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Review: The Chew

So ABC earned the ire of soap fans this summer when they announced they were canceling All My Children after 4.5 million years on the air.  During that time the show had entertained people with nearly a dozen original plot lines.  But the era of the soap opera died almost a decade ago with the advent of reality TV.  To breath new life into their daytime line-up ABC invented The Chew.

The name is a sardonic jab at fellow ABC talk show The View which features five largely untalented and bitter people with a collective IQ of 23.  The Chew also features five cast members but with highly successful careers and a love of life co-hosting a food-centric talk show.

Here’s ABC’s official take:

Daily dish on cooking and eating, featuring hosts Mario Batlai, Carla Hall, Clinton Kelly, Daphne Oz and Michael Symon, who explore food from various angels.

the chewIt’s hard to judge a show of this nature from just one airing but I’ll take a stab at it.  It was quite enjoyable, especially Carla Hall.  Most people know Batali and Symon from their work on the Food Network and Kelly from his hit show What Not To Wear but Carla and Daphne Oz may not be quite as famous.

Carla is country smart, genuine and hysterically funny.  I lived in Carla’s hometown of Nashville for the better part of the 90’s so I am very familiar with her effervescent personality.  My prediction is that Hall will be the break out star from this show.

On the surface it appears that Daphne Oz has the hardest uphill climb.  She will no doubt have to battle critics who claim she’s taking the Charlie Sheen path to stardom (riding the coattails of a famous relative) but she was solid and charming. For the record she is the daughter of Oprah’s favorite medicine man, Dr. Oz who, incidentally, made a surprise cameo in episode one.

Oz’s forte is healthy food.  For years people have screamed that they wish there were more shows about healthy eating on TV and every single one of them was lying their butts off.  Food Network, TLC and practically every cable channel have repeatedly tried producing healthy cooking shows.  Every time one premieres diet-addicts tune in for the first episode or two and then head on back to the drive-thru.  Mixed into an ensemble like this is the best way to handle healthy eating tips.

Kelly is known for his quick wit and it was on display in the first episode.  His specialty on the show is making hors d’oeuvres out of standard dishes.  How very Jyll Everman of him.  Clearly he’s a Food Network Star fan.  Clinton’s funniest moment was actually a facial expression.  Co-host Carla Hall was talking about finding an old 70’s Betty Crocker recipe box saying, “Clinton has had his eye on my box.”  A quick grin and eyebrow arching had me laughing out loud.

For their part Symon and Batali were exactly what they have become famous for.  However, Batali was not on set for the debut episode which seemed odd considering how much hype the show received over the summer.  He was instead on a golf course in view of Manhattan remotely cooking from the 14th green.  The revelation that he was there as part of a charity event brought clarity to his absence from the set.

Other than the stop-by from Dr. Oz and glimpses of Hall’s family in the audience there were no guests on the first episode but that will change.  In an attempt to appease the Prozack-riddle minds that protested the cancellation of soap operas and patronize The View they have planned segments this week with Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar.  That would be the perfect time to take the trash out to the road or trim your toenails.

The first episode featured each cast member cooking something, that was well conceived.  It gives the viewer an idea of each person’s POV.  I’m hoping that future episodes will feature guests (other than notoriously unfunny comedians) where they can address issues and trends within our food system.  There certainly are a lot of serious things that the mainstream media has ignored while saturating the airwaves with erroneous warnings of the dangers of salt and eggs.

I look forward to seeing how The Chew evolves over the coming weeks.  It should be interesting.  By the way, the show is produced by Gordon Elliot who hosted a number shows on the Food Network before becoming a star-maker with his company Follow Productions which introduced the world to Paula Deen and the Neely’s.

I also look forward to one day being a guest.  Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, Gordon.

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7 Questions with Chef Michael Symon

7 Questions is a series of interviews with the culinary movers and shakers you want or ought to know better.

When the Food Network first went online back in 1993 the talent was made up mostly of chefs who lived within a cab ride of Chelsea Market.  After a few years the network got it’s sea legs and began to recruit talent from around the country.

For a few years the network aired a show called Melting Pot.  It was an interesting idea, a daily show but with a rotation of chef/hosts.  The episodes were themed towards various immigrant cuisines that helped shape the American palate – Caribbean/Gula, Mediterranean, Asian, etc.  There was quite a stable of talented chefs, then no-names like the adorable Cheryl Smith and a fashion model named Padma Lakshmi.

The Mediterranean show was hosted by Rocco DiSpirito who fruitlessly flirted with co-host Cat Cora while the Eastern European show featured a chef Bobby Flay has called one of the great pastry chefs in the country, Wayne Harley Brachman.  His co-host was a shaved headed, soul patch wearing Cleveland chef with a laugh straight out of a mad scientist’s laboratory named Michael Symon.  When Melting Pot left the airwaves many of the cheflebrities went back to their restaurants and regained their anonymity.  Symon was, it appeared, destined to follow this path.

Cleveland was hardly considered a culinary hot spot but Simon’s Lola changed that the moment he and wife Liz opened the doors back in 1997.  That same year, Symon was named a “Rising Star” chef by Restaurant Hospitality magazine.  A year later Food & Wine listed him as one of the “Ten Best New Chefs in America.”  In 2005 he returned to Food Network as a challenger on the hit series Iron Chef: America (ICA).

Though Symon was defeated by Iron Chef Morimoto, the battle was a classic.  Soon Symon’s star outgrew Lola’s seating capacity and he relocated to a downtown address.  But refusing to abandon the Tremont neighborhood that had so embraced him, he opened the provocatively named Lolita in the old Lola space.  This loyalty makes Symon different from the run of the mill celebrity chef.

When Mario Batali wanted to scale back his presence on ICA the Food Network was in a pickle.  Taking a cue from Bravo’s success with Top Chef (with former Melting Pot host Padma Lakshmi), they came up with The Next Iron Chef, a culinary competition where the winner would become a permanent Iron Chef.

The Next Iron Chef would not pit “up and comers” but rather would feature celebrated chefs like Traci Des Jardins, Chris Constantino and former Melting Pot alum Aarón Sanchez.  Symon would also compete.  After boldly proclaiming that he would be around until the end, he almost went home after the first challenge.  The close-call motivated him and as predicted he was in fact there until the end beating out New Orleans’ Chef John Besh to become The Next Iron Chef.

The win was big – mushroom cloud big.  Symon went from being a regional culinary hero worthy of national attention to becoming a genuine national celebrity.  Once America got a taste of his creativity they couldn’t get enough of it.  Symon even took over the reigns of the popular Dinner: Impossible while embattled host Robert Irvine ironed out a few issues.  In his very first episode at the helm Symon created a dish that has spawned a national craze, chocolate covered bacon.

Not everything has been a victory for Cleveland’s finest.  In 2007 Symon forayed into the fickle New York market with Parea which sported only luke warm reviews.  More than one snooty Manhattanite bantered that Symon wasn’t ready for New York.  It’s now 2010 and it seems every restaurant in the Big Apple features roasted pork belly and chocolate covered bacon.  Apparently it was New York that needed to catch up to Michael Symon.

Today Symon has a five restaurant empire adding Michael Symon’s Roast in Detroit, Michael Symon’s B-Spot in Woodmere, OH and Bar Symon located in Avon Lake, Ohio.  More TV appearances followed with guest spots on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, FoodNation with Bobby Flay and The View to name a few and a book with fellow Cleveland culinary personality Michael Ruhlman (with forward by Bobby Flay).  But it is on ICA that Symon has cemented his reputation as the consummate champion with a staggering winning percentage of nearly 85%, the best among Iron Chefs with more than five battles.

The future looks bright as well.  Michael Symon’s “Cook Like An Iron Chef” premieres in July on The Cooking Channel and he is set to open a new restaurant in the Cleveland area at the end of May.

Recently, Michael Symon took time out of his busy schedule to answer 7 Questions:

1. How old were you when you first started to cook?

Michael Symon: Always cooked, cooked with my family while growing up.   I was around seven, cooking with my mom – 15 in a restaurant.

2. When did you decide that you could make food your career?

MS: In high school.  Fell in love with the biz immediately, loved making people happy with food.

3. Which chefs have influenced you the most?

MS: Bobby Flay, Fergus Henderson, Marc Shary, Carl Quagliata and Jonathan Waxman.

4. If you hadn’t followed this career path, what other career could you see yourself in?

MS: Architect, farmer or working with kids.

5. What’s the highlight of your career so far?

MS: Winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef Great Lakes Region 2009.  Food and Wine Best New Chefs 1998. . . it changed my life forever.

6. What aspect of your professional life do you enjoy the most?

MS: Getting to work with my wife, Liz.  The satisfaction of creating new dishes.

7. What’s next for Chef Michael?

MS: One day at a time.  The sky’s the limit.

7 Questions is a series of interviews with the culinary movers and shakers you want or ought to know better.

Review: Rick & Bubba’s Big Honkin’ Book of Grub

When I picked up the package from the Post Office it was easy to tell by the big brown envelope that I had a new cookbook to review. There’s always a certain degree of mystery as I never know exactly what I will be reviewing.  Imagine my surprise (dare I say horror?) when I extracted Rick & Bubba’s Big Honkin’ Book of Grub.  I have nothing against Rick & Bubba, per se, just the notion of the celebrity cookbook.  And not all celebrity cookbooks are bad, just most of them.

The epitomic example of the crappy celebrity cookbook wastes space my bookshelf now.  The deplorable Today’s Kitchen Cookbook “written” by the hosts of NBC’s Today Show.  Matt Lauer (the Carson Daly of daytime TV), Ann Curry, Al Roker and the insufferable Katie Couric have their smiling mugs plastered all over the book.  Each contributed a handful of words and a token recipe or two.  The rest of the book is filled with recipes pirated from the Today Show archives.  Some from other celebs like Vanessa Williams and Sharon Osbrone but most are from chefs who appeared on the show, Alice Waters, Mario Batali, et al.  Great recipes, sure, but why pay the $24.95 suggested retail price when you can get them free from NBC’s web site?

For those who do not know Rick & Bubba they are a couple of good ol boys who do a nationally syndicated radio show from WZZX, their flagship station in Birmingham, Alabama.  The Rick & Bubba Show airs on over 60 stations across the nation and is heard by more than 3 million loyal listeners.  The two turned to proven comedy writer Martha Bolten for help on what they hope will be their fourth New York Times Best Seller.

So with great trepidation I began thumbing through Rick & Bubba’s Big Honkin’ Book of Grub (Thomas Nelson, 2010).  There were not a lot of recipes filling the 200+ pages.  It was filled with actual prose, incites if you will.  And to my surprise most of it was very good.

The two DJ’s share their love affair with food by listing their favorite eateries, favorite meals and a peck of good old country common sense.  Pontificating on such hot button issues as dieting, restaurant etiquette and restructuring the modern grocery store while at the same time railing against the snobbery of so-called polite society.

On the subject of diets they begin by reminding everyone that the first three letters of the word diet spell die.  They propose their own diet plan called The Rick & Bubba “Hey, You Gotta Live” Diet.  The writing style is homespun folksiness that often borders on campy.  But then again they do not litter their names with MS, RD, CN or any of the multitude of acronyms people use to convince you that they know what they are talking about.

They call out Weight Watchers, Sugar Busters, F Factor and the like for the intellectual skullduggery that they are.  They suggest people should, “eat everything . . . only do it in moderation.  You can still go to buffets; just don’t clean them out.” for comic effect adding, “And if you do, don’t start licking the serving carts.”

Humorous statements like, “I haven’t heard my stomach growl in fourteen years.  I do my best to keep it full at all times.  As its primary caregiver, I consider it my duty,” are followed by genuine wisdom, “The goal of our diet isn’t to get you to be skinny.  Our goal is to get you to a level of fat that you can tolerate.”  Also to their credit they completely reject anything vegan saying that meat is, “essential.  Jesus ate meat.  Who are we to tell him he’s wrong?”

What it lacks in haute cuisine “Book of Grub” more than makes for by giving homage to comfort foods.  They pay tribute to the casserole and proclaim the two most underrated foods to be peanut butter and hush puppies.  Their top ten list of the nation’s best restaurants runs the gamut including everything from Dreamland BBQ to the famous Shula’s Steak House.  They even take to task the trend of combining napkin folding with origami.

It shocks me that I actually find myself enjoying this book.  Is Rick & Bubba’s Big Honkin’ Book of Grub the second coming of On Food and Cooking?  Hardly.  But it is a far better tome on gastronomy than the Today’s Kitchen Cookbook.

Today’s Kitchen Cookbook

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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