Some of us first noticed a gregarious host named Kevin Belton pop up on CreateTV seemingly out of nowhere a year or so ago, teaching us how to cook cuisine from New Orleans in his warm, inviting way that makes cooking gumbo seem easy to do. Kevin talked to KLCS about the reaction most viewers have when they meet him in person and find out he is actually larger than life at 6’ 9”, how grateful he is to walk in the other larger than life footsteps of legendary New Orleans chefs (as he’s reminded of each time he walks through the halls of his PBS station) and how he ended up on TV.
You’re on CreateTV. Do you get feedback that your show is a guilty pleasure in a noisy world?
(laughs) I feel it’s a blessing to be able to, in that noisy world, give people five minutes of happiness, and I get so many letters and so many messages from folks, kids, from parents saying things like, “My kid was on his way next door to go play with his friend and I had your show on and now they sit with me every time your show is on before they go play with their friend.” A lady came up to me just the other day and told me her mother has dementia, but she watches television and she says when I come on, her mom lights up like a light bulb and every time (laughs), she says her mom looks over and says, “He knows what he’s doing.” Stories like that, that people enjoy what I do. I’m so appreciative of that.
What is the theme or aim for your show?
My whole goal is take the mystery out of Louisiana cuisine, that everyone can do it. I’m doing Louisiana cuisine but we cover all different types of food because we have all different cultures here in New Orleans. It’s just, “Hey, get up and try it!” A lot of times, chefs egos can be pretty high, “Let me show what I can cook that you can’t.” I want you to feel comfortable to get up, go in the kitchen and try it. It’s that time you get to visit with family and friends at the table. That’s the most important thing.
Were you a chef at a restaurant?
I first started teaching cooking at the New Orleans School of cooking. Joe Cahn started the school and I started out managing the store, eventually working my way to doing the cooking classes. I had a restaurant for a little while and now I’ve become the resident chef of our CBS affiliate and I do other stories for them as well besides cooking segments and PBS.
Do you have a favorite dish that you make?
Not really, it’s those things where I can eat a hotdog and be happy. (laughs) For the CBS affiliate I give a cooking segment very Tuesday morning for the morning crew. I always go around to different folks on the crew and say, “What do you feel like for next week?” So, I don’t necessarily have a favorite, I just like watching people eat and getting everybody together.
What was your path to being a chef and what made you originally want to cook on TV?
I didn’t go to a culinary school. I learned the business coming up in it. My mother being a teacher, she always told me, anything you want to know, pick up a book and read it. I had friends that had restaurants and reading about food, equipment and techniques, then able to be friends with chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Leah Chase and Austin Leslie and Mike Russo, who used to be the chef at Brennan’s, and a gentleman by the name of Warren Leruth, who is a wonderful chef. I got to hang out with these people, not only learning about food, but how to treat people, and about the whole business. Anybody can cook, but it’s everything else that goes with it. I learned that from them. I never planned on being on television. As a kid, I grew up watching Julia Child. I was a PBS kid growing up and the last thing I ever expected was to have a show on PBS. It’s just amazing.
How did that happen?
Back in 1992, our PBS station used to do a fundraiser over two weekends called “Showboat Auction” and different companies would donate items and they’d put it on an auction board and they had four boards and they said, “Why don’t you come read one of the boards for us this weekend?” I read the items on the auction board and at the end of it they asked, “Why don’t you come back, would you be interested in doing some pledge breaks for us?” So I started doing pledge breaks and that voice from my mom kicked in, “Take advantage of that because you can learn to do live television.” You can set up a camera and practice al you want, but to do live television, that’s a whole different animal and the only way you can learn that is by doing it. My first experience with TV was doing pledge breaks, I got to host a show where they would put an ad out on television for everybody to send in their recipes. I would go through the recipes, pick 20 people to come on air on Saturday morning and make their recipes. We do this twice a year, so I got to host that show. Things over time had just built up. I ended up having the show on PBS and doing stories and reports and cooking segments for our CBS affiliate WWL, I never could have imagined that. I’m myself all the time and I just like to see people smile and I like for people to be happy. I think I got that from my parents.
For the fundraiser, you volunteered to help out?
Yeah, I volunteered and they asked me to do some more. My mom always says, “Give back to the community in some kind of way.” So in those early years, I just volunteered, but I was learning at the same time. I’m truly a very shy person, but at the same time if I need to I can stand up in front of 2,000 people and run my mouth.
What’s the most frequent question you get?
Nine times out of 10 people walk up to me and they go, “I didn’t know you were that big!” The PBS set is built for me. I’m 6’ 9”. Most sets are very shallow, from the counter to the back of the set is usually about six, seven feet. My set is like 25 to 30 feet deep, plus the counter is raised much higher, so it makes me look normal. I was in Tampa, WEDU celebrated their 60th anniversary and everybody was saying, “I never realized you were that tall! Wow, you’re big!” That’s the biggest shock I think everybody gets.
Speaking of your set. I liked the old set better, I got used to it. Was there a reason for the change?
The change on this new one, “Kevin Belton’s New Orleans Celebrations,” we have so many festivals and celebrations for different things here, so this was my take, if I had a booth at one of these festivals, this is what I would make. Since it dealt with festivals, that’s why we went with an outside courtyard.
There’s a window that looks outside.
Oh, that’s the second show. That’s inside.
I liked the first set.
The first one I wanted it to be like an old warehouse, I love the look of living in an old warehouse. The second one was more of a greenery looking out at the backyard.
When you’re looking at that set, everybody on crew has something on that set. Whether it’s little nick knacks or pictures. On all of the sets. Everybody sees me, but it’s a true team effort and we have such a great team. Everybody has something on that set, so when they’re watching with their family, they go, “Dad, why is your hat hanging on that rack there?”
What do you do when you’re not on the show teaching us to cook?
I’m usually sitting reading. Thinking about recipes and reading. I always have a book in my bag. I carry a book with me 24-7.
What book is in your bag now?
I read a lot of mysteries. Right now I’m reading Michael Connelly’s “Two Kinds of Truth.”
What keeps your job fun for you? You can tell you really enjoy your job teaching people about New Orleans cooking.
I was raised with the attitude of, “No matter what you have to do, if you don’t like it don’t do it.” And I think life is so short and my mother passed when I was 17, so I learned life was short. So, make the best of every moment and just have a good time doing it. Life is too short to be miserable and to be upset. And if there’s something that you don’t like to do, don’t do it. If I wanted a job outside and the only job available was digging a ditch, I’d wave at every car passing by. You have to enjoy whatever we do, now matter what we choose. I’m just blessed that everybody gets to see what I do. It’s not that it’s more important than what anybody else does. It’s just that it’s very visible.
So far, everyone’s had a Julia Child story, do you have a Julia story or did she inspire you in any way? You mentioned her earlier.
Julia was here in New Orleans and I didn’t get a chance to meet her because I was out of town when she was here and I never got a chance to meet her. But one of the things I remember as a kid, she pulled a soufflé out of the oven one day and the soufflé was at an angle. It looked like a steep driveway, one side had risen and the other side didn’t. (laughs) And she pulled it out of the oven and she went (in Julia’s voice), “Oh well!” And she took a taste of it, she says, “But it tastes good! So, bon appetite!” It showed that it was ok. So when I’m doing this show, a lot of times with a lot of the recipes, I’ll put them together and from cooking so much, I have an idea how they’re going to come out. But a lot of the recipes, the first time I make them is when we’re filming because that way I can explain it to people what I’m running into and they can see it, “and this is how you can fix it.” I think some of the cooking shows these days they have counters, where if something’s not going right, the crew comes in, picks up the counter, walks it out, brings a new counter to the place and they start over. That’s not how we cook at home. So one of the great things in watching Julia and Justin Wilson early on is they were themselves and they kept it natural, “This is what might happen.” I remember the day she dropped that fish (laughs) and that stuff happens at home and I always remembered that. And I think that’s my biggest influence is just to keep it simple. And what you see, that’s me. That’s who I am.
So do ever just pinch yourself you get to do this for a living and follow in the footsteps of educating people about cooking on TV?
Oh, I get goosebumps. Over at our PBS station there’s a hall and there’s a picture of Justin Wilson, then there’s a picture of me, then there’s a picture of Paul Prudhomme, then there’s another picture of me. Every time I go through that hall and Monica (Kevin’s wife) is with me, I’m like, “ I can’t believe this. Can you believe this?” When people order cookbooks, I go to the station and sign every book that the station sends out. When we started this third show, I walked into the conference room where they unpacked the books and I go in sit and sign, and there were three books sitting there, from the first show, the second show and the third show. I get teary thinking about this. Monica’s looking at me, she says, “What’s going on?” I said, “With my mom being a teacher, her sister a principal, so many people in my dad’s family were teachers. And that I have three books. I’d have never thought I’d have three books.” Walking in that room and seeing those three books sitting there just make me so thankful for the parents that I had. I pinch myself everyday.
How many years have you been doing this on TV?
I started doing it in 1992 and probably the past five years have been doing it on a regular basis. Back then, I might do something once every three or four months, but in the past five years it’s pretty much been something every week.
How long has the show been on the air?
The first show is about three and a half years old, the second show is one and a half years, and the third show just started airing this April. Programmers air it at different times, so that’s why some areas don’t have the third one yet.
When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places to dine?
I have friends that live South of L.A. in San Clemente and I’ll go visit them and I had a dear friend that lived in L.A. and he recently passed away. I can’t even think of the places we would go to eat because they were just little neighborhood places, they were family run and I always thought that is so neat and so great.
Is there anything you want KLCS and CreateTV viewers to know?
Something that I love PBS viewers and Create viewers to realize. There’s a lot of marketing crap out there and all that stuff, but on PBS, it says “Because of viewers like you.” And that is such a true statement, because without the viewers becoming members, we wouldn’t have PBS. And I am so appreciative that so many people enjoy what I do. It’s amazing to both Monica and I, because she helps me so much.
Behind every good man, there’s a wonderful woman, an even better woman. Without her, it’d be totally different, she’s made my life so much easier.