Back in the day, celebrity chefs started and ended with Julia Child and her messy but amusing style. But thanks to the advent of cable television in general and the Food Network in particular, the faces of a new breed of hot-shot chefs are becoming familiar.
Joining the ranks of Emeril Lagasse, Ming Tsai and those poker-faced Iron Chefs are a couple of young guns–Tyler Florence and Bob Blumer.
Florence, the star of the Food Network’s “Food 911,” travels across the country solving viewers’ cooking problems. Don’t know why your marmalade is so runny? Want to learn how to prepare tuna so your toddler will eat it? Not sure what’s up with sushi? Florence will tell you in a manner that’s easy to follow.
Then there’s Blumer, who parlayed his wacky, now-defunct “Surreal Gourmet” TV series into a popular book career. He has written The Surreal Gourmet: Real Food for Pretend Chefs (Chronicle Books, $14.95) and The Surreal Gourmet Entertains: High-Fun, Low-Stress Dinner Parties for 6-12 (Chronicle Books, $16.95). In his latest book, Off the Eaten Path (Ballantine, $20), the effervescent cook offers recipes for salmon with dill sauce–cooked in a dishwasher.
Both men were in Chicago recently and we caught up with them to find out what’s cooking.
Name: Tyler Florence.
Rank: Star of the Food Network’s “Food 911.”
Why are you in Chicago?: Florence was in the Chicago area taping a couple of episodes of “Food 911.” One segment dealt with a query from Denise Gobillot, who runs a small day care center from her home in Hawthorn Woods. She wanted to know how to serve tuna so that her young charges would actually eat their lunches. “It’s always a challenge to get kids to each healthy foods,” Florence says. “So I went through my catalog of what kids might like, like tuna casserole. And I came up with a tuna burger, because kids will eat anything that’s crunchy. “But kids don’t really like fish, so I wanted to step away from the canned tuna fish, which has a strong fish oil taste. Instead, I got some fresh tuna to work with and flavored it with pickle relish, green onions, a little lemon juice, eggs and bread crumbs to hold it all together.” By adding some cheese slices with smiley faces cut into them and some homemade French fries, he came up with a winning meal. After taking a few cautious bites, cousins Samantha and Nicole Miller–both 3 years old–said, “Mmmmmm.’ ‘Starting from scratch makes the flavors so much nicer,” Florence says. “Kids appreciate that, too.”
The 411 on “Food 911”: Florence got the offer to star in “Food 911” in November, but viewers of the cable cooking channel already were familiar with Florence’s movie star looks. Since 1996, he has made more than 40 guest appearances on such shows as “Ready, Set, Cook!,” “Chef du Jour” and “Gordon Elliott’s Door Knock Dinners.” “It took about two years of appearances before I didn’t sweat like a pig when I was on camera,” Florence says. “Now I feel very comfortable, and I don’t have time to be nervous. I’m too busy making sure that my guests are comfortable. People get intimidated by cooking shows because they don’t think they can duplicate what we do. We’re not magicians. We’ve just had a little more practice in the kitchen. But my show is really easy to follow. People aren’t intimidated by what I do. We won’t cover too much in a half hour show. Sometimes I watch [competitors' shows] and I’m thinking, `Where are you supposed to get these ingredients?’ They’re speaking in such a complicated manner that it’s like watching something from a foreign country that you just don’t understand. It’s sort of a turn-off at that point and loses its appeal to people who really want to learn. Cooking isn’t always about making fois gras truffles. It’s about making the perfect lasagna or the perfect apple pie. I love being able to help viewers figure out why they tried a recipe and it failed.”
As a kid, I ate … : “… hardly nothing. No, I ate. But I had severe food allergies. At 14 months old, I was taken to an allergist to have scratch tests done. Out of 75 things that a child could be allergic to, I was allergic to 42 of them. So my diet as a child was very limited. I was allergic to chicken, dairy, everything. It was horrible. My parents would tell horror stories about how difficult it was to feed me. I eventually grew out of every food allergy I had and began developing a palate. My tongue sort of woke up one day. Around 12, I perfected my first omelet. I liked cooking with my parents, who are both great cooks. And I really enjoyed sitting down at a table and sharing family time with them.”
On catch phrases: “There’s no, `Bam!’ for me. Emeril is as smooth as they come, but I try not to be too catchphrase-y.”
Extracurricular activities: His Food Network duties don’t allow Florence to cook at restaurants anymore. And it seems likely that Hollywood will be courting the handsome Florence for something more than cooking shows. The chef says he’s not ruling out anything at this point. For now, a cookbook is in the works for a November 2001 release date.
When I’m at home, I eat …: “… out. I was only home [in Brooklyn] about two days and I ordered out sushi both those days. I’m lucky because my [4-year-old] son is an adventurous eater. He had California rolls the other day and really liked them.”
Age: Bob Blumer.
Age: 38. He insists he lives in a state of arrested development.
Rank: Author of Off the Eaten Path (Ballentine, $20)
Why I like cooking: “I’ve never smoked, but a lot of smokers say that they do it because it gives them something to do,” Blumer says. “Same with cooking for me. If I’m in an uncomfortable situation like a first date, then I’ve got something to do with my hands while I’m talking. It just makes me more comfortable.”
People relate to me because …: “I’m self-taught. I don’t know any cooking terminology or culinary language that will intimidate people. So if I can do it, you can do it. Literally. My technique is all based on the pairing of flavors. People tell me all the time that they tried a bunch of my recipes and that they all worked the way they were supposed to. That’s because I create them in a very layman way. That’s the only language I know.”
I’m not a chef!: “I think of myself as a culinary adventurist. The truth is, my recipes are real simple. But the process of making them is sometimes a little different.” Like cooking fish in a dishwasher? “Yes, like that. I think that my trademarks are the more surreal stuff.”
Weirdo: Yes, using an iron to make a grilled cheese sandwich sounds a little odd. But Blumer doesn’t use unusual appliances just for the sake of being weird. Well, yes. Actually, he does. But he points out that when you put fish into the dishwasher to prepare as a meal, you don’t have to worry about much else in terms of entertainment value.
Cooking as a competitive sport: As a kid, Blumer dabbled a bit in the kitchen with his mom–but nothing serious. It wasn’t until he got to college that he began making meals. “Someone had to cook and someone had to clean,” he remembers. “I chose cooking. My recipes are about preparing food for Friday night dinners with friends and sharing some really great moments with them. I think of this as a competitive sport. When guests come over, you want them to talk about how delicious the meal was. When you put a salmon in the dishwasher, it’s surprisingly functional. But it also kicks off the evening on a good note. It gives people something to talk about. From the first time that I made it, it worked!” Still, he notes, “There’s a fine line between doing fun and playful and having people think you’re a novelty act. You don’t want to go that far.” In other words, keep the dryer out of the kitchen.
State-of-the-art cooking gear: Proving that you don’t have to have a lot of appliances to make a good meal, Blumer’s kitchen is microwave-free. He has a 1950s-era stove with a door that doesn’t close properly. The burners aren’t fully functional, either. No wonder he likes to make grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron.
My feelings about what’s-her-face: “Not to name names, but I think Martha Stewart has done a big service and disservice. She got a lot of people interested in cooking and entertaining. But people watch her and think that you have to spend half a day making fancy place settings and napkin ring holders. To me, it’s all about the spirit of the evening. I’ve never had any money. I spent years having no money. But you can serve meals on mismatched plates, using airplane cutlery, and still create a really fun environment. I think people tend to rely on everything else as a crutch for not being able to cook a meal for a dinner party. But all you need is some simple food and nice company. It’s as basic as that.”