Authors: Nancy Verde Barr
Tina was writing a cookbook. Actually, it seems as though every other person I meet lately is either writing a cookbook or planning to. Thanks to Sally’s years of overwhelming culinary influence, food is fashionable and trendy, and lots of people who were raised on TV dinners and frozen fish sticks are
now gourmet cooks. If you’re a celebrity like Tina, publishers are eager to bring out your work. I have no problem with this because I love the food world and the more people in it, the merrier. And, of course, the more work there is for me.
After showing how to pot the herbs, Tina planned to offer some examples of how to use them once you get out of the sauna. She’d given us her recipes for herb-roasted chicken, baked potatoes with chive sour cream, and a sort of French bread with basil. We had to make her food look good, even though the recipes were not really workable.
Mae picked up her copies of the recipes and sat down next to me. I moved my muffins out of her reach. As usual, she got right to the point. “Her recipes suck. Do you think she actually makes this stuff? She cooks the chicken to death. She wraps the baked potatoes in foil, for God’s sake. Even lousy restaurants don’t do
anymore. She so can’t cook. I’ll bet she doesn’t even eat. She’s so skinny.”
I looked at my remaining muffin and thought of Tina chewing gum for breakfast. “Probably not. I told Sonya the recipes needed tweaking and she tried to convince Tina to let us redo them. But Tina said her dinner guests always gobbled them up.”
“She probably never looked under the parsley left on the plates.”
“Since she’s not actually giving recipes but only showing how to pot the herbs and offering some ideas of how to use them, Sonya said to go with them. We just have to make the food look good. Don’t wrap the potatoes or they’ll shrivel. I’ll explain that to Tina. We’ll make sure the chicken is fully cooked, but get it out of the oven before it takes on too much color.” Food always looks darker on TV than it really is, so timing is especially tricky with chicken and turkey. Poultry has
to be fully cooked in case the host tastes it, but if it cooks too long, it looks black and shriveled. In the “old days,” magazines used to paint barely cooked birds with a combination of dish liquid and shoe polish so they would have a golden-brown glow. We don’t ever do things like that.
“If I make the bread her way,” Mae pleaded, “it won’t even look good. Her recipe is a joke.”
Tina’s basil French bread called for mixing the traditional ingredients of yeast, flour, and water with sauna-raised basil, all of it to be whirred in a food processor and plopped (her word) on a baking sheet, then coaxed into a rounded shape and baked. Voilà, a French
. She insisted that the dough didn’t have to rise.
(My word.) Bread has to rise.
“All right, Mae. Make a few loaves the classic way. Let them rise and give them surface tension. We’ll slice those so the pieces look like bread and hide Tina’s blob behind Jonathan’s props. I’ll start with the trays.”
Work on a cooking segment begins a few weeks before the day it is televised. Sonya picks the chef or celebrity, known as “the talent,” who will appear on the show, and then together we choose from the recipes the talent suggests. Sonya decides if they fit into the overall programming; I decide if they are visually interesting and technically possible. Once we’ve agreed on the recipes, it is my job to break them down into what needs to be seen and how to show it in the time allotted, which is usually only three and a half minutes. After Sonya approves my recipe breakdown, I can make shopping and equipment lists for the crew and write the scripts. The scripts are not dialogue scripts with lines for the talent to memorize. They outline what steps and in what order the recipes will be shot. From the scripts, I determine what needs to be done ahead of time and then make prep lists for Mae and myself.
Since we can’t leave any ingredients or equipment on the set before the cooking spot is ready to air, we set everything up on large cafeteria trays, which wind up scattered all over our tiny workplace. The trays are key. Each one of them represents a different part of the recipe that the talent will demonstrate. We put large pieces of masking tape on the trays and mark them with numbers according to their place on the set. In the three minutes of commercial break time just before the food segment begins, we have to get all that food to the set, and union rules allow only the stagehands to carry it. The numbers on the trays tell them in what order to set the trays down. Mae and I follow right behind, remove the items from the trays, and place them where the chef can easily reach them. We work all of this out before the show even begins so we are not guessing in this brief time where to place things and inadvertently put something down in a place that blocks the camera’s view of the food. Jonathan, our set designer and food stylist, is right behind us making the setting attractive with napkins, plates, some flowers, and occasionally an objet d’art that he finds irresistible. He tweaks the food using tools from his stylist’s basket—tweezers, toothpicks, a water spray, a jar of oil, and paintbrushes in various sizes.
There was a nice rhythm going in the kitchen when Jonathan stormed in, demonstrating that he was already having a supremely awful day. He was cradling a box of little clay pots in one arm and holding a large bag of potting soil in the other hand. He lifted the soil up above his head as though he were about to auction it off. “It’s all brown. The pots are brown; the food’s brown; the dirt’s the color of shit. Brown bread, brown chicken, brown potatoes—all brown. How the hell can I make that pretty? Doesn’t anyone consider color when they suggest these spots?”
I was accustomed to Jonathan’s irritable disposition. It no longer gets a rise out of me, but he keeps trying. “Good morning, Jonathan. Had your coffee yet?” He is particularly unpleasant before he has had coffee, and never goes for it himself. A Tony dropped his dish towel and ran for the buffet as though he were afraid he’d be blamed for all the brownness. I made a halfhearted attempt at appeasement. “A lot of food is brown, Jonathan. We have nice red cherry tomatoes and lots of parsley that you can put around the chicken.”
“I can’t keep covering everything with parsley. Next you’ll be asking me to drape it over a chocolate cake.” He took out the only key in existence that opened his private cabinet. Inside was a wild assortment of scavenged dishes, napkins, vases, bowls, candles, and art objects. It looked like a garage sale waiting to happen. He made more noise than necessary as he moved platters around to find one that would make the chicken presentable for morning TV.
Before long, Mae had four batches of basil dough mixed and rising in bowls. There’s no wiggle room in live television, and that accounts for our second motto, CYA: Cover Your Ass. In food television, that means “make more than you think you need.”
While the bread dough was doing its thing, Mae was creaming a couple of pounds of unsalted butter against the side of a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon. She had already chopped the mounds of herbs we needed, which a Tony had washed, dried, and stripped from the stems, and they were lined up in front of her. One Tony was scrubbing baking potatoes and another Tony was oiling the racks that would hold the roasting chickens. There was happy chatter going on and I thought of what Sally always says when she is in such a kitchen: “Isn’t cooking together fun?” It is indeed.
Mae and I each took a chicken and carefully slipped our hands under the skin to make a space for the herb butter. We picked up the softened butter, worked it under the skin, and began to massage it over the meat. If your head is in that place, it is a very sensual sight and the Tonys kept elbowing each other and whispering. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I heard what they were thinking.
We rested the birds on their sides on Tony’s well-oiled racks in roasting pans, massaged the outsides with more butter, and slid them into the oven. I went back to the trays to recheck the setup and make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. I always talk myself through the script so I can anticipate what might be needed: “Tina and Karen each open a potato and break up the pulp”
two knives, two forks
“and each spoon sour cream inside”
extra forks because the first ones may look yucky from breaking up the potatoes
. Viewers truly write us letters about things like that. If there’s a question about whether something is needed, I put it out anyway. It’s a CYA lesson I learned the hard way. On an earlier show, I had to crawl on my hands and knees below the camera’s eye to put a whisk in Karen’s hand when the talent asked her to beat some eggs. It was an okay way to get it there, but I took a lot of razzing from the camera crew.
I gave an empty tray a number and wrote on the tape “Finished bird, beautifully garnished on pretty platter.” The chicken hadn’t finished baking, and Jonathan was still stewing about the platter, but everything happens so quickly right before airtime that we might forget what goes on it and where it goes. I marked another empty tray “I uncut finished blob, I sliced bread” as well as “bread basket, napkins, butter dish, and butter knives” and told Jonathan we’d need these items. He ignored me. He was standing at his cabinet with four different
platters lined up at his feet. He had one hand curled up so it made a lens-like circle and he was turning his hand camera from one dish to the other. It’s not as though we had all morning, but I knew better than to rush him. “You have
too much free time, Jonathan,” I said under my breath.
By seven-thirty, things were beginning to steam up in the kitchen, literally. The two fat little chickens were roasting away, and each time we opened the oven door to turn or baste them, thyme-scented steam filled the room. Mae, who was now shaping breads, had entered another zone. In one smooth motion, she ran her hands over the top of the puffy mound, stretched a thin layer of dough down the sides, and tucked it under the bottom as she lifted and turned the
. She repeated the motion three or four times with each ball of dough, sending little poufs of flour into the space around her. Sally had taught her this French technique for creating surface tension and Mae had it down. It was sweet to watch. Unfortunately, Sonya chose that moment to arrive with Tina, who was not as impressed as I with Mae’s technique. “What are you doing?” she exclaimed. “Is that my bread recipe?
do it that way. Just plop it onto a baking pan.”
Tina picked up a perfectly formed mound of dough and looked around for a pan, all the while juggling the dough, and jabbing her long, perfectly manicured red fingernails into the lovely smooth surface. By the time she got it into the pan, it was the misshapen blob of her dreams. Mae kept looking from the dough to Tina as though the star had just snatched her first-born baby off her lap and given it to a mother gorilla. I was glad Mae practiced Zen meditation, because otherwise I think she would have hit Tina.
Tina seemed oblivious to Mae’s wrath. “That’s all you have
to do. It’s so easy. That’s why I love it. Oh, the chickens smell so good. Do you think they’ll be done on time?”
“I’m sure of it,” I reassured her, and I explained about the dark color the camera created. She understood.
“Believe me, I know what lighting can and can’t do for an actor, even if it’s a bird,” Tina chirped. “Let’s light that mother right and shoot it from its best side.” With the exception of Mae, we all gave a little laugh at her movie humor, and I took that moment of discussing personal appearance to mention that we were going to leave the foil off the potatoes so they wouldn’t wrinkle.
“But how will the audience know they’re cooked if they aren’t wrinkled?”
I started to explain that baked potatoes don’t have to be wrinkled, but at that moment she reached up to push back a lock of hair and I noticed that two of her fingernails were completely gone and bits of polish were missing from a few others. “Oh gosh, Tina, look at your hands. You’ve lost a couple of press-on nails.”
“Shit. That’s why I always wear rubber gloves when I cook.”
I fondled the dough a bit and found the fingernails. I wasn’t worried about the polish in the bread because it looked like herbs, but the fingernails needed to be returned to their hand before showtime.
Sonya took Tina by the elbow. “We better go back upstairs to makeup for a repair. Everyone all set with Tina’s instructions?”
Tina gave us one of those smiles that must have wowed the movie moguls and then walked out. Sonya turned back to me before joining her. “Do what you have to do,” she whispered.
When all was said and done, the food looked pretty damn good on the monitor. Tina even came back to the kitchen to
thank us. She was so gracious and sincere that I almost felt bad for trashing her recipes.
The Tonys cleaned up; Mae went outside for a smoke; and numerous members of the crew wandered into the kitchen for leftovers. Out of habit, I turned on my cell to see if Richard had called. We usually spoke as soon as the show was over to discuss cooks and patients. He’d get a hoot out of the fingernails in the bread and probably would have some funny patient story to tell me. Nope. I had accepted that it was over, and I didn’t want him back, but my ego had been seriously wounded. I wanted him to call and tell me how sorry he was. I needed groveling.
I was opening and closing my cell when Mae walked back into the kitchen. She knew my old routine.
“Casey?” She raised her eyebrows.
“What?” I said, feigning no knowledge of her accurate assumption.
what. The man is scum. I mean, I know you were totally zapped, but if you can’t let go of it, you can’t move on.”
“I’m not moving anywhere, Mae. I’ve decided that I’m no good at relationships.”
“That’s another thing. Stop beating yourself up about it. You tried hard to make it work. It just wasn’t the match for you. You have to let it go.”
“Letting go is not part of my DNA. I just wish he’d call and beg me to come back so I could tell him to go fuck himself.”