Authors: SUSAN WIGGS
AYBE YES, MAYBE NO
Martin has been flirting with me this whole trip. I pretend to treat it lightly, but come on. Martin Harlow. He's like a piece of found art, rough around the edges, but with a form and function that haunts a girl's dreams. At the moment, I'm not dreaming, although everyone else in the rental van is. I'm the only one awake besides the driver.
The last leg of the journey is always the hardest. Especially when the journey takes place at the blustery tail end of winter and you're traveling from the sunny blaze of Los Angeles to the frigid wilds of northern Vermont. After the redeye flight from LA to New York, my production team and I endured a bumpy regional hop to Burlington, followed by a slog in two hired vans to our final destinationâÂSwitchback, Vermont.
It's my hometown, but I haven't lived here since I graduated high school. What is home? Maybe it's not a place, but a moment in time. When I was safe. Secure. Cared for.
. It's more than a point on a map. It's a sensation. A feeling of comfortâÂfeet sinking into warm slippers. Hands curling around a mug of fragrant coffee. Sounds of birdsong and breezes stirring the leaves in the maple trees. As my mind wraps around the notion of
, everything else falls away. It simply fades like the ambient noise we deal with on set every day when we're filming a segment for the show.
I grew up knowing that the best maple syrup in the world comes from Vermont. And the best syrup in Vermont comes from Rush Mountain. It's been my family's business for generations. And now the production is going to set up, literally, in my own backyardâÂthe family sugarbush on Rush Mountain.
Many times, I've pictured myself coming back one day in triumph, having chased my dream clear to California and back. I suppose you could say that's what I'm doing now, about to begin filming the pilot episode of a TV series I created.
When we pitched the show to the network, I was asked how I came up with the name,
The Key Ingredient
. The truth is, I had the name long before I had the show. It comes from the wisest woman I've ever knownâÂAnastasia Carnaby Rush, my grandmother. Gran used to say each recipe has a key ingredientâÂone element that defines it, without which the dish simply wouldn't be the same, like the vinegar in a red velvet cake, the threads of saffron in paella or the four pods of star anise she used to tuck into the pasta sauce as it simmered on the back burner.
What she really meant had nothing to do with a recipe you make in the kitchen. I've always regretted that I didn't figure that out sooner.
I wish Gran were still around for my homecoming, even though it's for work and the budget only allows us seventy-Âtwo hours for filming. She would have been so happy for me.
When I was growing up, Gran and I watched hours and hours of PBS cooking shows together. This was in the '90s, before the food channels that are so ubiquitous these days exploded onto the scene. The older shows were pretty basicâÂa well-Âequipped kitchen, an island counter, a chopping board and four burners. Yet even the most pared-Âdown, simple production inspired us if the chef had a great personality. We loved it when the host would talk of his travels and share the stories behind the food, all the while demonstrating kitchen techniques we could practice. I learned to fold, cream, julienne and sautÃ© by watching Martin Yan, Chef Tell and Mario Batali, while Gran wrote down the recipes so we could recreate them at home.
Even back then, it wasn't just the cooking techniques that drew me in. I was fascinated by the whole idea of a kitchen rigged with cameras so a talented chef or home cook could share her art. I dreamed of being in the spotlight myself, showing the world how to make egg pasta or maple-Âglazed carrots or rosemary lemonade. Our family photo albums are stuffed with snapshots of me giving pretend demos to a rapt audience of dolls, dogs or grandparents. While other kids were building with Legos, I was practicing my knife skills.
At the age of nine, I got a digital video camcorder for Christmas. When I learned what that big, cumbersome camera could do, it was as if I'd seen the face of God. Not only could I dream up my own shows and episodes, I could film them and play them back.
Gran was a really good sport about it all. She let me set the camera on its tripod and play unfortunate selections of background music while I interviewed her.
“I was never homesick,” she said, talking to meâÂnot the camera. “This place has always felt more like home to me than the big city. You see, I believe some Âpeople are born in the place they belong. Others have to go looking for it. That was me. I went looking, and I found this place. It's my heart's home, and I thank God every day that I'm able to spend my life here.”
She talked of her life in Boston, and how as a young woman she worked in a restaurant called Durgin-ÂPark. It was a place that had been in existence for three hundred years. The tourists would come for baked beans and to be sassed by the waitresses. It was there, during the lunch rush, that she met a handsome Vermonter who had come down one summer weekend to see the sights of Boston. She proudly told everyone that yes, she sassed him. At Durgin-ÂPark, it was expected.
Less than a year later, she bade her family farewell and boarded a train up to Vermont, which in those days was as distant and untamed as the Wild West, to hear her tell it.
With the red camera light running and me directing things with zero expertise but an excess of enthusiasm, she created many of the family favorites. Somewhere in my digital archives, there's footage of her making ice-Âcream pie, scalloped potatoes, squash roasted with maple butter and salt, potato and ricotta gnocchi, salads bright with tomatoes just harvested in her legendary summer garden, homemade jam from the berries we picked, crisp pickles preserved without one single drop of vinegar.
If you ever watch a cooking show, pay close attention to the chef's hands. The very best chefs on the air handle food with grace and confidenceâÂand with love. Even in the grainy old digital files of my grandmother, back when my camera skills were rudimentary at best, you can still see this trait. She is absolutely sure of herself in the kitchen, and driven by a mission to care for Âpeople by feeding them. When preparing a meal, a good chef knows instinctively that love is the key ingredient, no matter what else you add to the dish. In fact, that's how I came up with the name for the show I produceâÂ
The Key Ingredient
As a student in film school, the last thing I expected was to be the creative force behind a hit cooking show.
Confession: My real dream was to be the creative force
of the camera, too. That's not how events unfolded, but I can't complain. I did the next best thing. I discovered the talented, charismatic, totally hot chef who was chosen to host the showâÂMartin Harlow.
He was a food-Âcart chef in Washington Square Park, just barely scraping by but attracting an avid following of foodies who appreciated his culinary skills and groupies who admired his matinee-Âidol looks. I was a film student at New York University's Tisch School, trying to recover from a shattered heart after walking away from the best man I'd ever known.
Martin became the topic of my senior project, a short documentary. After it was posted on the internet, the film went viral, and we were offered the opportunity to shoot a pilot with an option for more episodes of a cooking show for a new start-Âup network. The day we got the green light, he picked me up and danced me around the room, and then he kissed me long and hard. It was a good kiss. A really,
good kiss, full of promise. But no. This is work. This is our shot. We can't screw this up.
Still, I catch myself fantasizing about being a pair onscreen. The Sonny and Cher of the kitchen. The culinary Captain and Tennille. Martin admits he fantasizes about the two of us
While in the development phase, we filmed some test reels with me in the role of cohost, but the executive producer claimed my “look” isn't right for the series. I still remember how I felt, hearing that. As if I'd swallowed a ball of ice and had to pretend nothing was wrong. In show business, you can't take things like that personally. And you can't argue with the executive producer, AKA the owner of the show.
Above all, you can't worry that the idea you created is now at the mercy of a committee of production and network executives whose chief aim is to attract sponsorship dollars. In commercial TV,
would be the key ingredient. Already, I can feel the creative control slipping away as they talk about future episodes going over the top with expensive stunts, like diving for oysters, foraging for truffles or milking a Nubian goat. I'm starting to wonder what happened to the original concept for the show. Sometimes it feels as if the original idea is being overshadowed by theatrics and attention-Âgrabbing segments that were never part of my initial vision.
Then I remind myself how lucky I am just to have been in the right place at the right time with the right talent. Most Âpeople my age only dream of getting such a great start in the business. It's only the beginning.
They cast Melissa Judd in the role of cohost. Martin met her in his yoga class. Her former gig was hawking kitchen gadgets on a late-Ânight shopping network, but apparently her look is perfect for our show's target demographic. She's blonde and beautiful, which makes up for the fact that her delivery tends to be shrill and overwrought.
To her credit, she's a hard worker and a quick learner. I should know. It was my job to train her to be more genuine on camera, to play up her natural chemistry with Martin. I did a good job, because their onscreen chemistry is amazing. So amazing that I sometimes feel threatened by it.
As our van with the crew trolls through the main part of Switchback, I start to worry about the weather. The sky is bulging with low, gray clouds, and rain hisses against the windshield. It's not the sort of blue-Âsky, snow-Âdusted weather we were hoping for. This time of year, you take your chances.
I sneak glances at the others in the van. Martin has his head pillowed on a wadded-Âup jacket, still sleeping off the redeye flight. He sleeps like a dream, a trait I envy. Melissa is coming down with a coldâÂnot the best thing when you're about to go on camera. She's been using decongestant and eye drops all through the trip. At the moment, she's absorbed in her phone screen, posting snippets on social networks so the world can follow along on her adventure. I spotted her latest mobile shot, a sign bearing the town sloganâÂWelcome to Switchback. Once you Switch, you'll never go Back. Her caption:
Hi there, adorable Vermont village. We're about to film something sweet! #thekeyingredient
I've been told that I do mornings very well. I love the morning light streaming in through the windows. I love the rich aroma of fresh coffee. Martin does mornings well, too; he's a fantastic chef who can put together a quick sautÃ© of surprising ingredientsâÂsay, smoked salmon and fresh peas, topped with a poached egg and horseradish crÃ¨me fraiche. After something like that, the day opens up with possibility.
But this day .Â .Â . I'm not so sure.
As the van slows down in the town center, Martin wakes up, stretching his long, lean body and letting out a groan. “Are we there yet?” he asks.
It's not fair that he looks so good after a redeye flight. “Yep,” I say. “Welcome to Switchback.”
“Coffee,” he says. “Is there coffee in Switchback?”
“There's a diner over there.” I indicate the Star Lite CafÃ©, a Switchback institution since before I was born. After high school football games, we used to go there for hot chocolate, sitting on the benches outside as the scent of autumn spiced the air.
They don't have autumn in LA.
Martin rubs his jaw and gets out of the van. “Not how I pictured it,” he says, holding out his hand to help me down.
I feel the need to apologize. Now that we've arrived, I'm hit by a prickly feeling of unease. I wasn't expecting to be nervous about returning to the small town where I grew up, surrounded by everyone who's known me for years. In all the preproduction meetings, filming here seemed like the ideal way to launch the show. I'm starting to think Martin is rightâÂmaybe coming home to film the segment wasn't the best idea after all. Maybe it'll rile up a certain something from the past.
I just need to keep my head down and work.
The other van pulls up beside us. We're parked in front of the white-Âpainted courthouse that dominates the town square. I'm still in the yoga pants and oversize top I wore for flying. My assistant, Tiger, takes everyone's order for coffee. The rain has slacked off, so I decide to wait outside with Martin.
“We made it,” he says with a grin. “I'm excited to meet your family, see the place where you grew up.”
I smile despite my nervousness. “Me, too. They're going to love you.” Everyone loves Martin. He's smart and talented and charming. He's the reason we got a shot at this show in the first place.
I glance across the street as Tiger goes into the diner. And the last person in the world I want to see is just coming out.
Melissa walks up to us. “Well, hell-Âooo, handsome,” she murmurs, watching him.
Fletcher Wyndham. He stands aside and holds the door for a woman carrying a toddler.
“Oh darn,” Melissa murmurs under her breath. “Taken.”
Is he ever.
Martin stiffens beside me, and I realize I've been staring. “Who's that?” he asks.
Â“People I knew in high school,” I quickly say. My stomach churns at the sight of them. I can't keep myself from thinking they are the family I never had. The road I didn't take.
His wife bends over the stroller as she tucks the little boy in. Fletcher looks across the street and spots me. We lock eyes and briefly freeze, electrified by surprise .Â .Â . and then recognition. In that moment, all the love and joy and heartache rush over me in a wave that leaves me weak and questioning all the choices I've ever made.