To be human is to enjoy the premiere position in the food chain. We are the world's ultimate eaters and should bear the distinction without squeamishness.
David Rosengarten seeks a new
TV venture to replace 'Taste,' as
he continues to teach the value
of good living through great eating
By Betty Shimabukuro
Instead we take our fish filleted, our meat in steaks, our chicken in nuggets -- lest we confront the fact that our meal once walked or squawked or swam.
"Americans are uncomfortable with food that has a face, food where you can see the body parts, where function is readily apparent."
The speaker is David Rosengarten, who has taught millions of television viewers about all kinds of food through his show "Taste," on the Food Network.
"That's why we love steak so much -- and why we're uncomfortable with brains and liver. That's why we're so comfortable with hamburger."
It is among Rosengarten's crusades to expand Americans' ideas of what's edible. Brains, liver and sweetbreads, for example, offer a world of tastes that other cultures have long enjoyed. A fish with skin, bones and head attached is superior in flavor. Yet few Americans, he says, can deal with that eyeball thing and the "brutally precise" nature of organ meats.
Rosengarten brought the message to Hawaii during a two-week "vacation" that encompassed filming, cooking, teaching, autographing, giving interviews -- a full quota of celebrity duties. The centerpiece of his stay was a two-dinner guest-chef appearance at the Kea Lani Food & Wine Masters series on Maui.
In a demonstration in the Kea Lani's outdoor kitchen, he prepared grilled moi, then had it served whole to all participants. Not such an eye-popping thing for locals, but for many of the tourists in the crowd, it was "a slice of reality." A lesson learned.
"I'm really comfortable with my position in the food chain," he says, "and I'm going to stay right there."
Rosengarten was among the first personalities to sign on with the all-food-all-the-time network seven years ago. His first job was as co-anchor of "Food News and Views," but he soon went to his bosses with an idea for his own television show.
"I said, 'I think I should do a show where I take one food or one dish and yak about it for half an hour and make the viewer an instant expert.' I was told to go right ahead."
That's not the sort of thing that would happen today, he says, not amid the red tape and careful maneuvering of today's Food Network. "I don't think Emeril could come in now and say, 'I want to do a new show,' and have them say, 'OK, go ahead.' "
"Taste" takes a thoughtful, insightful approach to food, explaining so much more than how to cook it. It's nothing like Emeril Lagasse's flamboyant twice-daily bam!-athons.
Rosengarten will take a food as fancy as lobster bisque or as basic as a BLT and present not just a recipe, but also cultural and culinary background. Sunday's episode on doughnuts included an international survey of doughnut types and various theories as to why they have holes. Stay up late tonight for a dissection of the chocolate flourless cake.
Rich Gore, president of Chef Events, producer of the network's traveling shows (such as the one happening Sunday on Oahu, see D-7) says Rosengarten is appealing for his obvious knowledge and "journalistic approach" to food. "He's almost like a professor of food ... he breaks down the barriers of more pretentious food."
At one time, "Taste" was among the network's top-rated shows, but its time has passed, Rosengarten says. No new episodes are in the works and reruns have been posted to the non-peak hour of 9:30 a.m. EST (3:30 a.m. in Hawaii).
The network is "trying to kick it up a notch ... they don't feel 'Taste' fits in with that."
Rosengarten maintains his connection with the network, though. He co-hosts "In Food Today," producing six-minute segments on eating situations across the country. On this trip, he filmed for a day with Sam Choy, who took him on a tour via open-topped convertible to grassroots eateries such as Helena's Hawaiian Foods, Leonard's Bakery and Baldwin's Sweet Shop.
He is also developing a new show that will mesh better with the network's greater emphasis on entertainment. "I've just signed a two-year contract with them for what I see as an insane amount of compensation to develop something that will fit in with that."
What brought Rosengarten to the attention of the Food Network in the first place was a pilot he'd made for PBS. He describes it as a sitcom-like food show with oddball characters such as Mr. Foodie, the obnoxious gourmet. "PBS wanted to call it 'Three Men and a Kitchen.' I wanted to call it 'Mouth Party.' "
PBS passed on the show -- "I was left with a broken heart and a pilot" -- but when the Food Network was starting up, that tape intrigued producers who spotted Rosengarten's food savvy and good humor.
Credit that culinary knowledge in part to his father, a former restaurateur and "great foodie," who taught an appreciation of good eating at all levels. Credit his flair to a background in theater -- a doctorate in dramatic literature from Cornell University and an assistant professorship in theater at Skidmore College in New York.
Even then, it was his cooking that drew notice, he says. "If I made a dinner, people would say, 'Oh! That was SO GOOD!' If I acted, they'd say, "Oh. That was so ... ah ... good.' "
In the early 1980s, as the U.S. food scene was growing more sophisticated, he decided to pursue work as a "food communicator.' "
A freelance article submitted to Gourmet on what was then the brave new world of balsamic vinegar led to a gig as the magazine's New York restaurant critic, a job he kept until last year. He was also a columnist for Newsday and Food & Wine, all credentials that bolstered his TV stardom.
But back to that stage career. A sample role: Inmate in an insane asylum in "Marat/Sade." "My main thing in life was to drool, hang onto my groin and say, 'Poo-poo.' "
In 1998, when the Food Network's "Cooking Across America" road tour first came to Honolulu, the Star-Bulletin collected comments from readers about the celeb chefs. Rosengarten, who was part of the tour, and Lagasse, who was not, were named the favorites. Reader Angie Gall offered this analysis of the Rosengarten style: "For a long time I thought Mr. Rosengarten had an aversion to touching food, because he never really seemed to dig into it. But this year, he's been picking it up and rolling it, so I know he's not such a flake."
Rosengarten smiles and nods when confronted by such impressions. "Taste" does present him as button-down and somewhat, shall we say, obsessive, and he does not deny it is part of his nature to be thorough. For his doctoral dissertation on the plays of Henry Ibsen, Rosengarten learned Norwegian so he could go to Norway and read Ibsen's work in the original language. "Obsessive?" he asks.
Actually, "obsessive" is one of the nicer terms. "A lot of people say to me, 'I thought you were really pompous and stuck up about this food stuff.'"
In person, though, Rosengarten is relaxed and funny, quick with a quip and very generous in handling the celebrity obligations of autographs and chatty fans. His cooking demonstrations may be interrupted by a quick impression of Julia Child or Graham Kerr.
One of his duties during this trip was to judge a recipe contest for community college culinary students held at Chef Mavro. He did more than just taste and judge, he took time with all the entrants, offering suggestions about their dishes. The event was well-covered by media, and he cheerfully granted interview after interview.
"You talk, you eat, you're charming," one student said to him afterward. "Where are all the men like you?"
Rosengarten is not a chef, precisely -- "I'm an eater, not a cooker" -- although he does have a way with a recipe. "My wife always used to say, 'I think you have chemicals in your fingers that make food taste better.' "
At any rate, to pull off his guest-chef stint at Kea Lani, the hotel brought in George Gomes, corporate chef for A Pacific Cafe, to bring Rosengarten's menus to full-service proportions.
One scene in the kitchen, as Gomes and Rosengarten comb through 1,000 mussels awaiting conversion into a dish of Mussels Gratin with Ouzo: "They should be small," Rosengarten says. Anything that looks like it has to be eaten with a knife and fork will have to be removed. Nearly half are rejected (they end up in the hotel's Italian restaurant) and guest portions are down-sized.
For the gratin, the breadcrumbs can't be too fine or too coarse -- at home he'd crumble them by hand. The kitchen crew uses a processing machine, then sifts the results to come up with a perfect medium.
"Much of the dish is about the topping," he says. He picks up an ideal small mussel and pokes around the meat to where the gratin will fall. "It should have room to settle around the shell."
He pauses, turns to the side. "See, now I'm being obsessive."
Where to find David Rosengarten:
On the Food Network: 'In Food Today' airs at 10 p.m. weekdays and 8:30 a.m. weekends. Reruns of 'Taste' air at 3:30 a.m. weekdays and 9:30 p.m. Sundays.
Online: Recipes and a regular wine column appear on www.foodtv.com
Books: 'Red Wine with Fish: The New Art of Matching Wine with Food' (Simon & Schuster, 1989); 'The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook' (Random House, 1996); 'Taste' (Random House, 1998), winner of the Julia Child Cookbook Award for Best International Cookbook in 1999.
Ming Tsai and Alan Wong are the featured chefs at the next Kea Lani Food & Wine Masters event, Friday and Saturday on Maui.
Next at Kea Lani
The Friday luncheon is sold out and the dinner is nearly sold out.
A few seats remain at Saturday's luncheon ($45) and Tsai's signature dinner that night ($98).
For reservations call (800) 798-4552, Ext. 290.
For his signature dinner in the Kea Lani Master Series, David Rosengarten selected a menu of Greek specialties.
a la Greque
Greek food has always been among his favorites, Rosengarten says, yet the cuisine is under-appreciated in this country.
Beets with Skordalia1 pound beetsBoil potatoes. Mash or rice quickly, until slightly runny. Mix potatoes with the other remaining ingredients, adding chicken stock last. Mix to desired consistency.
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses (see note)
1 pound peeled potatoes
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons garlic paste (garlic that is ground or pulsed with a little olive oil)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons powdered almonds (ground or pulsed to a dust)
Salt to taste
1/4 cup hot chicken stock
Boil beets until tender. Cool and peel. Cut into 1-inch cubes or wedges. Season with salt, pepper and pomegranate molasses. Serves 6.
Note: Pomegranate molasses is a thick sweet-sour syrup carried at Down to Earth Food stores and Honolulu Spice Traders in Kapahulu. If you can't find it, try substituting a fruity vinegar such as raspberry and sweeten it with sugar -- aim for a slightly sweet-sour taste.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (not including salt to taste): 200 calories, 9 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, greater than 75 mg sodium, 4 g protein, 27 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber.*
White Beans with Greek Vinaigrette1/4 cup finely diced green bell pepper (about 1/2 small pepper)Combine all ingredients, except the beans, to make a vinaigrette.
1/4 cup finely diced peeled and seeded cucumber (about 1/2 small cucumber)
1 small onion, finely diced
4 kalamata olives, pitted and finely diced
1-1/2 ounces Greek feta cheese, crumbled into fine pieces
7 anchovy fillets, finely minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
6 tablespoons Greek olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups boiled white beans
Combine vinaigrette with the beans, and season to taste. Serve at room temperature with extra slices of feta. Serves 4.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (not including salt to taste): 370 calories, 24 g total fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, greater than 200 mg sodium, 11 g protein, 27 g carbohydrate.*
Leeks a la Greque2 pounds leeks (not more than 1-1/4 inches in diameter)Trim root ends off leeks and discard the dark green part, leaving pieces about 6 inches long. Cut lengthwise slits in leeks and hold under running water to clean out all dirt. Arrange in a gratin pan.
2 cups water
1/4 cup olive oil
3 sprigs fresh marjoram or 1 teaspoon dried
3 sprigs fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 cinnamon stick
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt to taste
1 cup diced tomatoes
1/3 cup kalamata olives, pitted and halved
1/4-1/2 pound feta cheese, crumbled
Combine water, olive oil, spices, vinegar and salt in a saucepan. Bring to boil and simmer 10 minutes. Pour over leeks to just cover. Cover gratin pan with foil and bake 35 minutes at 350 degrees, or until tender.
Return cooking liquid to saucepan and reduce to 1/2 cup. Strain and pour over leeks. Chill, covered, 2 hours to overnight. Just before serving, top with tomatoes, olives and cheese. Serves 4.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (not including salt to taste): 300 calories, 23 g total fat, 6.5 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, greater than 530 mg sodium, 6 g protein, 19 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber.*
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