Acting With Food

02.10.10

photo courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times/John J. Kim

Watching food TV for the last few years has made me a little insecure about my performance in the kitchen. Sitting on the couch, watching television chefs crafting impossibly well-lit soft-focused steamy come-hither plates, I was sure I’d become soft and that I could never measure up with my own culinary chops.

It was true, I couldn’t. Like Photoshopped glamor magazine cover girls and lip-syncing ingenues, the solo santoku-wielding culinary warrior who spits out three-course, five-minute meals on your flat-panel television screen is partly a digital mythology.

Ming Tsai, chef-owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., just was in town to shoot segments for the new fall season of his PBS cooking show “Simply Ming” (it debuts in October on WTTW-Channel 11) with local top toques Rick Bayless, Gale Gand and Shawn McClain. I attended the McClain taping to see the behind-the-scenes action.

Food TV isn’t quite like sausage. It’s fascinating to see it made. What’s particularly interesting about Tsai’s show is that it’s made with quite a bit of integrity.

A 10-year veteran of food television and a former personality of the burgeoning Food Network, Tsai made his move to PBS because it allowed him more control over the end product.

“Back in the day, we [at Food Network] were all really boring. Emeril was horrible. Bobby [Flay], Sara [Moulton], we all admit this, we jumped on Emeril’s train,” Tsai says. “When ‘Emeril Live’ took off, it brought us to the next level. We could do whatever we wanted. I was making foie gras shumai, roasting whole duck and whole fish. But then, it [Food Network] became such a big business all based on Nielsen ratings and all on advertisers. Some of those advertisers don’t want to see the head of a duck or foie gras because of PETA activists. You started getting boxed in.

“There’s like two chefs left. No one cooks. It is opening cans of this or that … and it’s ‘yummy’ that. Look, that’s fine, their Nielsen ratings are high as hell, and that’s what middle America kind of wants. But that’s not for me. I loved the exposure Food Network gave me and I got to ride it, but I’m still more of a purist. I want to teach food. I’m not gonna lie. Food TV is still entertainment, but I’m teaching something.”

On the “Simply Ming” set, there are no food stylists; segments are shot naturally, and Tsai’s overall mission is to demystify Asian ingredients while truly teaching people how to cook.

The home cook doesn’t have an army of assistants and camera crew. On his Boston area set, Tsai says he has four cameras and 25 people working on the show. Even with the stripped-down crew in Chicago, Tsai has a coterie of folks, including someone who helps him into the pink-striped Brioni dress shirt that he wears on camera.

Tsai takes his first shot at an introduction to the segment by walking a sidewalk path in between black-eyed Susans and swaying prairie grasses in front of McClain’s house. Though he already has a presidential-level charisma, Tsai finds another level, a “Spinal Tap”-like “11” when he’s in front of the camera. He eats the lens up with energy, though he stumbles a bit, dubbing McClain’s restaurant Green Zebra solely “Zebra” in a couple of takes. Assistant producer Deb Hurley jokes, “We’re gonna start calling your restaurant ‘Ginger.’ ” After a few takes, Tsai nails it.

Waiting inside, McClain has conscripted himself into the mix by nervously polishing the granite counter in the kitchen before the first cooking shots. He jokes with Tsai’s executive studio chef, Annie DiGregorio, and her assistant, Kelsey Clark, who are both in the middle of chopping avocado cubes for McClain and Tsai’s demo recipe of steamed mussels, that he wants “a perfect cube dice” and that he’s “going to break out the ruler to check.”

The redheaded DiGregorio, who wears lime-green low-top Chuck Taylors, is the production’s secret weapon. She’s responsible for procuring ingredients for the shoot, creating the prep and camera ready mis-en-place, and hauling a huge white Coleman cooler that’s big enough to hold “four fish tubs” to and from the airport when they shoot on location. Without DiGregorio and Clark, the five-minute segment would likely take the average home cook at least a half hour just to prep.

Director Laurie Donnelly and Hurley sit confidently behind the camera and vigilantly patrol the first of many shots of ingredients being dumped into a cooking pot. There are so many closeups of his hand that I joke that McClain’s ready for a new career as a hand model. Donnelly nixes a cube of avocado sporting a brown spot that she spies on a monitor, and spends minutes directing proper focus on flakes of sea salt in the effort to “make things beautiful.”

Once the mussels are steamed, during a break in shooting, McClain sifts through the pot pulling out dead ones that didn’t open, so he and Tsai can save the time of pulling them out on camera. McClain acknowledges on camera that people should be sure to remove any shells that don’t open.

Much like in porn, or in this case, food porn, there’s a money shot, or as Donnelly calls it, the “beauty shot.” After Tsai and McClain finish the segment, the cameraman gets ready to pan across the final dish and take super closeups. To capture the steamy essence of the preparation, DiGregorio dumps the broth back into a pot on a stove and reheats it until it simmers. Then she pours it back in to the finished bowl for the camera.

Finally, McClain and Tsai shift to the dining table, where they toast each other and dig in to the eats. Throughout multiple takes, their beer glasses with which they make a final toast on camera, are refilled to ensure a constant foamy photogenic head.

As the shoot ends, I feel a bit better about my own cooking chops. I realize I do pretty well considering I don’t have a team of sous chefs or eagle-eyed directors to ensure picture-perfect platings.

But then Tsai invites me over to try McClain’s mussels. I take one slurp of the Thai chili-spiced soulful rich beer and parsley-infused dashi broth. There’s no mythology here, just transcendent well-seasoned cooking. My insecurity starts all over.

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.

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