"Your crab was dry," Mike says as I walk into his shop, Williams Seafood Market and Wines in the Spokane Valley. He tells me the crab cakes I made on TV back in December looked delicious . . . but the giant Dungeness Crab that he donated for the on-camera display "looked dry and the shell wasn’t shiny enough."
Mike’s brutal critique doesn’t shake my resolve to do another seafood dish. I tell him I’m at the store to purchase the shellfish that I need for the dish I’ll be doing on Sunday: "Grilled Shrimp Stuffed with Crab."
But thanks for the constructive criticism, anyway. I guess I should count myself lucky. My small fan base includes a wisecracking fishmonger. Such is the life of a cook on local television.
Today I’m preparing for my 34th show on "Sunday Morning Northwest" on KXLY-ABC 4.
During the week, the program is called "Good Morning Northwest." The show focuses on news and weather, and serves as the lead-in to "Good Morning America," on ABC.
On Sunday, the show takes a different turn-much like the local programs that first aired on television back in the early days. The laid-back, carefree attitude and spontaneity of live, local television, lives on at "Sunday Morning Northwest."
The first half-hour of the show always includes a reading of the newspaper headlines from the small, rural, farming towns that surround Spokane. If a moose decided to take a dip in the community pool in Omak, you can be sure it will make the headlines of the Okanagan County Chronicle -- and it will certainly by noted live on "Sunday Morning Northwest." The weather is usually done from a live remote at a local community event.
Of course, the Sunday show is never complete without a cooking segment featuring a local Chef or nervous home cook.
We’ve seen everything from "Roasted Loin of Elk with Huckleberry Demi-Glace" presented by the Chef of a fancy resort in Northern Idaho to the Woman who won the Spam cook-off at the Interstate Fair.
It’s all done in the spirit of promoting local Chefs and restaurants while having fun with food and cooking. (And as fate often demonstrates on live TV -- the viewers have a few laughs at wacky cooks who muster-up enough courage to come on live television and make some sort of horrendous tuna casserole).
We try to make the recipe simple enough that it can be done in a reasonable amount of time, but we don’t restrict ourselves to doing recipes in 30 minutes or less.
If you have to chill the custard base of the ice cream overnight, that’s what we tell the viewers. While we may use short-cuts on-camera to demonstrate the steps of the recipe, short cuts in the actual recipe aren’t allowed for the sake of convenience.
If crab cakes taste better when they’re sautéed in clarified butter, so be it. We don’t forsake flavor at the cost of cutting fat and calories. We present the most flavorful dish possible.
I e-mail the producer about three weeks before the show with a general idea of the dish I’m planning. Then about three or four days before the show, I send the recipe of the final dish. This allows KXLY to do promos up to two days in advance of the show: "Coming up on KXLY Sunday Morning Northwest, our favorite local chef, David Ross, will be preparing a delicious dish using fresh Dungeness Crab and Shrimp from Williams Seafood in the Valley."
The recipe we post on the station’s website is usually written to serve 6-8 people. But, when you cook on local television, there is a very, very important consideration that you must factor into your shopping list-enough food to feed the crew.
That means a recipe written for the public to serve precisely one "Shrimp Stuffed with Crab" to each of 8 guests, is a much different, and much larger recipe, behind the scenes. It’s more than just a matter of prepping 8 stuffed shrimp. It’s a matter of stuffing 30, maybe even 40 shrimp.
I triple or quadruple the quantities called for in a recipe so that I can feed the cameramen, the floor director, the producer, the hosts, the sports guy, the weather lady, the DJ’s in the adjacent AM radio station booth-every person working in the studio on Sunday morning will have at least one of these delectable stuffed shrimp. (It’s vital to send the crew home sated; they are the ultimate taste-test panel. If they like your food, the viewers will like it too.)
After the recipe for the dish I put together an "Invoice," a shopping list of ingredients that lists the cost of the products I’ll be buying for the recipe. This serves as my contract, if you will, for KXLY.
The final piece of the written paperwork for each show is the "script" that I write for myself.
This isn’t the same type of "script" that might be rehearsed by the actors on "The Bold and The Beautiful." The only person that reads this script is me. (And maybe the co-host who glances at the script tucked under the plate displayed on the set). When you cook on local television you don’t rehearse with other actors. If you choose to rehearse you do it at home ahead of time.
Remember, this is live TV. We don’t have room for errors. We don’t do re-takes or re-shoot scenes. We’re LIVE! For my own piece of mind, I need a script as a sort of crutch to lean on. (Hey, Martha always has a cheat sheet on the counter).
The script is my guide to all the points of the dish that I want to convey. This Sunday, I want to mention Williams Seafood and the array of products that Mike offers. I’ll talk about using wild American shrimp because they have a sweeter taste than farm-raised, and I’ll demonstrate how the prosciutto serves as a natural wrapper to hold the crab stuffing in the shrimp.
The script helps me with my timing when I’m on-camera -- and timing is critical when you cook on television. I rehearse the script over and over and over in my living room, while a little white kitchen timer ticks away.
I can’t tell you how many professional chefs and amateur cooks I’ve seen on television who didn’t rehearse their bit-and the results on live television were disastrous.
(Like the chef who -- at the moment of presenting his dessert -- realized that he left the ice cream in his car. In the sun. He literally ran out of the studio, on live TV, to go get the ice cream.)
The only small measure of direction I get from the Floor Director on the set is when I’m told to "look into the camera" seconds before the red light comes on.
I’ll need two of Mike’s best crabs for Sunday’s show -- one for the meat in the crab stuffing, and another one for the display of ingredients on the set.
This morning Mike takes literally 20 minutes to scrub and wash the shell of the prized "display crab." As he toils away, I vow to honor his crab by insuring that the shell will be kept wet and shiny during its appearance -- or I won’t be able to show my face in Mike’s shop again.
I’ll be making a crab cake mixture to stuff the shrimp. I’m wondering if Mike can top himself after the wondrous crabs he’s already given me, but he doesn’t disappoint today -- his fresh Wild American Shrimp fished out of the Gulf of Florida are just the right size to hold my savory crab cake stuffing.
In the case of Sunday’s dish of Stuffed Shrimp, the recipe calls for grilling the shrimp on the outdoor barbecue. But we won’t be barbecuing the shrimp on camera this Sunday. I’ll grill the shrimp at home and then we’ll go through the motions of the cooking process during our live segment.
I try to have all of my prep work done by late Saturday afternoon so I all I have to do on Sunday morning is pack the coolers and drive to the studio. There won’t be a Hummer limousine at my doorstep on Sunday morning waiting to whisk me in comfort to KXLY. I’ll be driving myself to the studio in a Dodge pickup.
My home office serves as the "staging" area for packing the coolers. Make note of the supplies on the floor next to the cooler-dishes, toothpicks, silverware, tongs, spatulas and kitchen towels.
And yes, I am following the direct instructions of Mike the fish guy -- I bought a spray bottle at the "Dollar Store" so that I can keep our precious "display crab" wet on camera.
I’ve never cooked on the "Today Show" on NBC in New York. I’ve heard that cooks who appear on "Today" are escorted into what is called a "Green Room," catered with lush displays of fresh fruit, vegetable and cheese trays, pastries and a never-ending assortment of beverages to await their few moments of fame. We don’t have a "Green Room" at KXLY. What we have is a room used by the weekday news staff to script out the flow of the news programs.
Not having a Green Room is a blessing in disguise. The atmosphere in the studio is very casual and I don’t have to sit in a cold, lonely room waiting for a perky intern to escort me to the studio. I wait in the studio.
You learn to be patient and immodest around the crew -- these are the people who watch you unzip your pants in the studio. You pull out your shirt so they can thread a small microphone from your waist, underneath your shirt, up to your neck and then clip the little mouthpiece to your collar.
The only style advice I ever got was from my co-host, Teresa Lukens, who cautioned me not to wear a striped or checked shirt on-camera-something about the pattern of my shirt being a distraction to the viewers. (And I thought the girth of my waist was more of a distraction to the viewers than the pattern of my shirt).
I don’t wear a Chef’s coat, because I don’t consider myself a Chef. I’m a cook and I want the viewers to relate to my story and my personality with ease and comfort. I want them to feel comfortable going into their kitchens at home and creating the types of dishes they might have at a restaurant. I don’t want to scare them by thinking only a guy in a chef’s coat can cook good food.
Our kitchen at KXLY comprises an electric, flat-top stove inserted into a formica cabinet on wheels, held in place with sandbags. We don’t have an oven, refrigerator, freezer or running water. We make do with what we have-and that’s why I bring my own spatulas, spoons and water bottle to spray the crab.
After the "Pet for Adoption" segment, I’m allowed on the set to get ready. I usually have about 15 minutes to unpack the coolers, put the ingredients on display and get the stove-top heated.
We begin our cooking segment with a 30-second lead-in, usually after the local sports report. Teresa introduces the dish we’ll be doing and then we break to another commercial. I don’t have a lot of time to grill shrimp when we go live on KLXY -- only four minutes total for cooking time and discussion of the dish with my co-host. I’m lucky to have Teresa as my host. She knows food and cooking. She knows that prosciutto is cured Italian ham and she knows it’s thin and slightly salty. She knows to ask if smaller prawns will work for the recipe. And without prompting, she’ll ask why I’m using fresh Dungeness crab instead of canned lump crab meat. At the end of the segment we cut to one last commercial.
As we come back live, Rick and Teresa are their normally gracious selves, tasting the stuffed shrimp and declaring it delicious. The show is a wrap.
One more taste-test lies ahead before we can bring this journey to an end. What will the crew say about my "Shrimp Stuffed with Crab?"
They tell me the stuffed shrimp were delicious. But you know what they really liked? What impressed them the most? The radishes.
About a week after Sunday’s show, I went back to Williams Seafood to get some photos of the shop for this story.
I find Mike behind the counter cutting fresh tuna steaks.
"At least it looked fresh this time," he says.
Shortly after I finished this piece, I began working with KXLY on our next cooking segment, which was scheduled to take place on Sunday, November 16.
The plan was to cook some unique side dishes that the home cook could easily do to accompany the holiday turkey or prime rib. At least that was the plan until I picked up the local newspaper on November 2.
When I turned to the business section, I saw the ominous news: "KXLY cancels weekend news program." I immediately contacted the producer.
I had been cancelled -- a victim of the horrible state of the economy. I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. Cancelled after seven years and dozens of live cooking segments. Cancelled.
Because "Sunday Morning Northwest" wasn’t the lead-in program to "Good Morning America," on the weekdays, it relied heavily on local advertising for its survival. ABC wouldn’t (and KXLY couldn’t) carry the burden of producing a local show that didn’t feed into network programming.
With so many local businesses filing for bankruptcy and others literally closing the doors, one of the first budget items to go was television advertising -- advertising revenue that paid to produce "Sunday Morning Northwest."
I wasn’t the only on-air "personality" to get the pink slip. The weekend weather "person" also got her walking papers. Rick and Teresa Lukens returned to the security of the KXLY-AM 920 radio booth and continue with their weekday morning drive-time show.
And I have taken an unwanted leave of absence from local television. At least for a few months.
Loyalty is not a word that is highly regarded in the television business. If ABC cancels you, you talk to NBC and so I’ve shifted my ambitions to KHQ -- the local NBC affiliate.
KHQ airs a local morning program seven days a week. So if the culinary Gods are praying for me, someday soon I’ll begin doing a live cooking segment on the "KHQ Morning News."
David Ross lives in Spokane, but works a one-hour plane ride away. When he's not tending to his day job -- or commuting -- he writes about food, reviews restaurants and -- obviously -- does food presentation. He is on the eGullet Society hosting team for the Culinary Culture and Kitchen forums.