With summer here, Steven Raichlen is back on KLCS’ Saturday afternoon cooking block. We spoke to him about how he got started, his Julia Child stories (he has many!), his favorite places to eat in Los Angeles, and we get a taste of his upcoming new show filmed in Florida.
What’s the theme or aim with your show each season?
Our menus are very much governed by the location we’re in. For example, this year we taped in a tiny town called Steinhatchie, Florida, which is due west of Gainesville, it’s right before the great bend and it’s a river that flows into the Gulf of Mexico. This is the town that time forgot, rickety shacks on stilts over the river, Spanish moss in the trees, fishing boats fishing. So obviously seafood is playing a very big part of the menu this year, and you actually get to watch me go out and fish and then grill it.
We’re airing your Solvang, California season now.
That show also was very governed by being in Solvang, Solvang is north of Santa Barbara, it’s in the middle of wine country. So, we did one show called “Wine Country Cuisine,” we did another show where we looked at the similarities and differences between California and Italy, we did restaurant visits in that season and we visited five of my favorite grilling and smoking places in Los Angeles. My show’s a how-to show, but in this show, we introduce segments where we did field pieces where I went to Otis + Penelope and Charcoal Venice in Los Angeles; we went to Industrial Eats, because we’re always thinking location, context. We try and very local.
Do you have a favorite dish to make?
That’s like a favorite child, I have a zillion favorite dishes, I love them all. At the California show, we did a grill top paella, that I really love.
You’ve mentioned in an episode that you have training as a French chef. How did you get into the grilling specialty that you’re known for now?
I have a degree in French literature, and after college I won a fellowship to study medieval cooking in Europe and while there, I went to two French cooking schools, the La Varenne and the Cordon Bleu. But I didn’t study to be a chef, I wanted to learn about cuisine, but it was always French cuisine, it was always with an eye to writing about food and ultimately making television. I’d never been a chef in a restaurant, I was an apprentice at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Brittany for one summer, but I quickly saw that I wanted to be in the language part of it, the verbal and explaining teaching part, not in the cooking part, the execution part.
What made you originally want to cook on TV then?
I was a writer first and then with barbecue that was a very accidental turn in my career. I had this idea about 20 years ago, it just came to me in a flash – that grilling is the world’s most universal cooking method. It’s done everywhere, but it’s done differently everywhere. I thought it’d be really cool to travel around the world and document how people grill in different countries. And that research became my book “The Barbecue! Bible.” And that shot like a rocket out the gate, right book, right time. And I was in barbecue.
So far everyone’s had a Julia Child story, do you have a Julia story?
I have many Julia Child stories actually. When I was at La Varenne back in the 1970s, Julia was the godmother of the school and thus friends with the founder of the school Ann Willan, so Julia would come often to the school and it was a big deal when she came. And then I had lunch at her house in Provence and then it turned out that after living in France, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Julia also lived in Cambridge, so she used to invite me to her house when she was doing recipe testing. And I invited her to my apartment, I was writing for Boston magazine at that point, and at one point I did a caviar tasting and I invited Julia to be one of the tasters and we used to shop at Savenor’s grocery store. I remember being in the checkout line at the same time as Julia was. She told me something very interesting, she said, (in Julia’s voice) “Steve! Save your receipts!” She had just been audited that year, so she was super, hyper maniacal about saving every receipt and documenting every receipt.
But Julia actually gave me the best career advice that I ever had and I think it really has been super instrumental in whatever success I’ve had in barbecuing and grilling, and she said, “Find a subject that you can know everything about and that you can own and that is uniquely yours.” My first couple of books were French-oriented cookbooks because I lived in France and I went to La Varenne and that was what I knew. But there was nothing unique about me writing about French cuisine, I’m not French, whatever I did Julia had done better years earlier. And when I hit barbecue, I took this very particular approach to barbecue, which is global grilling and I have circumnavigated the globe at least four times to research barbecuing and grilling. I have TV shows in French, I do TV shows in Italy. The French shows are in French and the Italian shows are half in Italian and half in English. So it took me 20 years. Yeah Julia, you’re right, I have found a subject that I can own, that I’ve spent an enormous amount of timing mastering and that’s unique to me. Thank you Julia, wherever you are.
You’re back on KLCS’ Saturday afternoon cooking block and Create TV. Do you get feedback that your show is a guilty pleasure in a noisy world?
I do and people love Create and I’m on tour now for the new book “The Brisket Chronicles.” And every airport, people say “Hi” and wave. What I love about being on public television, I’m always asked, “Why aren’t you on the Food Network?” I think I see myself more as an educator more than an entertainer.
What’s the most frequent question you get? And what’s your answer to it?
The question everybody asks is, “Is there food in all those grills on the set?” and more importantly, “What happens to all the food, who eats all the food?” That’s the question. That’s really funny, right? And the answer is, “We work with a crew of 20, it takes a huge crew to put the show together. The crew.”
When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places to dine at?
I do, I love the farmers market in Santa Monica. I’ll tell you five of my favorite restaurants in L.A. – I love Gwen by Curtis Stone, I love Odys + Penelope [closing July 2019], I love Charcoal Venice, I love Parks BBQ in Koreatown, Georgio Baldi, which has nothing to do with grilling, but it’s just a great Italian restaurant. I think L.A. has the best restaurants in the country. Far and a way. I would rather at eat out in LA. than any other city. And I love down and dirty joints and Asian joints and taco shops and everything. L.A. has it all, it’s incredible.