Talking to Mike Colameco is just like meandering with him on his gritty, New York-centric old show “Mike Colameco’s Real Food,” as he talks to KLCS about how he became a chef “a million years ago,” how his popular food news brief that airs on Create called “The Bite” came about and why his old show is now gone, what it’s like now in New York since the pandemic for restaurants, what his week is like these days, and a Julia Child story he heard from a workout buddy.
I love “The Bite.” I always learn something new in the food world in just a minute, how did this concept come up and did you want to give up your old show where you showed various New York City restaurants and its behind the scenes stories and recipes?
Two answers, the idea came from Kent Steele, he was the number two guy at Channel 13 (WNET-TV) and he called me up four summers ago and said, “Hey, I have this idea, everyone’s looking for good cheap media content.” He had the idea of doing these one minute things and I had done radio from 2006 to 2011 in New York on WOR and they had me do a thing called “Food in a Flash” which I recorded those for them and then they sold them out to iHeartRadio and all around and they just paid me per piece on those things, so I was used to the idea of one minute. They sent down a team – a producer, some tech people, they put an iPad in my apartment in the city. It took a little while, we hadn’t done it before and we kind of got it right. It’s harder to do TV, there’s no editing so I have to deliver the media clean, so any mistakes, that’s not a take, that’s deleted. So I give them multiple takes of every one of those, three or four each “Bite” and I upload them using software. It’s funny, when we look at where we are today with Covid, what we were doing technologically, once Covid hit, Channel 13 shut down their studios really early, at the beginning of March. And they were reaching out to me all the time – “So how do you do this thing again?” I did them locally for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and then year later American Public Television reached out and said, “Can Mike do a national fed for us?” So, some weeks the feeds are identical, sometimes it’s separate content. That was four years ago and “Mike Colameco’s Real Food” we did 20 seasons. The way food content works with PBS is they don’t buy the shows, you give them to them. You have underwriting and it’s a very funny business model, so my challenge was, I’m selling advertising space for “The Bite” and for my series. At the end of the day, if I lay one on top of the other it’s the exact same market and yet your TV shows costs 10, 20 times as much for 20 seconds of advertising than “The Bite” does, so “The Bite” began to eat away at the advertising revenue for the show. In New York, it also airs during the weekend cooking block after every show there’s a “Bite” and that’s gold for advertisers. The way the show works, by the time you pay everybody you end up with what’s left, whereas with “The Bite” there are no expenses. Four years ago we started this and last year we wrapped our 20th season (of “Real Food”). My guys are older guys, they’re all my age and I just said, “Twenty years is a good number.” (laughs) And the truth is this wasn’t prescient, we stopped production last summer and then Covid hit in March and we would not have been able to do anything because of that, it’s just a nightmare for restaurants and hospitality.
I thought the same thing, your news brief is what everyone’s doing now.
It is. Kent was real smart. In the beginning it wasn’t easy, I don’t have a teleprompter, so I’m just winging it. A minute’s a long way to go so if you stumble it doesn’t work, so it probably took six weeks to get comfortable.
Did you watch Channel 13 back in the day?
In the ‘80s I was a chef. People said, “I hate cooking shows, they all suck, we don’t need another guy showing you how to make meatballs.” I said, “Let’s do something no one’s doing.” So the idea was “I can get us into kitchens. Let’s just tell stories around food, or neighborhoods, or cuisines or all of the above. And I’ll be the lens that people can see that world through and really for the first time ever, because I know chefs and they know me.” I can call up Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller and say, “Hey, we want to film in your kitchen.” They would never allow that before and they did. So we did a little demo reel, we brought it to Food Network, who basically said “No, no one’s going to get it in Paducah,” which they were right about and then I went to Channel 13 and Anne Gorfinkle back then was running programming and she saw something, “Give me three pilots and we’ll air them.” It was ‘99 or 2000. We didn’t have any money, any underwriters. So one of them was just we had this footage we shot, we were at a diner in North Jersey, a Korean place in Midtown and a fine dining restaurant in Newark. I just said, “Let’s call it ‘A Day of a Commuter’” and I’ll cover it with a show on delis and show Harlem and they aired in October of that year. This was before anything – the Internet, Instagram, Facebook. And the audience freaked, the second week we had better Nielsens than anybody else and the third week we had the best Nielsens of the cooking block with no press. I remember getting a call the Monday after the Sunday of the third show and Ann’s assistant said, “Hey, did you do anything to promote this?” I said, “No, I’m down in Cape May.” “Look the audience loved it, if you could do a series we’ll take it.” And that was the beginning of me figuring out, “Ok, how does this work?” You’ve got to raise money.
That answer was my next question – what made you originally want to cook on TV, what was your path to being a chef on TV?
Yeah, I didn’t really want to cook on TV. I wanted to tell stories. The stuff that’s out there to me is so boring, the same, “The Chopped” and there’s so many good people and stories to be told that weren’t being told and I was like, “That’s what we want to do.” But because it was PBS, I think for the first 10 years, I cooked at the end. The first three years we cooked in my kitchen in Cape May, which was a nightmare. And then Viking got a hold of me and said, “Let’s do a little partnership, we have a beautiful studio, you can use it.” We shot in the Viking showroom on Third Avenue until they closed down. I wanted to tell stories more than cooking. Here’s these fascinating places all around New York City that aren’t fancy, some of them maybe, most of what we did wasn’t and they’re all just great stories of immigrants or cuisines. And that’s what I wanted to do.
Do you miss talking to local chefs whose life is their restaurant? You did it so well.
I still do. The crew I had the whole time, at some point, I sh-t-canned them. I didn’t have an apartment for a while because I didn’t need it, I’m a member of New York Athletic Club that has rooms upstairs for members. I would just call and say, “Let’s do a deal for the year,” give me 90 bucks a night I’m good to go and I’ll give you 40 nights a year, but once I started doing radio I was living in Manhattan again in 2006 and I started taping the show and I didn’t like what I saw. I’d never paid much attention to the edits, which is a funny thing to say as a host/producer. I just assumed if you shot good stuff, they could put it together and it would be good. I remember taping the show and just going, “You’re kidding me.” For two years I got the guys together and said, “It’s really not good, I work too hard for this, I’m getting a whole new crew.” I hired a bunch of younger kids that came out of TV who drove me bonkers, because I hated the way they worked, but I learned a ton from them on how to shoot better TV. After two years with them, the voiceovers took a whole day. It was, “You guys are over-producing this thing. Thanks a lot, I learned a lot, bye.” I brought my old guys back and said, “Here’s how we’re doing it from now on.” I’m still in touch with tons of chefs, I still live in the city, I’m in the neighborhood, that’s who I’m friends with on social media. There’s no cameras no rolling, but literally New York’s such a small town. I literally walk around and bump into three people on the subway, uptown, downtown, that you hadn’t seen in six months. But more than missing them, my heart is just going to everybody in the industry now, because I don’t know how we get out of this. There’s going to be so many restaurants going out of business. A question you didn’t ask, but it saddens me to have watched, because I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I’ll have kids come up to me that are chefs now and say, “When I was at working at Eleven Madison, I was in the kitchen when you filmed.” And then I would watch these young bucks, guys and girls, work their way up the ladder, do everything right, everything by the book, just opened their own places and then suddenly Covid hits and they’re under the bus. New York’s not going to be back to normal. Maybe next summer, next fall, until there’s vaccine and the risk of contagion is somewhat eliminated.
With “The Bite” how do you figure out what news piece is important?
Without sounding like a total troglodyte, I have a big old-fashioned notebook with a spiral binder and it’s thick as hell and I just keep it around on my desk here and in New York City. I read a lot of food stuff and every time I come across something, “Oh, that could be a Bite,” I make a note of it and I make a note of where I got it from – the New York Times, Washington Post, or Forbes or NPR, or wherever I got it, so that I can go back to the source material.
So it is new, they are timely.
We do 200 a year for the local market and 200 a year for the national market. I record five new ones every week all year long, once every four or five weeks, we’ll take a break and do some evergreen repeats. It’s new content. Once they air, they don’t air again, so they’re disposable.
It’s like a news brief.
Hopefully. Once in a while I’ll play them back. I have a producer, who selects the one she thinks is the best, but there’s still mistakes once in a while because she’ll send me the Vimeo links. “Oh crap, did I say that? Like seriously?” (laughs) I have a website colameco.com and you get feedback from all around the country and people are funny, people are perceptive. “Yeah, you’re right, yup, I blew that one, sorry I meant to say this.”
What made you become a chef?
It’s a million years ago, I’m the youngest of three boys, my oldest brothers were academics, I was the runt of the litter. By the time my parents had me, “Mike, it’s Friday, you going to be home by Monday? You going to school this week?” I hated school, I had a miserable one or two semesters in college, high school was a joke for me, we just partied and I wanted to be a musician. That was what I studied – jazz guitar for years and at some point I just looked in the mirror. (laughs) A brief moment of good judgment at a time when I was displaying none of it. I just said, “If you look at your heroes, most aren’t making money.” I grew up in Philly, Philly had a great music scene, great jazz scene, always has. All the guys I knew that were great, they had day jobs, and they would take their amps to a gig and work in a smoky bar. I was like, “I’m not sure you’re every going to be as good as them. And even if you are, what kind of living is that?” I started at 13 working in restaurants, I worked in restaurants through junior high, high school, college. After I dropped out of college, that’s what I did to support myself. I thought, “You’re 21, 22, forget music.” I don’t know why I wanted to go to the Culinary Institute, but I guess it was some wisdom to the idea that a degree was better than no degree. So I went to the CIA in ’79, graduated in January of ’82. Everybody wanted me to come to back to Philly, it was bad restaurant town and I was a partier. I didn’t want to be that guy. I said, “I’m moving to New York. I don’t know anybody in New York, I don’t know the city at all. All I know is it has the best restaurants in America, it’s got tons of energy and I can reinvent myself here. I’m not going to do that in Philly, I’ve got too many phone numbers and too many friends and what am I going to do there? So I loaded everything in the back of my Ford Pinto and drove down that January and that was it. Luckily, going to New York was cathartic. “Ok, we’re going to work hard, we’re going to play by the rules and do everything right, we’re going to work our way up and hopefully it works for me.” And luckily it did.
Do you have some favorite Bites, news briefs that are interesting?
It’s funny, apropos of nothing, I was doing a Bite last year about the proposed tariffs We have this big kerfuffle with the airlines that goes back 20 years, so there were 25 percent tariffs imposed on lots of specific foods – olive oils, specialty cheeses and I was doing a Bite on that. And I got an angry email from a dairy farmer in Wisconsin saying, “You can get your parmigiano reggiano and shove it up your blank.” At the same time I was working with the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative, they have a fundraiser every year and I was going to be the keynote speaker. And I just started doing research on Wisconsin cheeses. I read that every year in Italy, it’s the biggest cheese competition in northern Italy and it’s huge. Wisconsin cleaned the house, like 40 medals and a bunch of Best in their class. I was blown away. So, once in a while, something’ll bounce off me and I’ll do the homework. And I also know, because I eat a lot of cheese, that there’s tremendous work being done in the United States in the last 25 years, not just in Vermont, not just in California, but all over the place, with really world-class American cheeses. For me, those kind of things are just fun to do, because it shines a light on a part of the country that I honestly don’t know. I’m an East Coast guy, so those are the fly-over States, and yet Wisconsin’s the third largest dairy state in the nation after California and New York. They have amazing cheese. That was a fun one. I’m just looking for fun stuff, because you can’t get into depth in a minute. There was another funny one I did last year, that I didn’t realize, it’s just food trivia – KFC does thirty percent of their annual sales in Japan the week leading up to Christmas. (laughs) KFC in the early ‘70s, some guy at a KFC franchise in Japan was approached by a local school to see if he would give chicken for a meal before Christmas. A couple of other schools heard about it and within a year, KFC began to promote this idea of eating fried chicken in Japan before Christmas. And it just turned into this thing, like that’s just this really weird leaf to turnover, like, “Why would the Japanese be crazy about Kentucky Fried Chicken in the days leading up?” And if you google it you’ll see 10 percent of their annual sales takes place in that week. It’s like, “What?”
That was my other question, do you get feedback about “The Bite” or wanting your show back?
The show back – constantly. And it’s really hard to explain. The trouble is “The Bite” competes with the show. I compete with myself.
So far almost everyone’s had a Julia Child story. Do you have one?
I don’t, but a funny story is, I’m a member of the New York Athletic club and one day one of the guys I work out with up there, he’s a sub-four minute mile runner, a real athlete, owns an elevator company and started to do triathlons. He had a buddy who was an ex-Navy Seal guy, a Seal Team Three guy, a lead Seal Team sniper instructor, he had a funny Julia Child story. Julia Child went to Smith and during World War II, she wanted to get involved in the services and she couldn’t. She ended up being the assistant for somebody and one of the things that she did – she was testing recipes for shark repellents. She never cooked before. Shark attacks were a real problem for the Navy in World War II and they came up with this idea for a repellant that she worked on. She was making this stuff in her bathtub. That’s a funny one.
Do you have a favorite dish to cook?
Not really. My wife’s Korean, I’m Italian American, we all learned French cooking. Last night I made wonderful, fresh corn fritters that were great. Tonight we’re having swordfish. That’s all we do is cook and eat and think about it. We’re two chefs. We met a million years ago at the CIA, she was two classes behind me.
What is the favorite part of your job? Do you call it a job?
Yeah, no, not really, thankfully. People are always like, “How do you know so much about food?” It’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve been swimming in this little fish tank for 50 plus years, I’m 63 and this is all I’ve ever done. I really liked doing live radio back when we were doing that, I’d never done radio before and it was a live call-in show, and “The Bite’s” just a blast. The content’s all mine, PBS doesn’t have any say, they don’t care, as long as I deliver stuff that’s deliverable and they like. And then you get random feedback from people. I’ve been on TV for 20 years, so when I walk around New York it’s always gratifying to have young kids in their 20s, chefs come up to me, “I grew up watching your show!” like Action Bronson. He blew up on Vice as a food guy, he’s a rapper too. We’re filming in a Williamsburg restaurant, I know the chef Missy Robbins, she’s great. It’s a two location shoot, we’re wrapping up the day back at her restaurant during service, so we roll the crew in, with minimal gear. We’re using handheld cameras, no tripods, the restaurant’s full and we’re there 10 minutes getting ready to start rolling and Missy comes up and says, “Hey there’s someone at the bar who wants to meet you. You know Action Bronson?” “You got to be kidding me!” We filmed it, it was really, really fun. Action’s like “Man, you the legend! I grew up watching you, Ming Tsai, f-king Jacques Pepin! Oh I can’t say that on PBS! Sorry about that! I grew you watching all you guys!” That’s maybe the best part of the job is to think that as old as I am, and as many years as I’ve been doing it, that in some way you’ve sort of touched the lives of these culinary kids who came up watching the show, maybe I was one of the reasons they decided to go into the industry, among others obviously. That’s just a fun thing to see, that ripple effect of the influence of PBS and of television that it has that, and people watch it. And it’s surprising.
What’s your day now just doing “The Bite” and in this time?
Middle of March till middle of April, we didn’t do anything. New York was a real mess at that point and everyone had to move to home, but by the middle of April my producer reached out to me, “I’m ready to start doing ‘The Bite’ up again, when you’re comfortable coming back to the city, we can start this whole thing again.” I have a garage that’s 200 yards from my apartment, I park the car, walk to the apartment, take the elevator, I wash my hands, I take my mask off, I don’t have to go outside for any reason. Since then, I go to New York for a two days a week and record “The Bite” on the second day and leave the third day because there’s no other reason to be in New York. The city has come to a grinding halt.
Do you do anything else?
No, I’m 63, so I’m trying not trying to climb higher trees or jump off taller bridges. I’m a workout guy, so this whole thing sucked because pools closed, gyms have been closed, so I couldn’t work out. I walk and hour and half day. I’m twiddling my thumbs, I would much rather be in New York three or four days a week like I used to, but there’s nothing to do. There’s no restaurants to go to, no jazz clubs, no museums, the city is a ghost town. All the things that make these cities what they are, have been taken off the table for the moment.
What’s the most frequent question you get and what’s your answer to that?
“What’s your favorite restaurant?” or something like that and I never have an answer to that question. (laughs) People figure, “This guy eats out, he’s living in New York since ’87 for the most part full time.” What makes New York’s dining scene so dynamic is, “Yeah, if you want to drop $800 a person, you can eat at Eleven Madison Park or Masa or Per Se,” and it’s spectacular. But I know a place on Chrystie Street that’s takeout only Chinese and they have roast pork, roast duck, roast chicken, braised cabbage and rice, for literally $7.50 in a to-go container, you have enough food for two people for dinner. What I loved about the New York dining scene was for not a lot of money, there’s so much ethnic food that’s not expensive and so good. Until this thing hit, in Brooklyn, this kid who worked at Per Se, had a place, there was no entrée over $20
Do ever pinch yourself that you get to do this for a living?
Yeah, all the time. Absolutely, because I came out of the industry. I was a chef. That’s all I every wanted to do. This just fell on my lap by accident and 20 years on TV. There’s no way in the world, if you asked me as a young kid and chef just being able to reach people and tell stories. Absolutely.
When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places to go or dine?
I haven’t been to L.A. in a million years. I’ve only been to San Francisco half a dozen times. Everyone tells me the L.A. food scene is on fire and it’s way better than the Bay Area scene, so I hear.
Do you still play music?
I’m still playing guitar. I’m looking at 27 guitars. I didn’t play from ‘82 when I moved to New York to 2002. A little after we’re filming in Greenwich Village on Carmine Street, we’re getting B-roll shots, and I’m walking around and there’s a guitar store and the guy knew me from PBS and he had a guitar for sale and I remember buying it on the spot. My hands came back and I could play, so I do that, between doing “The Bites” and workouts and cooking.
“Mike Colameco’s Real Food” will re-air on KLCS’ Saturday afternoon cooking block beginning October 10th at 5 PM. Catch Mike Colameco’s “The Bite” weekdays on KLCS’ CreateTV.
Follow Mike online at www.colameco.com or via his social media: Twitter @nyfoodlover, Instagram: instagram.com/mikecolameco or Facebook: facebook.com/mikecolamecorealfood