Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Galloping Gourmet still has his old moves, and a few new ones

Renee Studebaker, Renee's Roots

Staff Writer
Austin 360

When I was 12, I fell a little bit in love with the "Galloping Gourmet."

Maybe it was his dreamy British accent. Or his charming, slightly naughty, banter. Or maybe I was just enchanted by the idea of a handsome, witty man who could cook.

At that time (1969), I didn't know that most professional chefs were men. The men I knew - in particular the ones I was related to - might cook an occasional steak or a fried egg. But not Rabbit Cacciatore. And certainly not Pineapple Eleuthera. And no way would they have even thought about serving wine, much less the right wine. And then there was that chair leaping thing: While holding a full glass of wine in one hand, the dandily dressed Graham Kerr would dash onto the television set, leap over a chair, and land, laughing, right in front of his live studio audience. Outrageous? Sure, but I was entranced, right along with about 200 million other viewers.

I wanted to tune in every day because I was afraid I might miss something. Like the day Kerr showed up wearing a suit of armor. Or the time he leapt onto the set wearing boxer shorts and a pair of swim flippers. It was as clear as clarified butter that Kerr and his producer (wife Treena Kerr) were onto something new. The charming and chirpy Julia Child already had taught PBS viewers to expect televised culinary demonstrations to be served up with plenty of personality and wit. But Kerr came along and raised the "cooking as entertainment" bar.

In addition to his costumed antics, Kerr told stories of exotic meals he'd sampled in far away places and then demonstrated how to incorporate those unique flavors into gourmet dishes that could be made at home. Near the end of each episode, he would select an audience member (often an attractive young woman) to join him at his table for a sip of wine and a taste of that day's culinary creation. This was food entertainment served with a dash of hedonism, a pinch of creative genius, a side of saucy innuendos, and a whole lot of fun. Oh, and a whole lot of cream, too.

Fast forward to last week. I'm doing a phone interview with Kerr. Now 77, he's just as charming as ever, and he's still quite handsome. And thank goodness he hasn't lost his dreamy accent.

Yes, he has indeed circled the world 28 times. And, yes, he has appeared in 1,800 cooking shows and sold 14 million cookbooks. And, yes, counting his new book ("Growing at the Speed of Life: A Year in the Life of My First Kitchen Garden," Perigee Press, $27), he has written 29 books. But, he said, what he most wants to emphasize right now is how much he and his wife of 55 years, Treena, are enjoying the slow-paced, community-nurturing world of kitchen gardening.

In the past decade or so, he consciously stepped away from competitive culinary pursuits so he could spend more time with his family and his neighbors in the small Washington community where he and his wife have built a modest home. He has learned, he says, that just like the kitchen garden he now tends and writes about in his new book, his children, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren need consistent and caring attention.

Following are a few tidbits from my interview with Graham. And yes, he said it was OK if I called him Graham. And, no, I didn't mind one bit when he called me Renee. (Sigh)

American-Statesman: Although you and Julia Child have very different styles of cooking, I understand that both of you were `discovered' while demonstrating the art of omelette making. In 1962 Child's demonstration of how to make an omelet on a Boston PBS station's book review program caught the attention of a producer and led to her first cooking show. And a couple of years earlier, in 1960, while you were working as a caterer in the New Zealand Air Force, you were ordered by your superiors to cook an omelet on television. Would you please elaborate?

Graham Kerr: I had never heard that about Julia, but I'm thrilled to hear that. And I can give you complete assurance about my side. It was … the first week of television in (New Zealand). There was only one television station in Auckland, and that station only aired 2 hours a day. I certainly didn't want to go on. I had been doing radio programs about food. What happened was this: The physical training instructor was asked to go on and do some exercises. But then he sprained his ankle. So I was ordered to go on in his place, and I said no. But they said you can't say no because you're a serving member of the Air Force. So I went on and I made an omelet on a little silver flambe lamp with my little copper pan and the whole bit. And it was written up as the best live show to date. But there were only 15 television sets in the whole country.

Quite a lot has been made of the frequent wine sipping and slurping on `The Galloping Gourmet.' Were you really getting a buzz during those shows?

The only time I have ever been under the influence of alcohol, which I think is the way to describe it, was when I had three brandies in a row when our first daughter was born. I actually went out with a policemen - who got in touch with me on Facebook not too long ago and said, "Do you remember me? We went out together after our kids were born." But on the program, (drinking) was a tool by which I went to commercial breaks for the BBC. But here they didn't have any commercial breaks, so I would say "it's time for a short slurp," pick the glass up, and then they (the BBC) would cut on that. And then I would put the glass down quite firmly and then they would cut back at that point. So it was a seamless edit. I would actually take a sip, but I don't think I would have had any more than a half a glass of wine for three programs, which were done back to back. And when you think about all I had to remember for one evening - at least 80-90 ingredients, which I always mentioned, and all the sequences, and stories and movements that I had to do, and you cannot do that under the influence of alcohol. And frankly, people thought I was about two parts gone, which is what they also thought about Dean Martin, who used to drink iced tea on his shows.

You and Treena (barely) survived a car accident in the early '70s, which put an end to `The Galloping Gourmet.' By the mid-'80s, after Treena had a heart attack and a stroke, you were back on television with a mission to create recipes that minimized health risks while maximizing flavor. Your new book, `Growing at the Speed of Life' is reminiscent of your earlier `minimax' cookbooks, but with an added focus on homegrown vegetables. What did growing your first vegetable garden teach you?

Until I grew it myself I don't think I really understood how to cook a vegetable. I know how to sauté and steam and boil, and braise and do everything like that. But when you're cooking something that you have grown, and you have just pulled it out of the garden and brought it into the kitchen, something magical happens. … (Having a garden) strips the celebrity right out of you. Gardeners are humbled by a common exposure to climate, and bugs and everything else. (Bugs) are not going to avoid a celebrity's garden.

The eat local/eat fresh movement has been criticized by some food pundits for being elitist. They say it's leaving out lower-income folks who can't afford the higher prices. How do you think all this is going to play out?

I know that it costs $4,000 to get a 16-wheeler from Bakersfield Calif., to the Seattle area. That's the cost of the transport that brings vegetables to us from the San Joaquin Valley - out of season and in season. When we get to $5 a gallon gasoline, which should be sometime around 2015, that's going to double. So if a vegetable costs $1.50 - let's say lettuce - that lettuce is going to cost $3. When it cost $3 for lettuce, the local lettuce is going to become competitive. The local farm is going to become a real source of supply.

rstudebaker@statesman.com; 445-3945

The Kerrs lived in Kerrville for a while in the 90s while Treena was recovering from heart surgery. The couple considered buying land here, but settled instead on the Pacific Northwest - where the summers are not so hot. During their stay Kerr was inspired to create a heart-healthy new dish with Tex-Mex flavors.

Southwest Swiss Chard and Bean Soup

1 bunch (about 7 oz.) Swiss chard

1 tsp. olive oil

11/2 cups chopped onion

2 garlic cloves, bashed and chopped

1 Tbsp. chili powder, or to taste

1 tsp. ground cumin

3 cups vegetable stock (see note)

1 15-oz can pinto beans, rinsed and drained, or use fresh shelled beans, or dry beans, soaked and cooked

1 medium tomato, peeled and diced

1/4 tsp. salt, or to taste

Nonfat Greek yogurt, (or make your own drained nonfat yogurt) and a few sprigs of cilantro for garnish and extra flavor

Wash the chard and remove the stems. Cut the stems into 1/2 inch pieces. Stack the leaves and cut across into 1/2-inch strips; then cut them in the other direction to keep the length to 2 inches. Heat oil in a high-sided skillet or large saucepan over medium-high. Sauté onion 4 or 5 minutes until it starts to soften. Add the garlic, chard stems, chili powder, and cumin, and cook 1 minute more. Pour in the stock, add cooked beans and tomato, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes or until the chard stems and beans are tender. Season with salt. Add chard leaves to heat through. Top each bowl with dollop of yogurt and fresh cilantro. Serves 4.

- Adapted from `Growing at the Speed of Life,' by Graham Kerr, Perigee Book, $27

Notes: Kerr's vegetable stock recipe makes a great soup base. It's easy, fast and freezes well. Find the recipe, plus three additional recipes of Kerr's at statesman.com/go/reneesroots .