Cooking with the stars

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
April 21, 2004

Lisa Loeb and Dweezil Zappa aren’t the first two names to pop up when you’re think of potential hosts for a cooking show. The photogenic real-life couple have both had some success in the music world, but neither is a professionally trained chef.

That’s OK, says the Food Network, which has been making an aggressive effort to include programming that’s as entertaining as it is instructional. Operating under the credo that you don’t necessarily have to have a degree in culinary arts to be able to show people how to saute and flambe, the Food Network has added the rocking duo to its stable of Emeril, Bobby Flay, Iron Chefs and the rest.

“We still have very high-end French chefs in our programming,” says Kathleen Finch, Food Network’s vice president of prime time programming. “But we also have a lot of shows where the cooks aren’t intimidating and don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are–people who love cooking, despite where they learned to do their cooking.

“Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay have spent years in culinary school, but they’re not the only ones who can cook. The bottom line is we would never put anyone on our air who was not very good at what they did.”

As for Zappa and Loeb, who knew they even watched the Food Network, much less cooked for themselves? Finch certainly was pleasantly surprised when the camera- friendly couple approached the media company to do a segment on one of their other shows.

“They came in and said they really love to cook and fantasized about having their own cooking show,” Finch says. “They’re self-proclaimed major foodies. They ideally wanted to do a show that gave them the opportunity to learn new [culinary] skills. They were thinking it would be a one-off show, but it it turned into a series.”

On “Dweezil & Lisa,” the couple travel the country visiting renowned chefs and learning to make awesome meals from the experts. Loeb is an accomplished baker and Zappa can whip up a mean Italian meal, but neither pretends to know more than they actually do. Though they come up with the occasional recipe here and there (the lasagna made in cupcake tins was one of their ideas), they more often than not rely on the experts to show them what’s what.

Though the newest non-chefs to get their own show, Zappa and Loeb certainly aren’t the only ones. Perky Rachael Ray (“30 Minute Meals,” $40 a Day”), another Food Network star, never went to cooking school. She learned to cook watching her parents run their restaurants. She also worked as a food buyer for a gourmet grocery store.

“I don’t pretend to be something I’m not,” Ray says. “I’m like beer out of the bottle compared to those [trained chefs], but I’m good at what I do.” Laughing, she adds, “And sometimes, don’t you just want a beer more than a fancy wine?”

Sun-Times syndicated columnist Nigella Lawson (“Nigella Bites” on E! Entertainment) got her start 17 years ago not in the kitchen but in journalism, writing a food column for British Vogue. Self taught in cooking, she says, “I will never be a great chef. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the best way to fillet a fish. But ask any chef what they love eating the most and they’ll tell you home cooking. That’s what I do.”

You’d think that professional chefs would get their aprons in a bunch, watching the untrained encroach on their territory. But Gale Gand has a different theory.

“I sort of feel like it’s the other way around,” says Gand, the executive pastry chef at Chicago’s Tru. She’s also the hostess of “Sweet Dreams” on Food Network. “There are all these guys with media training and I’m wondering if they feel that we chefs are taking up their airwaves.

“I feel lucky to be coexisting with any cook–trained or not–in any medium. I’m very lucky–I can’t do much, but I can cook. That doesn’t always make for good TV, but I’m lucky it sort of works for me.”

She also points out some newbies have the advantage of not having to unlearn what they already know.

“Cooking on TV isn’t the same way I cook in the restaurant,” she says, laughing. “I have to hold bowls still enough so the camera can get a close up and show what I’m doing. I have to lean food a certain way so it’s presented well. And I have to clue the cameraman as to what I’m going to do next, but in a conversational way that doesn’t seem forced. I’m guessing that kind of stuff comes a lot more naturally to someone like Dweezil Zappa who pretty much grew up in the media and is very aware of where the camera is.”

Adds John Bubala, co-owner and chef at Chicago’s Thyme, “As long as they’re cooking in a way that makes sense for the American people, who cares whether they’re trained or not. We live in a society of two-income families where there isn’t a wife or grandmother to make home cooked meals. Anyone who can make cooking easy and appealing to viewers is OK by me.”

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