Six months after she left the groundbreaking show, the beloved cookbook author and journalist reflects on her time behind the microphone.
Before food podcasts became a dime a dozen and before Heritage Radio Network existed, before Food Network turned chefs into celebrities and cooking competitions into a national pastime, there was The Splendid Table. It was “the show for people who love to eat," and it was unlike anything that had come before it.
First broadcast in 1995 on Minnesota Public Radio as a live call-in show, The Splendid Table poured across the country on Saturday mornings, and eventually developed audiences on 400 public radio stations. Food media has exploded in every direction since the show first aired, and there's no doubt it played a critical role in opening up the conversation and putting food on a national stage.
“With radio, we could engage the imagination in a way no TV show can,” says the show's legendary host, the one and only Lynne Rossetto Kasper.
We are meeting for lunch at Birchwood Café in Minneapolis, Kasper's home for the last 30 some years. A lush, gold shawl draped over her shoulder, glowing with wintery sunshine, she embodies “la bella figura,” a figure of grace and ease. It’s been six months since her last radio show was broadcast from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. The two-hour program of memories, tributes, and songs was hosted by Lynne’s successor, Francis Lam.
The Voice and the Woman Behind It
For 22 years I’ve listened to Lynne’s voice – silky, joyous, and captivating. The Splendid Table radio show changed the way I think about food from something you cook to something we share. And that voice comes from a woman who is as wise, witty and generous as she sounds.
Lynne looks rested, ivory skin burnished, hazel eyes twinkling; I compliment her thick dark blonde hair. “My grandmother would put warm olive oil on my head, then wrap it in a towel and shampoo it in the morning,” she tells me. “So, I went to school smelling like a tossed salad,” she adds with a gusty laugh—the one that has captivated and comforted millions of listeners over the years.
Endlessly curious, Lynne has an encyclopedic knowledge of food, and infects others with her inquisitive spirit. It's no wonder that her show survived the swell of food media that developed around it, from podcasts to TV to websites. Searching for an answer on Google for the best ways to use various types of onions could never hold a candle to hearing Lynne's voice on the other end of the line during her signature call-in segment. Before she ever launched the show, after all, Lynne was a seasoned cook, writer and teacher.
Her book, The Splendid Table, published in 1992, was the first to win both the James Beard and Julia Child Best Cookbook Awards (1993). This year, it was recognized by IACP as a Culinary Classic Cookbook. The Splendid Table radio show has two James Beard Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, a Gracie Allen Award for Best Syndicated Talk Show (2000), and five Women in Communication Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2014). Lynne is in the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America.
As she orders her lemongrass chicken stew, other diners recognize the voice and approach our table. Lynne holds court, listening, asking questions, ever the host. But, today, she’s the guest being interviewed. I turn the tables and ask, “How did the kid from Paramus, NJ, become a culinary star?”
“None of this— the book, the show, the awards —would have happened without Frank,” she says, referring to her husband who passed away in 2015. On their wedding day in 1970, Lynne Rossetto and Frank Kasper filled their Brooklyn apartment with 40 friends, buckets of daisies, and a lavish buffet of salads and slow roasted chicken, prepared by Lynne.
Looking back on Splendid’s prequel, Lynne says, “I didn’t follow a straight path. She started out in theater as a student at the Circle in the Square School and co-founder of The Brooklyn Company, an improvisational street theater for kids. At the same time, her love of cooking drew her into New York’s exploding food scene, where she "studied with Chinatown’s chefs and home cooks, master bakers at the City College in Brooklyn, neighborhood butchers, anyone who could teach [her] something new.” Word of her skills got around.
She was recruited by A & S department store to create a food program, the first in the country not overtly tied to store sales, where her demos drew lunchtime crowds that included Jacques Pépin, James Beard, and Craig Claiborne. Julia Child joined her on stage for her first public cooking appearance and they quickly became friends.
“One afternoon, I wanted to try a new pie crust recipe,” Lynne recalls. “But it was so loaded with butter it dissolved and set the oven on fire. As I was tossing in flour to snuff out the flame, I heard a man ask, ‘Does this happen often?’ and I answered, ‘It’s no fun unless I do this at least once a day.’ Then I realized it was the fire marshal. He laughed and said, ‘You’ve done something foolish, but handled it brilliantly.’ Those have been words I live by.”
After moving to Denver for her husband's work, she founded the region’s largest cooking school in 19978—Lynne Kasper’s Lid and Ladle— where she attracted a roster of celebrity guest chefs and national press. “When Julia and Paul Child came to town, we’d drive around in Frank’s white convertible, with red leather seats, top down,” she recalls with a smile. The 20-week foundations series included classes in charcuterie. “Thanks to my days with Brooklyn butchers, I can take apart a lamb or a pig,” she says.
Lynne, the acclaimed cooking teacher, was ever a diligent student. When at Marcella Hazan’s Villa della Torre with classmate James Beard, she fell in love with the country’s food culture. “I remember a tiny trattoria on the banks of the Adriatic with no sign out front, no written menu, serving whatever the family decided to cook. After a meal of tiny fried baby octopus we ate with our fingers like popcorn, the wild artichokes, handmade ravioli, the scent of rosemary, I knew had to come back.”
Moving once again, she landed in Brussels, which brought her closer to her ancestral home, Emilia-Romagna, where she took an assignment for Cuisine Magazine in 1981. “All Italians admire this region for its Parmigiano Reggiano; the aged balsamico; the Parma ham, and hand-rolled egg pasta,” she says. “There’s so much respect for tradition and craft. Even in the Fini pasta factory, there are no machines, women roll pasta by hand so thin you can read newsprint through the sheets.” Fluent in Italian, thanks to her grandmother, Lynne traveled to places that had never been covered. At the annual spring frog festival on the banks of the Po River, she was invited to a 10-course frog-tasting dinner. “I balked when we got to the soup, it had a flipper sticking over the edge of the bowl, but I couldn’t refuse, that would have been rude.”
When she published The Splendid Table in 1992, Julia Child declared it “a seminal book.” Whenever Lynne was in Boston, the two friends gathered in Julia’s kitchen. “She’d say, ‘Come for a little libation,’ which meant sipping gin and gossiping well past midnight. She was so lovely and warm.” Such friendships have defined Lynne’s career.
Enter Sally Swift, a radio producer who proposed the radio show to Lynne just after the book’s publication. “Sally had cooked her way through Splendid Table, and as we talked, I recognized a woman who saw food the way I do,” Lynne says. Swift recognized the potential for a show not about cooking, but about, as the tagline famously says, "life's appetites."
“Sally and I are like sisters, finishing each other’s sentences," Lynne says. "With Jen Russell and Jennifer Luebke, we created a terrific collaborative team. The support of Minnesota Public Radio was the key to our success,” she adds.
As she said in a segment celebrating the show's 20th anniversary, "I think that's one of the great things about public media. Ideas get a chance to launch." The conversation around food was nowhere near what it has become today, but the trust and backing of the station allowed the show time to gain traction, and the voices across the scene to multiply.
The show covered America’s culinary awaking, addressing key issues such as organic and local food early on. Regular contributors like Jane and Michael Stern, wine expert Joshua Wesson, and cheesemonger Steve Jenkins were joined by anthropologists, scientists, psychologists, and authors of breakout books – Michael Moss of Salt Sugar Fat, Michael Pollan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Barry Estabrook, of Tomatoland, to name a few. Lynne never stopped asking questions, and never stopped answering them, either.
“I had a front seat at the food revolution,” she says.
The Splendid Sequel
Now with Francis at the helm, new voices include Melissa Clark of the New York Times and chefs like Amanda Cohen, while topics range from oyster farming to feeding astronauts. “The bones of the show remain,” Francis says. “There is no such thing as pleasure in a vacuum, we respect the power of food and look at it from all angles. What has changed is how people listen to the show. Podcasts, long-form journalism, differ from a radio show that’s organized in segments. The podcast allows me to build a narrative; the radio show strings together a necklace of topics so that if you miss the top of the show, you can still listen to the next piece.”
Of course, stepping out of the sound booth was a hard move for Lynne. “So much of my life, my identity was tied to the show and the book,” she says. “It can be holy hell, but I decided to work on this transition just as hard as I’ve worked on building my career. The decision was precipitated by Frank’s illness and in an odd way made it simpler. I knew I had to cut back on my hours and I knew that the time we had left together was going to be very, very sweet.” Given her energy and resilience, Lynne is just as busy as ever.
Last Saturday, she gathered friends for a lecture by Swedish glass artist Ingegerd Raman, followed by lunch. She’ll spend a morning simmering chicken soup for a friend recovering from chemo. She volunteers for a healthy meal program for the chronically ill and their caregivers; she advocates for farm-to-school lunches; she speaks at farmers’ market events, and attends political rallies. “The dysfunction in Congress shows up on our plates. There is so much work yet to do!” she says.
Her latest project, a newly renovated kitchen, will host the next meeting of her “gourmet group” (a decorator, architect, theater director, insurance agent, artist.) “For years, I’d meet new people and think to myself, boy I’d love to spend more time with them, but I have a deadline for work.” Lucky are we, who live within lunching distance, that now she can.