The Gallant Gourmet

by Bill Gibron

27 February 2007

He championed both culinary extravagance and gastronomic restraint. But Graham Kerr's greatest legacy may be his innate ability to reach across the airwaves and touch each viewer's inner epicure.

He remains an enigma, a man who could own the world, but has chosen instead to bow out gracefully into the sunset of show business. During the cultural realignment of the ‘60s, he stepped out of the shadow of such famous faces as Julia Child, to bring an air of what some might consider ‘cosmopolitan corniness’ to the art of television cooking. With his clipped British accent, fashionable clothing, and habit of traipsing around the world for inspiration, he earned a nickname he would soon come to regret. By 1971, and the first of what would be several life changing events, Graham Kerr was an established brand. He was known as ‘The Galloping Gourmet’, but even 40 plus years later, he remains the greatest communicator in the history of the medium.

That seems like a grandiose statement, especially when you consider that television has given birth to such regal raconteurs as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Johnny Carson, and Oprah Winfrey. As a matter of fact, most people wouldn’t even put Kerr in the same league as some of the modern how-to personalities like Emeril Lagasse or Alton Brown. But to dismiss the formidable Englishmen who spent his entire lifetime traveling the world and tasting its cuisine is to ignore the point completely. All the aforementioned names had something inherently intriguing about what they did, be it read/report the news, discuss/interview the rich and famous, or probe/embrace the daily drama of ordinary people. Kerr’s task was almost unattainable: he had to make victuals exciting to a nation of fast foodies.

Back in the early ‘60s, when he was a struggling catering advisor for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the vast gorging public of the planet Earth were basically unaware of the gastronomic bounty surrounding them. Limited by a lack of options, the flavors of one’s own personal heritage, and the relative inaccessibility of intercontinental travel, people had very little opportunity to experiment with their meals. In addition, the relatively novel concepts of aggressively advertised TV dinners, hamburger stands, and freeze dried foodstuffs were making old fashioned cookery seem haughty and snobbish. Suburbia was not ready to embrace the classical techniques of the Escoffier and the Cordon Bleu. Instead, they were enjoying the serving suggestions of the Green Giant and his buddies over at Bird’s Eye. 

It was Julia Child who first broached those barriers, using her plucky commonality to show that anyone could conquer the fussiest French techniques. Yet she didn’t have the celebrated impact of Kerr. Instead of playing down the process, showing that everyday people could figure out a way to stuff a capon, this bubbly bon vivant tried to position food somewhere between high art and home cooking. To Kerr, the classics demanded celebration, and if they could not be perfectly reconstructed in his tiny television kitchen, he would find a way to, as closely as possible, recreate the final dish. For him, all butter was easily clarified, all cream quickly whipped, all soufflés readily tossed together and picture perfect.

It’s no wonder, then, that his Galloping Gourmet series, produced for the Canadian Broadcasting service by his beloved wife Treena, became such an international phenomenon. While Child was trying to deconstruct and simplify the epicurean process, Kerr was clinging to it with an incredibly personable style. Simultaneously sophisticated and silly, as quick with a bad pun as he was with an instructional tip, a standard episode of the iconic ‘60s show found Kerr bouncing onto his split level stage, at first to a surreal space age bachelor pad setting where he sat in for his opening and closing segments. There, amongst the pop art fixtures, he would catch his breath, smile a wonderfully honesty and toothy grin, and offer up an anecdote about the day’s recipe.

In almost all cases, these stories centered on a trip abroad, an unusual city or country, and a sumptuous meal overloaded with calorie rich decadence. Naturally, he had a film of the featured culinary adventure. As he provided the voice over narration, leaving no delicious detail unmentioned, the audience was audible in the background, their moans and groans indicating the kind of vicarious culinary thrill they were getting from their host. Among his most amazing skills as a showman was Kerr’s grasp of the language. He could turn a phrase or put together a series of marvelously descriptive quips that made the flavors come alive, actually giving the listener a definitive mental picture of the plate, and all the succulent goodies upon it.

After the clip was over, and he had joined his viewers in an equally satisfied gasp, Kerr promised the impossible: he would duplicate the meal just seen right before their eyes. And better yet, he would invite a member of the studio to join him onstage for a nibble at the end. Thus began phase two of the presentation: the actual cooking. Though he was educated in the ways of groceries, and spent his life in the hotel and service industry, Kerr was not what you would call an actual chef. Unlike the individuals we see today who turn the making of a meal into an exercise in exactitude, our Galloping guide was more in tune with his ingredients’ ‘esoteric’ qualities.

No one in their right recipe would add CUPS of cream to their dish, or fry their greasy meats in unheard of quantities of additional animal fat. In Kerr’s world there was no such thing as enough, no such measurement as ‘when’. Wine was poured with equal abandon, providing the slightest suggestion that the host was a little too in love with the grape and its alcoholic properties. Indeed, Kerr was known to sample a drop or two (or 10) during the course of a single episode. His slightly pickled personality made him all the more gregarious, free to find a meal’s inner comfort and creativity. It also helped dampen his dressed up dandy demeanor, making him both debonair and approachable. In an era already infatuated with all things British, Kerr was his own Sgt. Salt and Pepper.

By 1971, he was also the king of the cook show landscape. He published recipe collections, found financial success as a commercial pitchman (including a classic ad for Dixie Cups), and was an honored guest on the chat show circuit. But his love affair with liquor was about to change all that. A near fatal car accident that year left him partially paralyzed. His show went off the air and the public soon forgot about their globetrotting glutton. Desperate for help in overcoming his addiction and his condition, Kerr turned to God for solace. Completely sober, he was up and walking again, contributing his recovery to his newfound status as a Born Again Christian. Kerr was evangelical about his second chance at life initially, and when he returned to the air in 1974 with a five minute syndicated series entitled Take Kerr, a Bible verse ended every show.

But instead of being reassuring, such outward expressions of faith were considered highly controversial, and Kerr disappeared from the public eye once again. In the meantime, the cook show world continued to expand. Then, like a preplanned passage from the Good Book, the former celebrity faced the biggest challenge of his life. In 1986, his 52-year-old wife suffered a massive heart attack, as well as a couple of troubling post-condition complications. It was discovered that Treena suffered from coronary artery disease, and required a salt-free, low fat diet to moderate her situation. The possibility of losing the love of his life (the couple had been married over 30 years at the time) gave Kerr a new goal. He would create a new way of cooking, one that would minimize the risks to his wife – and others like her – while maximizing the flavors and fun her taste buds were used to.

The result was something called the Mini-Max method and it literally resurrected Kerr’s career. The two books he wrote, Graham Kerr’s Smart Cooking and Graham Kerr’s Minimax Cookbook, were overwhelmingly popular and spurred the Discovery Channel to give him another shot at a half hour cooking show. The new series was light on religion and high on energy, featuring another live audience and Kerr’s typical bag of tasty tricks. But this time around, this culinary cleric had a different sermon to offer – and it’s the reason he remains televisions most effective communicator. In a world that has only grown in tune with excessive since Kerr left the air, to preach restraint is a career kiss of death.

Let’s face it; the current Food Network is all about decadence and indulgence. Their recent (February 2007) Chocolate Lover’s Week was so over the top in its sugar-laced extravagance that it should have come with a warning label for diabetics. New celebrated stove jockeys like Paula Dean and Rachel Ray are more impressed by food that sounds delicious (Deep Fried Macaroni and Cheese, Half Pound Blue Cheese Burgers) than creating something that actually tastes good. For the post-millennial mealtime, food is all about fusion and fulfillment. After years of being told to watch our weight and count those calories, the professional chefs are selling a new bag of body deadening delights.

It’s why Kerr finally left the air for good in the mid ‘90s. Disgusted by a media mindset that didn’t want to delve into the horrid health risks of certain foods, he packed up his collection of later day PBS series and drifted off into retirement. These shows can still be seen on the AmericanLife TV Network (and on select stations around the country), with Graham Kerr’s Kitchen still the best of the bunch. Here, totally alone and without the attention span diverting element of an audience, Kerr reestablished his mantle as an expert conversationalist. Using that old ploy that speaking to one person individually translates easily to an entire viewership, Kerr cozied up to the lens and took implied interactivity to a whole new level.

Watch an episode and see if it isn’t true. During a show, he is instructive and ingratiating, warm, witty and slightly world weary. He doesn’t dismiss his past as much as embrace it as the lark of youth, and tries desperately not to mock the current trends. Watching Kerr for 30 easy going minutes, one experiences the sentiment of seeing an old friend, a pal that you could count on to deliver on every personalized promise he ever made. Even more intriguing, Kerr appears capable of creating nostalgia out of the unknown, easily channeling the past as he tries to find a pathway toward the future. He is both self-effacing and secure, drill sergeant and dilettante. He’s either the most genuine person ever to skitter across the small screen, or the world’s greatest glass teat con artist.
Throughout the course of Kitchen, Kerr played with the format. He introduced meal ideas sent in by viewers and constructed entrees out of basic techniques that could be easily repeated into an additional dinner or lunch. He even revisited recipes from his Galloping Gourmet days, apologizing profusely for their medically suspect makeup while slyly winking over how absolutely delicious those original dishes really were. All the while, he made sacrifice seem sensible and turned dieting into a delight. But this is just one of the reasons Graham Kerr is one of television’s greatest communicators. In a medium that tends to treat all idiosyncratic individuals as exhibits in its own private freak show, Kerr commanded respect by never giving in to the sideshow strategy.

No, all this amiable man was after was a bit of understanding. In the ‘60s, he loved food and wanted the world to celebrate with him. In the ‘70s, he loved God and tried to tie that to his meal-based mission. In the ‘80s he dealt with his wife’s debilitating disease, and in the ‘90s he was reborn again as her saint and savior. If you’re lucky, you can still catch his act on the AmericanLife TV Network where Kitchen sits in perpetual reruns. But it’s fairly obvious that, as the new millennium marches on, Kerr is sorely missed. In an entertainment category in desperate need of someone capable of communication, he remains the unparalleled master.

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