As many people who turn 50 can attest to, it seems once they hit that age, their body can start to fall apart as if on-cue that they are in the second half of life’s journey. David Jackson tells KLCS how a colon cancer scare when he turned 50 was a catalyst in creating his show “Food Over 50,” which airs on KLCS’ Create. It’s the only cooking show that addresses America’s large aging population, with nutritional tips and healthier dishes. David talks about how he came to be back on TV after producing healthy food segments, years ago, for the Hospital Satellite Network series “Healthy Lifestyles,” partially shot at KPBS, San Diego, with just-retired KPBS General Manager, Tom Karlo, manning camera two. He also recalls his early days cooking for Sinatra, Tom Jones, Diana Ross and many other celebs at Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace in the early 1970s, why Sinatra’s ravioli maker sits behind him on set and about spending more time in Scotland.
David, your show makes me think it should be a partner show with “Growing Bolder.” You were born in East L.A., but you produce the show in Palm Springs. Did you retire there like many Angelenos and was this show something you came up with living there?
I’ve lived in the desert all my adult life. “Retirement” is a dirty word for me. Am I working at my business from years past? No. I’m 66 now. If anything I’m busier than when I was in the working world. “Food Over 50” is a handful. Right now, we’re looking for corporate underwriting for Season Three. And Covid has taken a bite out of that for a while as every station has had a hard time finding money. I also work on property I own out here in the desert. I’ve got a couple of rentals out here and just bought a new place in Scotland. I go there regularly to work on it, while slowly working on the first “Food Over 50” cookbook as well.
What was your path to cooking and how did you come to develop the only cooking show on PBS and Create that caters to the 50 and over set?
There have been all kinds of pledge shows that deal with healthy aging, brain health and everything else, but there’s never been a series before like Food Over 50. My interest in food came about from my appetite (laughs) as a little kid. Both my grandmother and mother were excellent cooks and I just had wide eyes and open ears, and followed what they did, taking a shine to it. So yes, I love cooking. I would say that cuisine and construction are my two favorite things. I love garlic and mortar under my fingernails! I started early. My first cooking job was in high school, when all the kids in my class were working at Taco Bell or McDonald’s, I was working at a fancy steakhouse, cutting meat and working the broiler after school. I earned almost three times as much as the other kids. Right out of high school I went to Las Vegas thinking I was going to go to UNLV, which had a great hotel and restaurant administration school. I went to work at Caesar’s Palace instead. Remember the movie “Casino?” In 1974 I was working at Caesars Palace for an exceptional chef, Maurice Gallé . I just went in there and said, “I want to work for you, at this hotel,” and he took me. I learned so much from him. It was amazing. Soon after, I ended up cooking for all the celebrities, between their dinner and cocktail shows at the Circus Maximus showroom. I cooked for Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Andy Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Hackett, The Osmonds; whoever was performing
at that time. I was called a ’swing’ cook. Chef Gallé might put me in the Caesar’s coffee shop one night, the ritzy Bacchanal restaurant another, in the butcher shop to cut 50,000 pounds of meat per week while one of the regular butchers was on vacation, cooking for special events
or the entertainers. The early/mid ‘70s in Vegas was a wild time. It was my chef’s credential from the school of hard knocks. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and eating well. Healthy, fresh food. After all, a healthy diet is not made from Twinkies, Cheetos and Diet Coke (laughs)!
You must have a lot of stories from being a chef in Vegas at that time.
It was interesting cooking for the entertainers. It was fascinating what they liked to eat. Many of them were superstitious about what they ate while performing. Tom Jones was a steak and champagne guy. The Osmond Family almost always had cheeseburgers and fries. It was so schmaltzy and all American; it was very funny. I would sometimes go and deliver the meal to the performer’s suite. It was interesting to meet some of them. What’s ironic is back then I ended up cooking for Frank Sinatra once or twice. It turned out that many decades later, my then retired father ended up working as chief of security for Frank Sinatra at Mr. S’s compound in Rancho Mirage. Interesting that I had cooked for him all those years ago in Vegas, then ended up getting to know him a little because my dad worked for him. I have Frank Sinatra’s ravioli maker up on the back hutch behind me on the Food Over 50 kitchen set. It was given to me by Mr. S’s chef, Roland, when the Sinatra’s left Palm Springs and moved back to Beverly Hills.
Since you were out in the desert, almost retired, what made you want to do your show?
I had done cooking segments and shows throughout several decades. My first attempt at television programming, all healthy food-related, was for KESQ-TV in Palm Springs.
That’s the ABC affiliate. It was around 1979-80. I did two healthy cooking news
segments. One was called “Food for Thought” and the other “Eating Well.” They included everything from how to properly sharpen your kitchen knives to doing a really delicious, fresh fish and vegetable dish en-papillote. Those segments led to “Healthy Lifestyles” for the Hospital Satellite Network. That was 1984. HSN was one of the first cable networks, originally designed as a televised educational system for physicians, hospitals and patient ‘’infotainment’’ in waiting rooms. I did the cooking segments. The wrap-around hosts were Bruce Jenner – back when Bruce was Bruce – and a woman named Jean Caroll. It was a magazine-style show all about healthy lifestyle choices. We shot some of the segments at the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences, out at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Desert. I have a very good relationship with the Eisenhower campus. I’ve interviewed several of their physicians on-air for Food Over 50. But back in the day we also shot segments for “Healthy Lifestyles” down at KPBS in San Diego. A funny story that public television viewers might be interested in – the extremely tenured general manager at KPBS, Tom Karlo, recently retired after 47 years at that Public Television station. He actually knew my mother, who also worked at San Diego State once upon a time. I encountered Tom and his wife Julie at the San Diego PBS Annual Meeting and mentioned producing the “Healthy Lifestyles” spots on the quad at KPBS. That was in ’84. He gave me a funny look and said, “Oh my gosh, I remember that! I was on camera two, shooting your close ups! “(laughs)
What led you to create Food Over 50 now?
I’ve always been very interested in making gourmet food healthier. We can all make food delicious and nutritious at the same time. That’s always been a pattern for my dietary interests. But when I hit 50, I had a medical emergency. Turned out that I had a perforation in my intestine. I went straight in for surgery. The doctor gutted me like a trout. At first it was thought it might have colon cancer. Thankfully I was misdiagnosed. I have a few low friends in high places, one of whom was an exceptional pathologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. She arranged a second opinion. I’ll never forget the phone call. She said, “David, you don’t have colon cancer, you have diverticulitis. It perforated your bowel, but there’s no cancer. Eat more fiber, chew your food better and drink more water. You’ll be fine.” That personal experience made me realize there’s a lot of other people out there with the same health issues. So, “Food Over 50” was born.
You mentioned Scotland. I was surprised when on one show you were suddenly in Scotland. What was the context?
I have been a rabid fisherman all my life, and a good buddy of mine has a cottage in The Outer Hebrides. He found this old crofter’s cottage on the Isle of Lewis about 35 years ago. It was derelict. All the windows and doors were knocked out, and there was a dead sheep in the living room. He bought it on the cheap, fixed it up and has lived there ever since; with an estuarial salmon river running right outside the front door! So, I’ve been able to spend a couple weeks there each summer, catching salmon and harvesting lobsters, crab and scallops. But recently I bought my own plot of land and a funky little beach hut on the same bay. Now I’ve got my own digs in Scotland (laughs). I’ll probably end up spending summers there from now on, partly to shoot more Scottish seafood segments for Food Over 50.
I also love your other outdoor sets, which I assume you filmed in a desert when you were camping, and one was at the edge of a lake, I recall.
They’re not sets, they’re actual location shoots. We’ve shot in a wheat field in Brawley, down in the Imperial Valley. We’ve shot in the high desert at Joshua Tree National Park, standing beside the Salton Sea, at an olive ranch in Temecula, in the date orchards of the Coachella Valley, all highlighting various forms of healthful produce and where it comes from.
What are you normally doing when you’re not on the show; what are some days like?
Basically, staying busy. I refuse to retire from life. Believe me, producing a television show is a whole lot like work. We are a very small production, but it’s a unique production. There are many cooking shows on regional cuisines, but there isn’t a cooking show that incorporates literally every international cuisine, from Polynesian to Swedish meatballs. We do everything, but all of it is on a healthy plane; fresh, vibrant, colorful, lower sodium, lower saturated fats, increased fiber. I’m not your doctor and I’m not your dietician, but Food Over 50 is a common sense guideline for eating healthier, fresher, better foods that taste really good. More importantly, I enjoy showing people how to avoid over-processed and manufactured foods that are packed with junk we should not be eating, especially as we get older. Take canned chili. One cup of brand name chili has your full daily allowance of sodium. If we make our own chili instead, we can reduce the fat and sodium, increase the beans, vegetables and healthy spices, making it both delicious and nutritious. That’s the whole premise of “Food Over 50” – common sense, eating the rainbow, boosting the good things, reducing the bad things and eliminating all of the pre-packaged stuff. Cooking healthful recipes is not that difficult, whether you’re a gourmet chef or just starting. It’s the same as painting your house, you just do it.
So what do you do when you’re not on the show or on your days off?
Like right now, all through Covid with downtime what I’ve been doing lots of DIY. I’ve got a few properties here in the desert. All of them combined are probably worth one nice house in L.A., but property values have been increasing and I have been playing “This Old House;” scraping, sanding, patching, fixing the electrics, plumbing, painting. I’ve built a few homes over the years. I’ve sold one place, another one is going to be made into a short-term rental. I like fishing, I like taking friends out to dinner, or better still cooking for them. That sort of thing.
You mentioned your cookbook, is that part of your publishing company?
No, that has all disbanded. Ink-on-paper publishing is going the way of the Dodo. For years I was balanced my parent’s construction business in San Diego with cooking interests and a lot of publishing liaison. I did a good bit of freelance journalism. I did a lot of writing early-on and found I liked it. Then I started helping small publications get distributed, lots of niche titles from a food newsletter to an amateur prospecting magazine for gold miners. Any kind of magazine that was sensible and educational and fun, I would help to get it printed and distributed, or partner with the producer. That was a good business for about 30 years, but then came the digital age. My parents had retired and they sold their business down in San Diego. That left me with little to do. I thought, “Let’s get the whole food thing started again.” That’s where the “Food Over 50” project sprung from, that and the personal health scare I had 16 years ago.
Do you have a go-to favorite healthy dish to cook?
For simplicity and versatility, I would say ratatouille. Just a nice vegetable stew. It’s so easy to make. You can cook a big batch of it and serve it with almost anything. Another recipe I do is Almost Chicken Soup. Any kind of good, hearty soup that’s very low in saturated fats and low in sodium, but chock full of every kind of vegetable. One pot things are very simple and easy to do, plus they store so well. Often, I will cook a fairly large portion on the show and people write and say, “I’m alone,” or “I’m just with my husband, what do we do?” My reply is, “Do the math. Reduce every ingredient by an equal fraction. Simple.”
What’s the favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of producing and hosting “Food Over 50” is not the work, but rather the responses I receive from viewers. I thoroughly enjoy planning the shows and creating the recipes. It’s challenging and fun. I don’t have a huge kitchen crew. So, we have to put the episodes together as tight and efficiently as we can. We have to find our own funding.
Public television does not pay us for our show. We have to front load each production with corporate underwriting and then spend it out to the end of the series. If there’s 10 cents left, that’s our profit. If not, I make up the shortfall. It’s a modest undertaking at best. The viewer feedback is what I enjoy most, even the highly critical or nonsensical. I like getting emails and hearing from our viewers. Every once in a while, I’ll get somebody who is completely angry. For instance, in one of our Scottish segments, I grilled a lobster on the beach. I ‘dispatched’ the lobster ahead of time because we weren’t going to kill it on camera. It’s quite easy and humane. You take a small filleting knife and slip it rapidly up under the chin, splitting the brain. It’s quick, efficient and a lot better than boiling them alive. There’s sometimes a little bit of post-mortem muscle twitch with lobster, some of the little walking legs can still wobble. So, I split the lobster and one legged moved a little bit. I got loads of critical email from that. “How dare you slaughter that lobster? You murderer!” I will often write back, “Do you eat lobster?” The answer is often yes. Somehow folks forget that something has to die in order to look taste tempting on your dinner plate. So, we get all kinds of interesting feedback and it’s all appreciated.
I love that you have healthier version of dishes and give nutritional advice. How do you come up with them and will there be more avant-garde recipes like cauliflower pizza or dairy-free swap outs as those are trends that people have as their diets change to cut out sugar, dairy and gluten? Do you keep up with that?
I do, except there are some recipes that just simply can’t be retooled. Like a pizza. Pizzas are great and you can thin down the crust. I love pizza, always have. But there are two basic elements to a pizza. One is the dough and the other is cheese. Both are challenging on our dietary health as we get older. Not to say we can’t have them. Let’s just enjoy pizza in moderation from now on. Too much of the American diet emphasizes refined carbohydrates and saturated fats. It’s best we pick and choose from world cuisine, attempting recipes that can be adapted to lean down and reduce the sodium, refined carbs and animal fats as much as possible, without reducing the taste.
So far everyone’s had a Julia Child story or that she influenced them, do you have a Julia Child story?
Nope. Never met her. The only commonality is that she was a very tall lady – 6’3.” We’re the same height. A lot of cooks and chefs want to associate themselves with a culinary icon like Julia Childs. I’m fine with who I am. I think Julia was a hoot, really cool, but nope, never met her. I don’t know what else to say other than she was terrific.
What’s the most popular question you get? And what’s your answer to that? “Where’s the cookbook?”
The reason I have not done a cookbook yet is simple. During the development and production of the first two seasons of Food Over 50 I had my mother in hospice care in my home. I was the principal care provider. I told everyone at American Public Television, plus all of the station managers, “Guys, I’m going to do this the best I can, but my mother Maggie comes first and Public Television comes second.” So there was room for “Food Over 50” as a TV show and there was room to care for my mom. There was no extra room to write a cookbook. Not then anyway. To everyone out there who cares for a loved one – bravo to you! It’s the best work you’ll ever do in your life. It will be restrictive, it will be frustrating, but it will be ultimately worth it. It certainly was for me. There just wasn’t room for that third thing – writing the cookbook. But I’m now starting to work on it. We’re hopeful for production of Seasons 3 and 4 in the future, once funding is obtained. We will most likely create a pledge show as well, plus offer the cookbook. In the meantime, all our Food Over Recipes are on our website, FoodOver50.com. There are 340 PBS-related and independent public television stations across North America. There’s only six stations that have not aired us. That is a testament to what the show is about. The content is resonating with PBS audiences, which are the oldest viewing audiences on television. It’s boomerville!
Do you have any favorite places to dine or food shop at in L.A.?
Would you hate me if I tell you that I don’t go to restaurants very much? (laughs) I’m really not a foodie in the modern, popular sense. In fact, I’m not even fond of the term. I am very food-oriented, but I would rather cook a nice meal and invite people over than go out to a restaurant. This is for several reasons. One – I don’t get into L.A. that much anymore. Secondly, I did a lot of restaurant and hotel work when I was younger, so I know the costs. I know what’s involved in preparing a plate of food. It’s hard not to be shocked by current prices in restaurants. “My God, that plate of food costs a couple bucks to prepare, yet they’re charging $50.00 for it!” I would much prefer going to a farmers market, buying some cool ingredients and having fun in the kitchen.
Is there anything you want to add to tell viewers?
Don’t be a slave to your tastebuds! Always consider your overall health when choosing recipes and food combinations. And we hope Food Over 50 can help with that.