Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Chicago chef Charlie Trotter brings his national reputation
to his cooking show.

Team Trotter

Hawaii-based duo is chef's
choice for his TV series

"The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter"
5:30 p.m. Saturdays, KHET/PBS

By Betty Shimabukuro

James Beard Foundation Awards, New York, May 2000: Chef Charlie Trotter is the night's big winner, taking the stage three times to claim awards for best restaurant, best cookbook and best cooking show.

That last part is where we make the Hawaii connection. Ground Zero for "The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter" is thousands of miles from the chef's Chicago restaurant, in a home in Kahala, base of operations for First Daughter Mediaworks.

Here is where producer Melanie Kosaka and director Robert Bates did a good chunk of the work that turned "The Kitchen Sessions" into a TV show worthy of the James Beard Award, that apex of culinary achievement.

Bates shared in the black-tie glitter of that night a year ago; Kosaka was home with the couple's 3-year-old, Akiko, the first daughter of their production company's name. But Kosaka has her reminder of the night, a heavy bronze medallion bearing the image of the venerable James Beard. She displays it draped casually over a Japanese-style lamp in her front room, off in the corner behind Akiko's easel.

Melanie Kosaka and Robert Bates watch Brian Kimmel's
camera work during the taping of a cooking demonstration
for Charlie Trotter's "Kitchen Sessions" in Chicago.

"I could do my job anywhere," Kosaka says, seated at the dining table in a bright, comfortable room, "and I like living here."

The second season of "The Kitchen Sessions" began Saturday, kicking off a 26-episode series that reflects the Kosaka-Bates style. The two are divorced now, but continue to work together on this and other projects for American Public Television.

Trotter's is a show about cooking and food, but doesn't confine itself to a cooktop in a studio kitchen. The camera follows him all over his restaurant as he chats up his staff, examines produce, cooks and plates dishes -- all the while explaining his approach to food. These segments are filmed in black and white with a constantly moving camera, giving the show an edgy quality even when the unscripted dialogue runs along the lines of, "So many great squashes -- what's your favorite?" "I think I like kabocha ... "

Kosaka describes the episodes as, "What it's like to be a fly on the wall during dinner service."

Cooking demonstrations are filmed in a studio in color. Trotter speaks with deliberate sincerity as he, for example, massages olive oil into slices of ahi for an appetizer dish: "You're not just smelling, you're not just tasting as you go ... but the idea of touching and caressing things .... that's one of the truly sensual joys of cooking."

The shows have none of the jerkiness and noise that typify so much of modern food television. Trotter is a serious host and the show reflects his reverence for the subject matter. The contrast between color and black-and-white segments give the show pace and forward momentum.

Kosaka says she and Bates have created themselves a niche for programming that centers on cooking, but comes at it from many angles. Location shooting and other varied approaches to storytelling have become their trademark.

"I always wanted to do a show that wasn't a straight cooking show in the kitchen, but that had to do more with food and culture."

Her first chance came with Hawaii chef Roy Yamaguchi's show, "Hawaii Cooks," in 1991. "Asian fusion was at the forefront and Roy was hot. His presence drove the show."

At the time Kosaka was a culture and arts producer for KHET in Honolulu. She was able to secure funding for Yamaguchi's show and national exposure via PBS. "Hawaii Cooks" now airs in 66 countries, she says.

But the key was to get out of the kitchen, to farms, markets, to food at its source. Yamaguchi always cooks, but the show is about far more than that.

"Nobody has ever asked me, 'How did Roy make that on the show?' It's more, 'What does Roy like to eat?' " Kosaka says. "People seem to be more fascinated with the chef as a celebrity, than what they're cooking."

"Hawaii Cooks" is being revamped for a sixth season -- ironically, Kosaka says, location shooting has become somewhat commonplace (witness "Ming's Quest" on the Food Network). "We need to stay ahead."

She hopes to begin shooting this summer, after a two-year hiatus. New shows should be on the air by the end of the year. The new show "will be more about eating and dining in Hawaii and just enjoying good food and travel in Hawaii."

It was another PBS enterprise, "New American Cuisine," a show that roved the country with a series of different chefs, that brought First Daughter Mediaworks to Trotter's attention. He guest-starred in the show, liked the way it turned out, and approached the couple with the idea for his own show.

By then Kosaka, was experienced with the PBS machine and worked to secure Trotter a spot in the public TV lineup.

The routine now is to shoot an entire 26-episode season at Trotter's restaurant in a month and a half.

"In the beginning, it was very intimidating because his whole restaurant is built around this benchmark of excellence, but what can you do? You just do the best you can," Kosaka says.

Kosaka is an Aiea High School graduate with a degree in broadcast media management from California State University at Northridge. Running her business from Hawaii is entirely possible in this modern age of communication, although a few things are difficult. "It's still five hours to the West Coast," she says. "I can't just fly in for a meeting."

And there is Akiko, now 4. Kosaka tries to limit her travel, but sometimes must leave her daughter as often as three times in a month. Her parents take over, she says, "another reason to live here."

Her next project: "Season with Spirit: A Native Cook's Journey Across America." Kosaka says the series will examine the origins of American cuisine from the viewpoint of "our host culture," native Americans. The show is 50 percent funded, with shooting to begin this summer on location across the country.

She's looking at a premiere date of Thanksgiving 2002.

Chicago chef utilizes
Asian seasonings

Chef Charlie Trotter's dishes reflect many Asian influences, as shown in this catfish dishes flavored with hoisin and ginger.

The recipe is from the cookbook based on the TV show, "The Kitchen Sessions." the book, as well as the show, won James Beard Awards last year.

Tamari Eggdrop Soup with Sautéed Catfish

"The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter" (10 Speed Press, 1999)

4 3-ounce pieces catfish
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 ounces dried bean thread or cellophane noodles, cooked
1/2 cup enoki mushrooms
1/2 cup sliced water chestnuts
2 cups coarsely chopped bok choy, blanched
1/2 cup bean sprouts
2 tablespoons julienned nori
2 tablespoon radish sprouts
1/4 cup sesame oil
>> Broth:
6 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup tamari soy sauce
1 teaspoon hoisin
1/4 cup minced ginger

To make broth: Combine ingredients, except ginger, in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add ginger and simmer 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

To prepare fish: Season with salt and pepper. Place oil in a hot pan over medium heat. Add fish and cook 2 minutes on each side, or until lightly brown.

Bring soup to a boil, quickly stir in egg and remove from heat.

To assemble dish: Divide noodles among four bowls. Arrange mushrooms, water chestnuts, bok choy, bean sprouts around noodles. Top noodles with catfish pieces. Ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with nori and radish sprouts, drizzle with sesame oil. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 410 calories, 22 g total fat, 3.5 g saturated, 150 mg cholesterol, 1,220 mg sodium, 21 g protein, 32 g carbohydrate.*

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