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 also talks about how he came to be back on TV after producing healthy food segments years ago, including at KPBS with just-retired KPBS General Manager, Tom Karlo, on camera two, his days cooking for Sinatra, Tom Jones, the Osmonds 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. Working on trying to continue to develop “Food Over 50.” 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 work on properties that I own out here, I’ve got a couple of rentals out here and just bought a new place in Scotland and I’m going to be going there and working on it and slowly working on our first “Food Over 50” cookbook.
What was your path to cooking and how did you come to creating the only cooking show on PBS and Create that caters to the 50 and over set?
That is correct, good observation. There are all kinds of pledge shows that deal with health, aging and brain health, waistlines and everything else, but there’s never been a series before. My interest in food came about from my interest in eating (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 and took a shine to it. So I love cooking. I would say that cooking and building 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 steakhouse cutting meat and doing broiler stuff after school and making almost three times as much as they were. It began there. 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 and was picked up to work at Caesar’s Palace, back in the day, remember “Casino?” 1973-74 I was working at Caesars Palace with an exceptional chef Maurice Galle. 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’s amazing. Soon after, I ended up cooking for all the celebrities, the mid-evening meal, between the dinner show and cocktail show at the Circus Maximus. I cooked for Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Andy Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Hackett and whoever was performing there. I was what was called a ’swing’ cook. Maurice could 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 filling in for one of the butchers out sick or on vacation, and of course cooking for special events and for the entertainers. The early ‘70s in Vegas was a wild time. I got my school of hard knocks chef’s credential [after] about eight years of working at the various regiments of cooking, whether it was butchery, grilling, baking, sauces, garde manger. At the same time I was torn because my mom and dad had a business in San Diego, that’s where I graduated high school. I ended up working with them in our family construction business. So I was juggling both for several years. I always have enjoyed cooking and eating well. Healthy, fresh food. 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. I had just turned 18. Did all kinds of big things. It was interesting cooking for the celebrities. It was fascinating what they liked to eat. Almost all of them were highly consistent in what they’d eat. Tom Jobs always liked steak and champagne, a nicely grilled steak, the Osmond family when they were very young, it was always cheeseburger and fries. It was so schmaltzy and American, it was very funny. They always ate the same thing while they were performing. So that was neat. I would sometimes go and deliver the food up to the performer’s suite and 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 mother and father retired out here too and my dad, after his long career in construction, had also been a Reserve Sheriff for San Bernardino County, and he ended up getting the job as chief of security for Frank Sinatra at Mr. S’s compound in Rancho Mirage. And I helped out and it was interesting I had cooked for him all those years ago and then ended up getting to know him because my dad worked for him. And to this day, I have Frank Sinatra’s ravioli maker up on the back hutch behind me as I’m cooking, which I was given by Mr. S’s chef Roland when they were leaving Palm Springs and moving back to Beverly Hills.
Since you were out there in retirement, what made you want to do show?
I had done cooking segments and shows throughout several decades. My first attempt at television programming, all healthy food-related, was for KSQ-TV in Palm Springs, which was the ABC affiliate around 1979-80. I did two healthy cooking news bites. One was called “Food for Thought” and the other was “Eating Well.”
Everything from how to sharpen your knives properly to doing a really delicious fresh fish and vegetable fish en-papillote. Then those led to, this was about 1984, we produced for the Hospital Satellite Network, they were based on Avenue of the Stars in Century City. They were one of the first cable networks originally designed to be an educational network system for physicians and hospitals and also to provide patient ‘’infotainment’’ in the waiting rooms. We did a show called “Healthy Lifestyles.” I did the cooking segments, the wrap-around was Bruce Jenner, when Bruce was Bruce, and woman named Jean Caroll. It was a magazine-style show all about literally healthy lifestyles. Interestingly, we shot some of the segments at the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences out at the Eisenhower Medical Center here in the desert, but we also did many of the segments 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, he just retired in 2020, he’d been there for 47 years, he knew my mother who also worked at San Diego State. I went up to Tom and his wife Julie at the San Diego PBS Annual Meeting and said, “I went to San Diego State for a semester, do you remember [us] producing the “Healthy Lifestyles” spots back in the mid-80s on the quad at KPBS at San Diego State? He looked at me and said, “Oh yeah they were a great client, we did a lot of work for them!” I said, “We did the show there” and he looked for a minute and said, “Oh my gosh, I was on camera two! “ (laughs) So he was shooting me at that time. Tom Karlo started out as a student, started working for KPBS and never left, the only job he ever had was for KPBS.
What led you to create this show now?
I’ve always been very interested in healthy gourmet food, you can 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, they gutted me like a trout and took out a whole bunch of my plumbing. At first they thought it might be colon cancer. I was misdiagnosed, it was not. Thankfully, I have a few low friends in high places, one of whom was a very good pathologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I said, “Could I get a second opinion?” “Yeah, have your pathologist send the slides.” I did and they said, “You don’t have colon cancer, you have a bit of diverticulitis, it perforated your bowel, the healthiest diet for anything having to do with the bowel is – no seeds, drink more water and chew your food better.” But that was a life scare. At first they said, “You have colon cancer.” That made me realize there’s a lot of other people that are aging. As we get older, it’s like an old car, you’ve got to do more maintenance on it. So I thought of “Food Over 50” and thought of various titles and we just realized – say what you mean. Fifty is the age where things start to degenerate if they’re going to. And that’s the first year you’re supposed to have your first colonoscopy and all that. It means that we need to take better care of ourselves with a healthier diet, fitness and that was the focus for “Food Over 50.”
You mentioned Scotland, I was surprised when on one show you were suddenly in Scotland, what was the context. Do you live there half the year and you do your show there when you are there?
I have been rabid fisherman all my life, and a very dear brother from another mother has a cottage there. He found this old crofter’s cottage in the Western Isles of Scotland, the Isle of Lewis. Simon’s a painter and an artist and without having huge resources, he was able to buy the building. But the cottage had all the windows and doors knocked out and there was a dead sheep in the living room. He said, “I want to fix it up, would you be interested in coming in as a partner and provide the money for the upgrade?” I had a publishing business and did business internationally, England, Holland and I said, “Yeah, I’ve got some money, not much,” and I put in about 10,000 pounds and we spruced up the house. He lives there. So I’ve been able to go there all that time, but now just recently, I bought a plot of land and a house on the same bay, so I’ve got one and a quarter houses in Scotland (laughs). I go over for a month or so in the summer, but now I’ll probably end up spending a little more time, just to get away from the summer a bit more.
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 have shot in a wheat field in Brawley down in the Imperial Valley, we shot in the high desert at Joshua Tree National Park, standing by the lake, that was Salton Sea; we have shot an olive farm in Temecula, in the date orchards in the Coachella Valley, highlighting various produce and where they come from.
What are you normally doing when you’re not on the show; what are some days like?
Basically it’s getting set for further retirement. As I say, I’m not retired, I’m very busy. Believe me, producing a television show is a whole lot like work. To say we’re the best cooking on public television? Heavens no, we are a very small production, but it is unique. There are many cooking shows on regional cuisines, but there isn’t a cooking show that incorporates international cuisine, literally everything 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. We’re not your doctor, we’re not your dietician, we’re a guideline for eating healthier, fresher, better foods that taste really good and more importantly showing people how to avoid the prepared and manufactured foods that are literally packed with the things that we should not be eating so much of as we get older. Take canned chili, one cup of any brand has your full daily allowance of sodium. Whereas if you make your own chili, you can put fewer beans, more spices, and you can eat as much as you want. 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. And showing that cooking is not that difficult to do, whether you’re a gourmet chef or just starting. It’s the same as painting a room in 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 is working on property. I’ve got six or seven 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 fart playing “This Old House,” just scraping, sanding, patching, fixing the electrics and plumbing. I’ve built a few homes myself. I’ve sold one place, another one is going to be made into a short-term rental. I like fishing, I like taking a lovely woman out to dinner or cooking for her (laughs) and of that sort of thing.
You mentioned your cookbook, is that part of your publishing company?
No, that has all disbanded. For years, I was balancing my father’s construction in San Diego and doing a lot of publishing liaison. I started writing, [as] a freelance journalist. I did a lot of writing early-on and found I liked it. I realized, “Wait a minute, there’s a lot of people that could use help in getting themselves published. I started helping small publications get distributed in places, whatever niche magazine, 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 them. That was a good business for about 40 years and ink on paper started to diminish in the late ‘90s, early 2000’s, so I stepped away from that and my parents retired and they sold their business down in San Diego. That left me realizing what am I going to do. I thought, “Let’s get the whole food thing started again”, on television if we can. That’s where the “Food Over 50” project sprung from, that and that 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 you can serve it with almost anything. One of the recipes we do is “Almost Chicken Soup,” that’s another. Any kind of a good, hearty soup that is 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 and then 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?” Just do the math, take every ingredient and reduce it. Fractions.
What’s the favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of producing and hosting “Food Over 50,” is not the work of producing and hosting it, but the response from viewers. I thoroughly enjoy planning the shows, creating the recipes, it’s really, really fun. I don’t have a huge kitchen crew, we keep it very tight. I think Rick Steves coined the phrase “guerilla shooting,” it’s just himself, his producer Simon and a cameraman, they go all around Europe and do it very lean and mean. It’s important to do that in public television because budgets are modest and not everybody garners the big money like somebody like Ken Burns does for his amazing documentaries. So we have to put them together as tightly 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 money we find and then spend it out and to the end and if there’s 10 cents left, then that’s our profit. It’s a modest undertaking at best. But I enjoy our feedback, even the highly critical or nonsensical. I like getting emails and hearing from our viewers. Though I do have someone that responds to most of them, I look at every one and make sure there’s something to be learned from them because quite often the viewers are very sharp and they’ll ask a question I hadn’t thought about or they’ll point out a mistake and that’s positive constructive criticism. Every once in a while, you’ll get somebody who is just 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 very easy, you take a small fileting knife and slip it up under the chin and pop it up and it splits the skull and they’re instantly dead, so you’re not boiling them alive. That’s cold as they say. (laughs). There’s always a little bit of muscle twitch and with a lobster, some of the little walking legs can still wobble. So I split the lobster and one legged moved a little bit and I got so much critical email from that. “How dare you slaughter that lobster, they have lives too!” I will often write back, “Do you eat lobster?” “Well, yeah.” “Well it had to die for you to eat it and yes we did dispatch it off camera.” 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 dough, flour, and the other is cheese and both of those are a little tough on the digestion and on our dietary health as we get older and more sedentary. Not to say you can’t have them. But when you start talking about baked goods, cakes and cookies, we emphasize not just lemon juice and kale all the time. But too much of the American diet emphasizes refined carbohydrates far too much and we’re trying to avoid that. So you’ve got a platform of a refined carbohydrate, pizza dough. Spread some olive oil on it, that’s great. Then you’re going to have a little marinara sauce. Also good if it doesn’t have too much sugar and salt in it. But then, what’s on top? Pepperoni sausage, maybe a few vegetables and a whole bunch of cheese. So in that regard, there are certain things you just can’t retool a pizza very easily. So we pick and choose from world cuisine the kind of things that can be adapted to lean down and reduce the sodium and carbs as much as possible, without reducing the taste. So we’re trapped in our own cage a little bit.
So far everyone’s had a Julia Child story or that she influenced them, do you have a Julia Child story?
Nope, except for one thing. We were the same height. She was a very tall lady. She was 6’3.” And if I may say so, yes, a lot of people have Julia Child stories and she was amazing. But a lot of people also want to try and associate with Julia Child, so my answer is – other than the fact that we were the same height, I never met her and I admired her greatly. I thought she was a hoot, really cool, but nope, never met her. And yes, I read her book. I don’t know what else to say other than she was a terrific lady.
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 during the development of “Food Over 50” as a concept and getting it to the point where we found our sponsor for the first two seasons and the production of those two seasons, I had my mother in hospice care in my home and I was the principal care provider. I told everyone at American Public Television who was our distributor and all of the stations, “Guys, I’m going to do this the best I can, but my mother Maggie comes first and public television comes second,” when it comes to prioritizing and work effort. So there was room to develop “Food Over 50” and get two seasons and there was room to care for my mom and doing so and 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 the best thing you ever did in your life. And it was for me. But there wasn’t room for that third thing – writing the cookbook. But I’m now starting to work on it. We’re hopeful for season three and four, it depends on finding funding. If we can’t find funding, then we will most likely create a pledge show and then offer the cookbook. But we’re very hopeful that we get funding because a lot of shows do well in distribution, but “Food Over 50” did extremely well and continues to, not only on Create TV. There’s about 340 PBS- related and independent public televisions 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 that much? (laughs) Because I’m really not a foodie in the modern sense. I am very food-oriented, but I would rather cook a nice meal and invite people over than go take people out to a restaurant, 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 what it costs. I know what’s involved in preparing a plate of food. It’s hard to not be shocked by current prices in restaurants and go “My God, that plate of food costs them 75 cents, why are they charging $75.” And there are examples not too much less extreme than that in New York, L.A., London. I would much prefer going to a farmers market, buying some cool food and preparing it, or just grabbing simple things and going out and having a picnic.
Is there anything you want to add to tell viewers?
Always consider your overall health, not just your taste buds when choosing foods. Don’t be a slave to your taste buds.