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An appearance on Sara Moulton Primetime


The Cynical Chef
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In August of 1999 I received an invitation from the Food Network to appear on Ready, Set, Cook and that led to 3 appearances on Sara Moulton’s Cooking Live Primetime. At the time I was the Chef of the Augusta Grill restaurant in Greenville, SC. The Grill was a 125 seat, 6 nights a week chef-wrecking machine that served about 1,400 covers over those 6 nights. Our sweltering kitchen was staffed with the usual collection of miscreants and social rejects and we cooked on beat up equipment that was well past its prime. On an average night I dragged myself home around 1:00 AM. When Matt Stillman from the Food Network called and asked me to come to New York I was ecstatic and ever so grateful. I practically passed out when I called my wife to tell her the news. After spending 4 years in that noisy sweatbox of a kitchen I was being rewarded with a few appearances on the Food Network. The week after taping Ready, Set, Cook, Sara Moulton’s producer Mark Dissen called and invited me up to her show. He even asked if I had a recommendation for another chef. I had just read about a guy in Charlotte at the Mimosa Grill, Tom Condron. I gave Mark Tom’s information and Mark told me that I would soon get a contract in the mail and gave me the number of someone at the network if I should have any questions. Mark even asked me if he could make some dinner reservations for us. “Hell yeah you can! How about Gramercy Tavern.” As I hung up the phone I thought that someone at the Food Network must like me.

The day of the trip I was incredibly nervous. My wife Amy kept telling me to relax and just be myself. “You’ve done live TV before and you were great, what’s the big deal?” “Sara Moulton! That’s the big deal,” I said. “She’s only Julia Child’s protégé and she’ll probably hate me”. “Oh please,” chides Amy “she will not hate you”.

When I get off the plane in Newark there is a limo driver with my name on a placard. “I’m Mr. Malik,” I announce to him and off we go. I check in to the Paramount hotel and eventually catch up to Tom Condron. Tom is originally from England and he is very cordial. We have been asked to spend an hour or so at the studio so that we can familiarize ourselves with the set. Tom is carrying a paper bag and when I inquire he tells me that he has brought his own pork chops for the show. “This is New York and I imagine that the Food Network can get pretty decent pork chops,” I tell him. We arrive at a dreary brick building near the East River. As I ring the bell I am hoping that we will bump into Emeril Lagasse, Curtis Aikens and maybe Jackie Malouf. The guard lets us in, checks out his paperwork then sends us down a long, cold hallway that dissects 2 enormous rooms filled to the ceiling with editing equipment and monitors. Eventually we end up in the prep kitchen and are introduced to the kitchen staff. The prep kitchen is literally overflowing with All Clad & Kitchen Aid appliances. Shiny pots and pans are stacked on steel shelves that line the kitchen and gadgets spill from every drawer. Tom hands the food producer his pork chops and she thanks him then shows us the chops that they had procured for him. They are thin and anemic. Tom’s pork chops are almost 2 inches thick, a rosy hue of pink and nicely marbled. “It’s a good thing that you brought your own chops,” I tell him. We have sent in our recipes about 10 days prior so we spend the next few minutes inspecting the prep for tonight’s show. The theme is Carolina Comfort food so I have decided to prepare she crab soup and scallion cornbread. The director mentions that Jessica Harris, the Southern food historian will also be joining us on the show; yet another reason for me to be intimidated. The food producer goes over the ingredients and the list of steps that she would like us to show. She is very matter of fact and not at all impressed with us. She then takes us on to Sara’s set. My heart is pounding as we are led in. I stop for just a minute to let the reality sink in. Back at the restaurant my sous chef is covering my shift. He’s probably butchering half a dozen bloody strip loins, cursing the clock and trying to guess which cook will pull a no-show, and here I am, smiling and nodding.

The Primetime set is quiet, cold, dark and clean. It is also very cramped. Behind Sara’s counter top there is just enough room for 3 barstools, the oven and her refrigerator. On the other side of the counter the studio’s equipment is jammed into every space possible. It is literally a challenge to walk through the room because of the amount of cameras and sound booms. Lights hang from every possible angle and thick electrical cords snake across the floor. On TV one would think that Sara is casually holding court in the kitchen of her country home. In reality she is in the center of an electric beehive.

I am genuinely worried about having to use a chef’s knife during the show. My recipe starts with diced onion and celery and I’m certain that I will be shaking so much that I will cut myself. I mention to the food producer that I would like my onions and celery diced prior to the show. We head outside and there is a limo to take us to dinner. While having an amazing meal at the Tavern Tom tells me that his city of Charlotte does not yet have Food Network so he has not seen Sara’s show. “My first and maybe only appearance on Food Network and no one at home will see it!” Tom has cooked for several hot shots in San Francisco, New York and London and as he is telling me what it is like to work for Michael Mina I begin to feel like a pretender. Other than a year at Christian’s in New Orleans I have not worked at a significant restaurant. “Sara’s definitely going to hate me,” I find myself thinking. I brush those thoughts aside and decide to enjoy dinner. The food and wine are impeccable and soon it is time to head back out. We arrive at the studio and are taken directly to the prep kitchen. 4 hours ago this place was dark, cold and quiet but now it is jammed with people and buzzing with energy. I am struck by how casual the production crew is. Cut-off shorts, flip-flops, t-shirts and tattered blue jeans are everywhere.

Tom & I are then shown to the green room, which should be called the make up room. A lovely young lady powders me up to prevent the glow of the studio lights from reflecting off of my face. Jessica Harris arrives and introduces herself. Jessica is confident and deliberate and sizes up Tom and I immediately. I just know she is thinking “lightweights” as we exchange pleasantries. The makeup artist finishes with me so I take a seat on the couch, Tom climbs into her chair and that’s when Sara walks in. “Hello there! You must be John. I am so pleased to meet you, I’m Sara.” Sara offers me her hand and I gently squeeze it and smile. She then walks over and says hello to Tom and tells us how delighted she is that the two of us would come all the way to New York for her. She sits down next to me on the couch and with her ever-present smile says that she understands I am from New Orleans and that is one of her favorite cities and who did I work for down there. I am trying to speak, I really am, but the positively radiant Sara Moulton is sitting next to me smiling and wants to know something about me. I feel my mouth opening, words forming and finally a drawn out “uuuhhh” spills forth. I regain some composure then find myself almost yelling: “Christian’s!…I worked at Christian’s Restaurant…..Roland Huet was the Chef.” “Oh, I love Christian’s, what a great restaurant, Roland must be very proud of you” she says. More “uuuhhhs” is about all I can manage. One of the crew comes in and needs her attention. As she is leaving she smiles at Tom and I and says “Relax, you guys will do fine, just have a good time and enjoy yourself.” I find myself imagining that as she got around the corner she was shaking her head and wondering what sort of goofball I was. Mark Dissen arrives in the green room, tells us to relax and enjoy ourselves and more importantly says, “talk to Sara, do NOT look into the camera, just have fun and talk to Sara.” “Talk to Sara”, we repeat. Onto the set we go and it is now a veritable beehive of activity. There are easily 20 people on the set, all talking to one another through headsets. Lights are being adjusted, cameras are being moved and focused, sound checks are done and someone keeps counting down the time. “10 minutes people, 10 minutes!” Of course Tom & I are again told to relax but now my pulse is racing and my hands are starting to sweat. The set director comes over and pours us both big glass of red wine. “Try not to get drunk guys” she jokes. I take a sip thinking it’s faux wine but no, it’s the real thing. The director gives us a few last minute tips. “Do not look into the camera, talk to Sara and look her in the eyes. Do not look at the camera, there’s 5 different cameras and you will never find the right one and you’ll end up looking stupid. Talk to Sara, OK?” “Talk to Sara” I say out loud, “talk to Sara”. Now Sara is on the set and she chats a bit with Tom and I. The energy level in the studio is visibly rising and in no time the director is saying “10 seconds” and everyone gets quiet then at 5 seconds he sticks his hand in the air with his fingers spread out and pulls a finger back for each second then points his forefinger at Sara and we are live. Sara introduces tonight’s theme and then her intro music starts. I quickly sit up straight because I remember that my Mom is watching. Sara gives a welcome to her audience then gets in depth with our theme: the differences between the cuisine of the Carolina Low country and the Carolina Foothills. Tom & I are introduced. I raise my glass of wine as my name is mentioned then I look over at Tom and he has a noticeable line of sweat on his forehead. Sara tells the audience that John is here to cook a low country favorite, she crab soup then she invites me over to her stove. Sara is friendly and comforting. She helps stir the onions and celery as they are cooking, asks about the restaurant, engages Tom, Jessica and I easily in conversation and in no time I have forgotten about the cameras and lights. The 4 of us are in Sara’s country home, cooking in her kitchen, enjoying a glass of wine and discussing the differences of the coastal and foothill regions of North & South Carolina. She ladles the soup into 4 big bowls while I start the cornbread. She helps sift cornmeal then whip eggs and measure buttermilk. She playfully chides Tom for leaving her refrigerator door open and then smiles like a schoolgirl when I produce the previously baked cornbread and cut enormous slices. Sara passes out the cornbread and bites into it and crumbs go everywhere. “This is sooo wonderful,” she coos. I think the soup needs a bit of salt and the cornbread’s a little overdone but Sara has me brimming with confidence. Tom gets up there and we are once again helping each other with his Molasses marinated pork chops with sweet potato hash and tomato jam.

His chops are full of flavor and though he has an English accent, he fully understands everything that is wonderful about southern foods. His sweat is gone and he is smiling and enjoying himself. Jessica joins in with her observations on the contributions that different ethnic groups have given to Low country cuisine. All too soon we are done.

Sara closes by thanking us and Tom, Jessica and I are all smiles. As the lights go dim I cannot believe that an hour has come and gone. Sara tells Tom & I how great we were and we are grinning like a couple of Cheshire cats. Mark Dissen arrives on the set, thanks us and tells us how well the show went. I am relieved, exhilarated and exhausted and I want the cameras and lights to come back on because it was all so damn exciting.

The next evening I am back at work and one of my customers asks me if Sara is as sweet in person as she is on TV. “She certainly is,” I answer.

Several years later I read that Sara is leaving the Food Network. One evening I pop in the videotape of my first appearance on her show and only then do I really understand how brilliant of a host she really was. I marvel at Sara’s gracious ability to have taken a couple of nervous nellies like Tom & myself and transformed us into charming houseguests worthy of cooking in her kitchen.

Thank you Sara.

John Malik

Chef/Owner

33 Liberty Restaurant

Greenville, SC

www.33liberty.com

Customer at the carving station: "Pardon me but is that roast beef rare?"

Apprentice Cook Malik: "No sir! There's plenty more in the kitchen!"

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And that's exactly the kind of stuff that they CANNOT tolerate on FTV, so thank god they got rid of the likes of her. :angry:

I SO look forward to Sara's upcoming PBS involvement and hope fiendishly, cattily, that the five-second attention span of the FTV crowd causes an implosion of the telegenic non-cooks.

BTW, John, Ready, Set, Cook is where I came to know about you and, if I am ever in your neck of the woods, I will darken your door.

Judy Jones aka "moosnsqrl"

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

M.F.K. Fisher

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I didn't think it would be possible for me to admire Sara more than I already do, but you've convinced me. :wub:

A great story! :smile:

SB (maybe she'll invite you on her new PBS show?) :wink:

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I very much enjoyed reading your account; thank you for sharing. Everyone seems to have such a fondness, respect and admiration for this lady.

Sadly, we don't get to see Sara's shows up here, so I've never seen her in action. So... even though FTV has ditched her, hopefully she'll show up in other places where I can watch. :smile:

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John,

Many thanks for your sharing of your insights and reflections on working with the most gracious and totally knowledgeable Sara Moulton. Although she did an eG Spotlight Conversation here not long ago, and we have read her books and watched her on television, you gave us a fresh new insight into what makes this lady tick. She really appreciates what chefs go through in their professional growth.

Having tasted your cooking at 33 Liberty, I can attest to your skills and qualifications. Intimidated? You certainly had no reason to be ... and, clearly, Sara understood much more about you in the time that you spent on her show. Quality will out, as you know.

A lovely view of what goes on behind the cameras but, even more importantly, how a young chef feels when meeting a culinary celebrity. We appreciate your gift of this experience!

Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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What a wonderful story -- well told. (You don't sound cynical at all! :wink: )

Maybe if Chef Moulton flashed her boobs at the camera, or sucked food off her fingers or something .... naw. Then she wouldn't be herself. I admire her for so many things but most of all, for not selling out.

"Oh, tuna. Tuna, tuna, tuna." -Andy Bernard, The Office
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