors, some are just really good home cooks with lovely stories."
What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air, and why?
"This is kind of hard because Roker on the Road really isn’t about recipes, per se. It’s more about the stories behind the food. But I’ve had a lot of success doing recipes from my cookbook on the Today show. There are two recipes in particular that people still e-mail me about: One is my chili; people don’t think to make chili in the summer, but I’ve made it to put on top of hot dogs. I actually find that it’s better the second day because it marinates and the flavors meld more. The other is this holiday recipe my mom makes called sweet-potato poon, a crustless sweet-potato pie with marshmallows. My mom burns it every year. Out of six kids, one always has the job of distracting Mom. Every year, right after she puts the dish with the marshmallows under the broiler to brown, someone says, ’Say Mom, where are the serving platters?’ and the marshmallows end up catching fire and she laughs and gets ticked off. The great thing about it is it could be a side, it could be dessert, it could be anything really. That’s the secret-both recipes are versatile. Both of them you can make beforehand. What people love about these is that they are so simple, and they’re both versions of comfort food that people like. You can’t go wrong with relatively simple comfort food. It’s also about ease. Some cook to impress. I cook for people to enjoy the food."
What do you look for in a recipe?
"For me, whether it’s in a book or on TV, a recipe has to be simple. I have a short attention span, so to open a cookbook and see a recipe that goes on for three to four pages, well, I’ve lost interest. Most of mine fit on one page, one-and-a-half, tops. Both the chili and the sweet-potato poon don’t take that long. The recipes don’t have a lot of ingredients, and they don’t require fancy techniques, just basic cooking skills. This keeps them fun and accessible. If it’s a chore, then it’s boring. The only complicated recipe in my repertoire is Daniel Boulud’s short ribs-that’s an all-day affair."
What’s your favorite episode?
"The most popular Roker on the Road show was one we did on diners, and they just rerun it all the time because Americans have a love affair with diners, and they’re so very retro now. People also love that barbecue special we did where we fielded a team called Roker’s Smokers."
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs/food personalities?
"I don’t consider myself a food person. I’m no Bobby Flay. I’m no Emeril or Paula Deen, and I’m certainly not Rachael Ray. I really don’t do a ’cooking show,’ per se. With the exception of me and Emeril, most people in the world of food TV are pretty good-looking. Well, Batali is pretty shaky-looking too. But Giada, come on. Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray-these are good-looking people. I’m a normal guy. I’m not a chef. I don’t own a restaurant, so I really speak to and for the viewer. They can see themselves as a bald, chubby, black man cooking. Just kidding! But they see that I’m like them in many ways."
What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"On the Today show we do the ’swap out,’ where we prepare a recipe, then open the oven and put it in and suddenly take out the finished product because of time constraints. It was a Tuesday, and no one had used the oven since the weekend-there was a chicken dish still in the oven from the Saturday show, and no one saw it! So on Tuesday, I’m on the air and doing my thing, and I go to reach in the oven and do the swap out, but they had forgotten to put the new swap out in. We’d been rushed, and they forgot to put the finished product in the oven. So I stick my hand in, and what I pull out is this rancid-looking piece of meat that had sat there all weekend. I was like, ’Whoa.’ This was live TV, and everyone just broke up laughing. We almost couldn’t finish the show."