4 Amazing Men From Food TV History
Men in Food TV Episode Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks at the fabulous life stories of four of the extraordinary men who helped create the world of food television we love so much today. Some names such as, James Beard, will be very familiar to you. But others, such as Britain’s irrepressible Keith Floyd may not. If you know them or not, find out some fascinating facts about them all on this very special episode.
EAT MY GLOBE
4 AMAZING MEN FROM FOOD TV HISTORY
Why doesn’t McDonald’s serve escargot?
I don’t know, Simon, why doesn’t McDonald’s serve escargot?
Well, because it’s not fast food, of course.
Oh, that’s a good one. Excellent. When are we putting the book together of all of these?
Hi everybody, and welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food. And on today’s very special episode, we are going to look at the lives of four men who have not only contributed so much to the world of food but have also brought us some of the most memorable moments in televisual culinary history.
Two of them have now unfortunately passed away, but I’m delighted to say that two of them are very much still with us. So, I hope that this episode will be seen as a tribute and a celebration of all that they have achieved.
Now, let’s start with a man who despite his death over thirty years ago still remains one of the most influential names in American food culture. And that, of course is . . .
MR. JAMES BEARD
If one was to speak to anyone involved in the American culinary industry – be they journalist, authors, broadcasters, designers and, of course, chefs – they will tell you that among the most prestigious award they could ever hope to receive would be those that bear the name of James Beard, and are handed out by the James Beard Foundation. The fact that these awards still carry so much respect, despite some of the criticism the current committee have come under in recent years is in no small part down to the deep respect that everybody has for the person whose name they bear, James Beard.
So, who is James Beard? And how did he become such an integral part of the culinary world that the New Yorker Magazine could headline a feature about him,
“How James Beard Invented American Cooking.”
He was born James Andrews Beard on May the 5th, 1903 in Portland, Oregon. His mother, Elizabeth, who was English, ran a local boarding house. His father, John, worked at the local customs office. His mother was passionate about food, and many of their holiday summers were spent in Gearhart, a small coastal city about halfway between Portland and Seattle. There, they would catch and eat the local shellfish. Apparently, according to John Birdsall’s biography of Beard, “The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard,” his particular favorites were the local oysters that were cooked in butter. It was also here where Elizabeth took James to one of his first restaurants called the Louvre. An experience that, I have no doubt, had a profound impact on him.
Beard also developed a passion for acting and opera at five years old when his mother took him to see Madame Butterfly. While attending Washington High School, Beard was deeply involved in the performing arts. It was a passion he took with him through the one year he spent at Reed, a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, where he performed in the opera, “La Tosca,” and played the part of the Bishop to great acclaim.
Both Birdsall’s biography and an earlier one from 1993 called, “James Beard: A Biography,” written by Robert Clark, claim that Beard was expelled from Reed in 1921, because he was gay at a time when there was rising homophobia in Portland. He’s said to have had affairs with other students and a professor. According to Clark, was sent packing,
“Quickly, quietly and with no formal explanation.”
This situation is questioned by some at Reed who cite that not only did Beard connect with the university again in 1976 to accept an honorary degree, but that he also attended a 50th reunion. And, when he died in 1985, he left the bulk of his estate to Reed and created a scholarship for those who could not afford to attend.
At a distance of a century, it is hard to know the exact truth of the situation as to why Beard left Reed, but we do know that Beard did identify as a gay man.
In 1923, Beard set sail for England on board an old ship known as the Highland Heather, with a letter of introduction to help him obtain training for a potential opera career at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Unfortunately, his audition for the admissions panel of this famous school was somewhat of a disaster, and he was summarily rejected. He then moved on to Paris for a short period to pursue more vocal training. And, after five and a half months abroad, he returned on a steamship, the SS Paris, to New York City.
He still believed at this point, despite his setbacks, his career would be in the performing arts. He received a few minor roles on stage, and even found himself in the rapidly growing industry of the movies as he spent some time in Los Angeles where he was given work as an extra in a few motion pictures including as a Roman centurion in Cecil B. Demille’s “King of King’s.” But it was hardly the stuff of a career, and by 1937 he was back in New York and trying to find ways to fill the coffers.
It was at this point – thankfully, for both Beard and the world of food – that Beard’s life took another turn and he was approached to form a catering company with a cookbook writer called, Bill Rhode, and his sister, Irma Rhode, who had a doctorate in chemistry and who learned how to cook from Princess Hilda of Nassau. They called their company, “Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc.,” and they targeted parties on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The new company would seek to change how those parties would be run, where, as Birdsall says in his book,
“The food at most cocktail parties relied on cheap, starchy fillers and bland spreads: finger sandwiches on cottony white bread overloaded with cream cheese, heaps of potato chips for jabbing into dips of indifferently flavored sour cream.”
What Beard and his partners were offering was completely different and included dishes like fried corned beef hash meatballs that they claimed came from the private recipe book of the Duchess of Windsor aka Wallace Simpson. And, Vichyssoise soup served in little demitasse cups. As well as Genoa salami cornets stuffed with cream cheese and herbs.
It was a huge hit and brought Beard fully into the blossoming world of New York food culture. One day over dinner in March 1940, an editor from a publisher called M. Barrows & Company challenged Beard to come up with the idea for a book. He proposed one based on his experience making hors d’oeuvres and throwing cocktail parties. The publisher loved the idea, but the book had to be written quickly. On October the 1st 1940, M. Barrows and Company published James Beard’s first book, “Hors d’Oeuvre & Canapes, with a Key to the Cocktail Party.”
He followed it up with another book called, “Cook It Outdoors,” which many consider to be the first serious cookbook on outdoor cooking. It did have some particular James Beard touches though, such as the generous use of the words, “chichi” and “doodadery” – which I think I’m going to include in my conversations from now on. . . doodadery – and including a recipe for Oregon Clam Chowder, from his mother, Elizabeth.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Beard applied to join both the Army and the Navy. Unfortunately, because of his size – he was well over 250 lbs. at this time – he was rejected by both. The Army trained him in cryptography but the Army discharged him before he could be deployed. Beard also worked with the United Seaman’s Service setting up dining for the sailors in places such as Puerto Rico, Rio de Janeiro, Panama and Marseille.
Now, back in New York, after the end of the war, Beard fell right back into his previous culinary landscape, and published many more books in the next decade including books on fish cookery, and fowl and game cookery. This was when the nascent medium of television came a-calling, and he was asked to do a series of regular cooking segments on NBC’s “Radio City Matinee.”
These were a great success and, in 1946, prompted NBC to sign him to host a 15-minute weekly show in what is considered the first nationally televised cooking show called, “I Love to Eat.” The show ran until Spring 1947.
With the television, his books, regular columns and features for magazines, James Beard was constantly in the eye of the American food loving public. He even ran a snack stand in Nantucket called Lucky Pierre’s, which normally served hamburgers and hotdogs. But under Beard’s management, he brought a level of sophistication that people might not have expected when they first walked into the place. Dishes such as Beard’s freshly baked blueberry pies and lemon cream tarts. He also made lobster bisque, pissaladières, onion tarts and quiche Lorraine and fresh chocolate rolls. Wonderful stuff.
At the same time, there was a redefining of Beard’s style of presentation, or as Birdsall notes,
It took him away from an expansive, flamboyant, some might even say camp style to that that Birdsall describes as
“an epicurean bachelor professor.”
It seemed to work, and with his increased profile and more professorial presentation style, it was not long before in 1954 that the New York Times dubbed him
“The Dean of American Cookery.”
A year later, following his own passion for teaching, he set up “The James Beard Cooking School” and he was to continue to teach right up to the last days of his life.
In 1956, Beard would meet Gino Cofacci, an architect who would later became a pastry chef, and arguably, Beard’s first love. They would have a long and complex relationship that would last until Beard’s death. Beard would host festive dinner parties in the Greenwich Village townhouse he shared with Cofacci. Would-be chef and TV host, Andrew Zimmern, attended such dinner parties as a young boy with his dads. Zimmern would later credit those dinner parties for developing his gastronomic interests. Beard’s will included financial provisions for Cofacci during his lifetime.
In 1959, Beard published, “The James Beard Cookbook.” It was a massive undertaking, that took him almost four years to put together. And, it was a huge success selling almost 150,000 copies within a year. Its success came as a bounce back against an increasing American love of convenience food such as mixes and frozen foods, and Beard’s pleas to everyone was to go in search of the best food and
“Buy good food, and buy often.”
As well as building his own career, Beard was also a great supporter of others in the industry who he thought were outstanding. In 1961, he met Julia Child, whose book, “Mastering the Art of French Cookery,” had just been published. It was a book he admired greatly and he worked to promote it. The mutual admiration between them became obvious. Child was to say of him,
“People just adored him. He was so jolly, so nice, and so generous.”
Although there are some suggestions that there was some jealousy from Beard that Child was to have a much more successful television career than he was ever able to achieve. That may well be true, but in his defense, it was as a culinary teacher – his cooking classes often sold out – rather than entertainer that Beard was always to excel. That, of course, and his books.
In 1972, Beard published another important work, “James Beard American Cookery.” At a time when good food for most people equaled European food, this book put forward the idea that American cuisine had so much to offer.
Beard’s excessive weight had remained a problem for most of his life, and after a few years of increasing ill health, he passed away from heart failure on January the 21st 1985. After his funeral, his ashes were given to his close childhood friend, Mary Hamblet, who committed his ashes to the water at Gearhart beach. She brought Beard back to the area where he had spent many happy summers.
In 1986, a year or so after his death, a friend, Peter Krump, along with Julia Child and a few other chefs, bought his townhouse to create a foundation in his name. I’m not sure that they would have believed how important that foundation was going to become. Or indeed some of the controversies that they would face as the foundation strives to become more diverse. But, I suspect he would be very pleased to see that his name and memory is still bringing people closer to good food every day.
I also suspect that this podcast is the only time that my name and the name James Beard will ever appear together.
Now, let’s talk about the one and only. . .
MR. GRAHAM KERR
A man once described as,
“he comes across like Julia Child’s uninhibited younger brother.”
Let’s start this amazing life, one that is, I should hasten to add, still going strong, with a personal story.
In the early 1970s, when I was at home from school during the holidays, my mother and I would often take lunch sitting on the sofa, with a tray across our lap watching the lunchtime television programs. This, unlike today, was not a star laden period of the day’s television. There might be a local news program, and educational program for children and perhaps an episode of a crime show brought in from a US television network. Something like “McMillan and Wife” starring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James. My mum loved them all. But most of all she loved the TV cookery shows. And there was one TV cookery show she loved more than any other, and that was a show called, “The Galloping Gourmet.”
My mother, like so many other stay at home mothers of the time, had shall we say “a thing” for the handsome host of the show, a British immigrant by the name of Graham Kerr. A man whose smooth if very 1970s style of dress, impeccable manners and understanding of the finer things in life made him an almost culinary James Bond of the day. She was particularly fond of the final part of the show where Kerr would wander into the audience, nearly all women, select one and bring her down to a dining table on set where she would join him in a glass of wine and the chance to sample the dishes he’d been making.
I, of course, was far too young to understand the “not really about the food” interests my mother had in the show because, for me, it was all about the food. Food that, as far as I could tell, seemed to be always about 80% butter, 10% cream, 5% Cognac and a dead animal of some variety. I loved it. I still do.
Graham Kerr is, as I mentioned above, still very much with us, and his thoughts on food have been a roller coaster over the years, as we shall find out. But, back in the early 1970s, it was all about indulgence.
So, who was this gourmet who galloped? A reference to the fact that he would always be jumping over the furniture like a thoroughbred racehorse, usually with a glass of wine in his hand, which remained unspilled.
Graham Victor Kerr was born on the 22ndof January 1934 to Scottish parents in London. His father had been in the hospitality industry and had once worked at one of my favorite hotels in the world, Claridge’s, which does an exceptional afternoon tea, by the way.
By the age of eleven, his parents had worked at the Dorset Arms Hotel in Sussex. He spent a lot of time in the hotel on his own while his parents worked late hours. He found himself drawn to the kitchen and becoming quite accomplished at the classical French dishes being prepared there. As he said,
“You know how Beethoven was known for playing the piano at a young age? Well, I ‘played’ the stove.”
His schooling took place at an institution called, Michael Hall, which was run on the principles of Rudolph Steiner. These were principles based on creativity and the personal development rather than competition. It suited him, and it was also the place where he first met the young woman who was going to become his wife of nearly sixty years, Treena, who was in the year below him. He was only eleven when they met.
Although he enjoyed that school experience, he left Michael Hall at the age of 15 to study hotel management at college. He did this first in Brighton College on Britain’s South coast, and then, when his parents moved to another hotel job in another city, Torquay, at South Devon College.
At the age of 18, Kerr faced a call up to the British Army under the National Service regulations that still existed in Great Britain after the Second World War. He was initially conscripted as a radar mechanic, but because of his hospitality training, he sought a position in the Army Catering Corp, where he was soon promoted to officer status and began bringing some of his culinary training to his military service. Although, apparently, the British Army demoted him from the rank of Corporal back to Private most likely as a result of him sending a Yorkshire Pudding to the Ministry of Health to be analyzed, and for refusing to
show army cooks how to use French garnish or to use a French knife.
In 1955, he and Treena married. Kerr left the British Army in 1957, and he and Treena worked a number of jobs in the hotel industry. In 1958, they emigrated from the United Kingdom to New Zealand, where he secured a job working as the Chief Catering Advisor with the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
It was this role that led to his first television experience, when he was asked to do a cooking segment for the Air Force on New Zealand television in which he dressed up in military uniform while preparing an omelet. It was quite a hit and he ended up starring in a weekly TV show called, “Eggs with Flight Lieutenant Kerr,” for which he was paid a tiny fee of $25 an episode.
Soon, he started publishing his first cookbooks including, “Entertaining with Kerr” and “The Graham Kerr Cookbook.”
An Australian promoter saw Kerr’s New Zealand show, and in 1964, Australian Channel Ten Network premiered his first new TV show called, “Entertaining with Kerr.” It was just as successful.
So successful, in fact, that a call to an even larger market was soon to follow. In 1968, Kerr received a call to come to Ottawa, Canada where a TV production company called Freemantle International looking to produce a show that would go on to make Graham Kerr world famous. That show was, of course, “The Galloping Gourmet.” Kerr would star in the show and Treena would produce the show.
The show was made with the American audience in mind, but was filmed in Canada for two reasons. The first being that they wanted to bring some British element to the production, which was possible in Canada, as a British Commonwealth country. Secondly, because Canada was very advanced in the relatively new production of television shows in color.
The initial film making schedule was brutal – six episodes per day or 30 episodes per week.
I know. I know. My heart is like quivering at the thought of that.
It was released on Canadian channel CBC on December the 30th 1968 with the following description,
“a cooking show -- but what a cooking show! It is as entertaining as the best comedy shows and as informative as a documentary because of the talent of the host Graham Kerr, a world famous gourmet, formerly of England, now living in Australia.”
The show’s description also explained Kerr’s on-screen nickname and the title of the show as,
“because of the lightning speed at which he moves his six foot, three-inch frame while alternately singing, dancing, telling stories and giving homely advice -- all while cooking sumptuous dishes with dazzling dexterity.”
The show became an immediate huge hit, and tickets to be part of the live audience became hugely sought after, particularly by women who loved the ebullience of the host as he leapt over the furniture at the start of the show, always, as I said, with a glass of wine in his hand. They loved his stories of travel, the dishes from far off places, and his ability to not take himself too seriously when things went wrong.
One critic for the Associated Press, however, declared,
“Kerr takes a breezy, casual attitude about cooking, ignoring measuring cups and spoons and larding his recipes with jokes – sometimes old, sometimes close to risque. If his results sometimes seem less than appetizing, his hijinks while pot walloping are enchanting. . . .‘The Galloping Gourmet’ provides an entertaining half hour, but is about as far away from the Julia Child sort of cooking as Liberace is from Horowitz.”
However, this, uh, slightly unfair criticism did not seem to stretch to the television public, and “The Galloping Gourmet” became immensely popular around the globe, with an estimated audience of around 200 million people. Kerr became a huge star and was even invited to appear on The Today Show with Johnny Carson. However, over the period the show was in production from 1968 to 1971, the intense nature of filming was hard for Kerr and Treena, particularly when added to the constant travel to film on location – he apparently, went around the world nearly 28 times – and while parenting children.
In 1971, while on a location shoot in the United States, the Winnebago in which Kerr and his family were travelling through California was smashed into by a large vegetable truck. The injuries he received to his spine and arms were enough that he said,
“that, essentially was the end of The Galloping Gourmet Show.”
The show ended after having recorded 560 episodes in front of 46,000 audience members.
After the Kerrs recovered from their injuries, they set out on a new adventure, travelling around the world on a 71-foot yacht named TREENA, after his wife. The idea being to recuperate and regroup before returning to television.
Treena, however, developed tuberculosis and had part of a lung removed. The Kerrs eventually settled in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. Kerr took jobs teaching at Cornell University Hotel School in Ithaca and at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City.
At the same time, both Kerr and his wife, Treena, became born again Christians, which prompted a complete change in their lifestyles, including giving up alcohol and establishing a new relationship with food. It also brought changes to the new 4-minute show that Kerr developed called, “Take Kerr.”
Now, just so I mention this here, in the United States, Graham was known as Graham Kerr [Ed Note: pronounced “care”]. In England, it was known as Graham Kerr [Ed Note: pronounced “ker”]. And I have been using Graham’s British name throughout this so just in case anyone has any questions.
Anyway, in “Take Kerr,” in which Kerr totally denounced the excesses and indulgences of “The Galloping Gourmet” removing mentions of alcohol.
In the 1980s, after Treena had suffered both a stroke and a heart attack, Kerr became very focused on
“‘Minimax’ cooking, minimizing fat and cholesterol and maximizing good things.”
He was convinced that many of her problems were exacerbated by the richness of his cooking. His “minimax” approach to food led to a number of books and further television shows promoting this more healthy approach.
His new approach towards food was, as he admits himself, extremist. At some point, he started calling doughnuts “edible pornography.” And his family stopped talking to him when he started banning so many different food, including bologna in the sandwiches. They even had to plot to sneak food from McDonald’s. He claims that they started talking to him again when he brought enjoyment back to food.
Throughout the 1990s, his work would be recognized in many ways. In 1997, he won the James Beard Award for Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. In 1999, he became an honorary member of the American Culinary Federation Hall of Fame.
Kerr’s wife, Treena, passed away in 2015 a few weeks before what would have been their 60th wedding anniversary. And he now lives in Mount Vernon, close to Seattle, where he loves to garden.
If you do have chance, do go and check out the re-release of his classic book “The Graham Kerr Cookbook: By the Galloping Gourmet,” which was re published in 2018 in a revised edition. It gives a great insight into the culinary world of the late 1960s and early 1970s and reading it brought back some of those very happy memories of watching “The Galloping Gourmet” with my mother, all those years ago.
So, thank you very much, Mr. Kerr.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about, to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
So, now, let’s move on to my absolute favorite person in all of food TV History. The one and only. . .
MR. KEITH FLOYD
Now, I’m not sure how many of the American listeners to Eat My Globe will know the name Keith Floyd, but I can tell you that every British person who hears this will suddenly give the biggest of grins as they remember one of the truly great characters of British television history.
From my own point of view, I will say, for the record, that Keith Floyd was by far and away my favorite food personality of all time, as I just mentioned. I know that I’m not supposed to suggest this, but, if you have not seen him in action, do please take a break now, head to the internet or other streaming services and see him in action, and you’ll see why.
From 1985 and through the rest of the 1980s and the 1990s, Keith Floyd presented cookery shows that not only were blisteringly popular in the United Kingdom – and the countries of the Commonwealth, that is, the former colonies of Great Britain, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand – but also helped redefine the nature of presenting TV shows not just in Britain, but around the world.
Indeed, as the New York Times described him
“a British chef who revivified the television cooking-show format in the 1980s by injecting his own brand of wit, flamboyance and spontaneity verging on chaos.”
So, cooking on a trawler, next to a waterfall, next to elephants, you name it, that was Floyd. Breaking the fourth wall to harangue the cameraman, that was Floyd. Being reprimanded by an imperious French cook because his attempt at making one of their dishes was so awful, that was Floyd. Using the hardcore punk anthem “Peaches” by the Stranglers, that was Keith Floyd. And, most of all polishing off a vast amount of alcohol as he cooked, that was most definitely Floyd.
And, man alive did Floyd love to drink. But, we shall get on to that later.
Despite his very middle-class appearance on television in later life, Keith Floyd was born to very working-class parents, Sydney and Winnifred, in 1943, in a town near Reading. They moved to the county of Somerset during his childhood and, after making financial sacrifices, his parents sent him to the very well-known private school, Wellington.
When he left school, his first choice was a career in journalism, apparently after seeing the movie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” He managed to gain a job as a cub reporter at the Bristol Evening Post. He was quickly promoted to the role of assistant to the editor, and this gave him some of his first opportunities to eat in smarter restaurants.
Despite these expenses paid meals, the journalistic lifestyle did not appeal to Floyd, and at the age of twenty, he joined the British Army, gaining a commission in the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment.
According to his own legend, his military career was inspired by watching another movie that showed the derring do of Michael Caine and Stanley Baker in the film, “Zulu.” A great Floyd-esque story made unlikely by the fact that the film was not actually released until the following year. He was stationed in Germany, where it appears that his primary role as a second lieutenant was to make sure that the food in the officer’s mess halls was up to scratch. On the days when it was his turn on duty, he would try and persuade the chefs there to turn their hands to more gourmet French fare than the usual British roast meats and potatoes.
His time with the army was short because,
“he spent more time in the mess than in a tank.”
And for the next few years he found himself in a series of low paying jobs in London, France and Bristol, which included roles as a barman, a dish washer and a vegetable peeler. He finally found himself working as a chef at the Royal Hotel in Bristol.
In Bristol, he would meet his first wife – and apparently, his partner at the time of his death – at a bar. At 24 years old, he married his first wife, and they had a son. They separated after three years because he erroneously believed that she’d had a previous child.
By the time he was 28 years old, he was able to work his way up the restaurant chain to the point where he actually owned three restaurants in the Bristol area. At one of them, his parents did the dishwashing work. As always seemed to be the case with his life, these restaurants suffered from almost constant financial problems, and he sold them off.
He moved to France – leaving his estranged wife and his son behind – found a girlfriend, came back to Britain to spend some time with his son, separated with that girlfriend and then found another girlfriend, and moved back to France. – Back across the channel, he had the temerity to open a small six table restaurant in the Provencal town of L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Although the restaurant was well received – unlikely though that sounds for a Brit cooking in France – the relationship with his girlfriend did not last and around 1979 or 1980, they returned to Britain and broke up.
With the help of six friends who each put up £500 into an investment, he was able to open another restaurant known as Floyd’s. It was – as all his restaurants were – very popular, but as always with Floyd being a reprehensibly bad businessman, it was not successful. However, it was at this point in his life, in his early 40s, that the media finally discovered Keith Floyd. Thank heavens.
At first it was small scale. He published a cookbook which did well and led to a small spot on a local radio station, operating out of Bristol, called, “Radio West.” But it was when he was spotted by a local television producer, David Pritchard – who was to become his producer during all his glory years – that television was introduced to what the people of Bristol had known for some time.
Floyd was apparently reluctant at first, telling Pritchard that he
“hated TV people.”
Perhaps not the best start, but he was persuaded to do a 10-minute slot on a local TV station showing how to cook a quality entrée for the measly amount of £1. It was a huge success and was followed in 1984 by a pilot episode for a potential series of Floyd cooking with fish. The pilot too was successful enough that the BBC commissioned the whole series and “Floyd on Fish” aired in 1985.
It’s hard to put into words now the impact that this show had on British culinary television, which, up to then, had been very formal, and quite proper. I want to add in a personal recollection here, as I recall watching “Floyd on Fish” when it first aired. I had never seen anything quite like it. As much of the wine that was on the table of the ingredients went into Floyd as it did many of the dishes. Although he was a very skilled chef, he was quite prepared to bumble his way through the dishes to be shown up by a more skillful chef, and the cameraman, Clive, became part of the act as Floyd extoled him to “come in closer” or to “get out of the bloody way.” As he said in his autobiography, “Stirred but not Shaken,”
“I don’t think we had any rules, and if we did, we most certainly broke them.”
While I, and most of Britain, fell in love with the show, Floyd was also in love with his then-second wife, whom he married in 1983 just months after they met. They had a daughter.
The success of “Floyd on Fish” was followed by many other television series, at least 18 – including so many that are now part of the television heritage of Great Britain and many other countries. His shows were hugely popular in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. These included shows such as, “Floyd on Italy,” “Floyd on Oz,” “Floyd on Britain and Ireland,” “Far Flung Floyd,” and “Floyd on Africa,” and so on and so on. Each series was accompanied by a book that almost inevitably topped the bestseller lists. I watched every series many times, and bought a considerable number of the books. Within a decade, Keith Floyd went from being a popular local chef in the West Country, to being a genuine international culinary superstar.
One would have thought on the back of this that Keith Floyd would have become financially unstoppable also. However, his undoubted skill as a cook and his ebullience as a presenter was coupled with the fact that he was an astonishingly bad businessperson and his private life was often even more chaotic than the way he cooked.
Floyd and his second wife eventually divorced due to alleged gambling and drinking, and his daughter used to fly around the world as an unaccompanied minor to meet him whenever he was filming. There would also be times where she would not see him for two or three years.
In 1991, Floyd proposed to his would-be third wife four hours after they met. They would divorce three years later after she allegedly forgot his birthday. You couldn’t make this stuff about Keith Floyd. It’s brilliant. I love it.
In 1995, he married his fourth wife. The marriage ended after 13 years after many fights and by his own admission, his own “complete alcoholic blackouts.”
In the meantime, Floyd opened another restaurant in Devon but that again was a complete failure and led to substantial debts particularly when he accepted a check for £36,000 in payment for alcohol, that then bounced. I did say he wasn’t a great businessman.
On top of which, the drinking that had seemed so “devil may care” when he was on screen began to become a real issue off screen. I can speak to this firsthand as in 1993, when I worked for a publishing company that actually published some of Keith Floyd’s books, I had the misfortune to chaperone Floyd at a signing event at the food hall of a famous London department store, Harvey Nichols. Bear in mind that event began at 10am. He began very cheerfully, signing books and chatting to everyone who came up to him while he was drinking wine. However, as time went on, it was clear he was wanting to be anywhere else but at this signing session. And as I recall, he wasn’t unpleasant to any of the purchasers of his book but he was not quite as kind to those of us who he thought were keeping him captive. The moment his commitment was done he staggered out of the department store shouting over his shoulder that he was going to get a decent bloody lunch somewhere.
At another time, he was banned from driving for nearly three years after a crash, where he was found to have nearly 3 ½ times the allowed amount of alcohol in his system.
In 1993, Floyd also split from his longtime producer, the man who “discovered” him, David Pritchard, after their relationship deteriorated to the point when they communicated by passing notes to each other. Later, his shows with the BBC came to an end, as they moved on to a new generation of stars such as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Gordon Ramsay.
He made shows for other networks but he had already been supplanted by these new rising stars.
At the age of 63, Floyd tried to keep the wolf from the door of his finances by staging a one-man theatre show in the provincial theatres of the United Kingdom. As one might expect, every ticket holder would receive a glass of red wine to enjoy as they listened to the former TV hero tell stories about his adventures around the globe.
However well it was received, it, it was definitely a comedown from his glory years. Added to that, the excessive drinking was affecting his health considerably. In 2002, he suffered a minor stroke. He also suffered from hallucinations caused by his drinking, and in 2009, faced a battle against bowel cancer.
It was after receiving the good news that he was all clear of this latest ailment from his doctor that he decided to go and have an indulgent meal with his then partner, Celia Martin, at the Hix Oyster and Fish House in the town of Lynne Regis. It was quite a feast including wine, oysters and roast partridge, as well as apparently quite a few cigarettes. After that splendid lunch on September the 14th, Keith Floyd passed away of a heart attack later that evening at the age of 65. It seems a sad but fitting way for a great gourmand to end his days, with a splendid meal and some great wines.
It would be fair to say that without Keith Floyd we would not have the style of culinary shows we have today. And, so many of the names of the U.K. culinary television, such as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Rick Stein owe a huge debt of gratitude to his groundbreaking work.
As I mentioned earlier, if you have not watched Keith Floyd in action, I really recommend you go and seek out some of his exploits online. I don’t think we will ever see his like again. And, I personally think that’s a great shame.
And now let’s finish with another one of my favorite TV food personalities, and someone who is very much still us today. . .
CHEF MARTIN YAN
If, as I have suggested about some of the chefs today, you go down a culinary rabbit hole on You Tube, please enter the words, “Martin Yan Carves a Chicken in 18 Seconds.” This is remarkable, not only because our final chef very much does carve up said bird in said amount of time but also because, as he does so, he is joking with the audience in the inimitable way that has made him the star of over 2000 episodes of television.
And as with Graham Kerr earlier in the episode, not only is this remarkable chef very much still with us, but he is also a chef whose appearances on television, in this case in the 1980s, informed my love of food. When I was at university in London, I had a tiny – and I mean tiny – television. And, while I was studying in my room at lunchtime, I would always have the set turned to BBC1 which carried a number of imported cookery shows.
My favorite was one that had just started to air and featured a chef preparing Chinese food. And this was not the food from our local takeaways, which I loved and still do, for the record, but something quite different. In between short bouts of study, I would watch him prepare noodles, clean out fish, slice meat and cook in a wok over a blazing heat. Heady stuff for a boy watching from the North of England.
The show was called, “Yan Can Cook,” and the chef, of course, was the one and only, Chef Martin Yan.
Chef Martin Yan was born in 1948 in the Guangzhou region of Southern China, to a father who was a restaurateur and a mother who worked in a grocery store. It was a poor upbringing. In a commencement speech he once gave at UC Davis, he told the crowd about how scarce the food was,
“You had to stand in a long line just to get a head of cabbage, and we got two tablespoons of oil a month. I often went to bed hungry.”
Yan’s father passed away when Yan was a young boy. So, despite his father being a restaurateur, he actually learned how to cook from his mother. At 13 years old, he left home and took a boat down the Pearl River to Hong Kong, where an “uncle” – I used that in the Asian sense that he was a family friend, rather than a blood uncle – had offered him room, board and an education in payment for Yan to work at his restaurant. And when I say, “board,” I mean he slept in the restaurant. He explained his reason for leaving his family at such a young age,
“It’s not like Americans, who go to cooking schools, sometimes because they want to change careers. In China, families send their kids to work in a restaurant when they’re very young, when they’re about 12 or 14 . . . Poor families do it because they can’t afford to feed their kids. A restaurant always has a lot of food.”
Yan did his school work during the day and labored at the restaurant at night, which was hard. He said that for the first three years at the restaurant, all he did was cut and chop. He called it,
“The school of hard woks.” [Laughter]
I have to say, Chef Yan’s puns are clearly superior to mine.
He eventually received a diploma from the Hong Kong Overseas Institute of Cookery. His degree gave him the opportunity to study abroad – first, at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California, and second, at the University of California at Davis to get his masters degree in food science.
It was at UC Davis that he first began to also teach Chinese cookery to try and pay off his tuition funds. He taught classes for the University Extension program, and as he later explained,
“My friends were making 80 cents an hour working at restaurants, and I was making $18 an hour.”
It was during his time at UC Davis that Yan would meet his wife, Susan, who would become a biochemist. They would later have twin boys.
After his time at UC Davis, Yan went to Calgary in Canada, to help a friend open a restaurant. As with so many of the other chefs we’ve talked about during these episodes of Eat My Globe on the history of food television, the fact that this move also led to Yan’s appearances on television was a complete accident.
His friend’s restaurant was located close to a TV station. One day, the producers from the station came to the restaurant to film a cooking segment. When the chef that usually worked on the segment fell ill, they asked Yan to sub in. And so Yan, who had all of his equipment, was all ready to step in. His performance working just with frozen vegetables was such a great hit. So much so that he was invited back the next week to do another 30 minutes slot, and then again multiple times after that.
As a result of his initial successes, in 1978, he starred in his own show, “Yan Can.” He later changed the name of the show to “Yan Can Cook” after viewers kept calling in to ask, “Yan can what?”
The filming schedule was blistering with 130 episodes filmed in 25 days. For the mathematically challenged like me, that’s about 5 shows a day. Initially, Yan was paid $180 an episode. By the third season, in 1982, his salary had more than doubled. He had decided to move the production of the show to the Bay area of the United States, an area he loved.
The reason the show was so popular, apart from his obvious skills in the kitchen, was Yan’s humor and, of course, his catchphrases.
“If Yan Can Cook, So Can You.”
The show not only became the first of its type, offering Chinese cookery to air nationally in the United States, airing on over 250 stations but soon began to be rolled out across more than 20 countries across the world.
And with it, Yan began to enjoy the other successes that go along with being a star on food TV. He opened a number of “Yan Can” restaurants as well as other eating places. I believe that the last of these in San Francisco “M.Y.China” just ceased to operate in 2020 citing the Covid-19 pandemic as its main reason for closure.
Yan has also written over 25 books. As well as appearing in continuing series of Yan Can Cook, Martin Yan has appeared in many, many more TV shows, including two excellent series, “Spice Kingdom” and “Taste of Malaysia,” which show his love not only for the cuisine of his own homeland, China, but also his passion for all food across Asia.
He has also continued to teach and become guest instructor at prestigious institutions like Johnson & Wales University and the Culinary Institute of America, amongst others.
Yan’s success has been recognized by the receipt of awards. These include everything from a Daytime Emmy bestowed in 1998, and a pair of James Beard Awards – one for Best TV Show in 1994, and one for Best TV Food Journalism in 1996. Plus, he was bestowed honorary doctorates from the great culinary school Johnson & Wales University, and the Colorado Institute of Arts.
At the time of the writing of this podcast, Martin Yan is 72 years old and shows very little sign of slowing down. Although the Covid pandemic has curtailed his ability to travel around the world, he is busy talking about local issues. In a recent interview on SF Gate, he talks about the Covid-19 pandemic, where he joined with almost 100 Chinese restaurants in offering food to those working on the frontline.
He is also speaking out about the growth in hate crimes against Asian Americans in his own city.
“I hope my career and what I do can make a little impact in the community and help people understand that we should respect everybody's culture, heritage and that we are all individuals. And food is the best equalizer. Food is the best diffuser. Food has no international boundary.”
I completely agree.
Now, Eat My Globe is, strictly speaking, a food history podcast. However, I am pleased to see that one of my favorite chefs, one who really turned my attention to the nuances and elegance of Chinese food nearly 40 years ago, is proving, decades later, that he is very far from history.
So, I hope you enjoyed this episode, everyone. It was certainly fun for me to look back at some of the people who have given me so much culinary pleasure over the years. If you’ve enjoyed listening to this episode as much as I did researching it, please write it, and do let me know.
See you next time folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: November 29, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.