Graham Kerr, Food TV Phenomenon

Galloping-Gourmet-in-kitchen

Graham Kerr is the debonair, self-deprecating charmer of the 1960s and early 70s who changed the face of TV cooking permanently. Now in his mid-80s, Kerr is also a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit on cooking, nutrition and health.

Always dressed well whether casually or formally, his ever-present smile and non-stop quips kept the crowd rapt. It is a sign of his talent and charisma that a Briton who started in broadcasting in remote New Zealand 60 years ago, became an international food celebrity.

His award-winning The Galloping Gourmet was produced in Ottawa, Ontario between 1969 and 1971 after he came to notice as a pitchman on Australian TV. The shows launched his enduring culinary fame. His late wife Trina, a former actress, produced the shows and was a key part of his success.

When the series ended the Kerrs moved to California and Graham seemed poised for a Julia Child-like ascendancy.

Unfortunately, a bad car accident and health issues for Trina set the family back for a while. Eventually they took a new direction and became born-again Christians. Graham continued in the food and nutrition field but henceforth focused on healthy eating, abjuring the wine glass and racy jokes of old.

His later work, including on the PBS network, certainly did well enough. Today, semi-retired at 82 and living near Seattle, he keeps his hand in various culinary endeavours.

But it is the old Graham Kerr most fondly remember. The Galloping Gourmet shows are important enough that the Cooking Channel re-broadcast them, as explained in this blogpost by Sarah Levine.

In this clip from c.1970 we see Kerr at the apogee of his success. He bounds into the kitchen holding a glass of wine, a fixture on the set although he rarely drank on air, despite impressions given. In this performance, he does a stand-up routine worthy of a professional comedian.

The topic was cooking a beef-and-beer dish he encountered at a hotel in Clifton, England. A sample quip, on the commemorative “Investiture Ale” the hotel used in the dish: “They can’t sell it so they use it for cooking”. His U.K. accents are dead on, a recondite skill in North America that did nothing to impede his success.

As far as I know, his original New Zealand programs are not available, at least publicly. That show debuted in 1959 in black and white, “Entertaining With Kerr”. But at least a dozen colour episodes of the Galloping Gourmet can be seen on YouTube. They illustrate well a corner of British-American food and culinary history.

Kerr wasn’t the first chef to cook on television. James Beard may have started it, at least in North America, in 1946. The BBC around 1938 apparently featured the first televised cookery demonstration. And Canadian chef and culinary author Jehane Benoit, whom I’ve discussed earlier, was on CBC TV certainly by 1960.

But Kerr was the best of them all, in the view of many. Like Julia Child, he was well experienced in culinary matters before becoming a tv star. He started by working in the Sussex hotel owned by his family. He grew up in the business, and his deft way with people probably resulted from years of needing to be “on” with guests.

After service in a British Army catering unit (1950s), and further hotel work, he moved to New Zealand to do catering in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. When international fame arrived he would poke fun at himself for a military career in catering. Yet, the field is an interesting one from the standpoint of food history and on its own merits.

Decades before Anthony Bourdain’s acclaimed “Parts Unknown”, Graham Kerr was doing something similar. Decades before Jaime Oliver dished out the charm, Kerr set the pattern.

In fact, as far as I know, Kerr devised the basic idea of taking a film set to foreign locales to identify distinctive dishes to recreate at home.

The recipe in Clifton episode for rump of beef in beer may be seen here. To my mind, it has both an English and Continental character. In the 1960s and ’70s “Continental” eating was in fashion, a hotel and restaurant stand-by across the world.

But what the Clifton episode really shows us is, Kerr had come home.*

Note re image: image above was sourced from the article of Ms. Sarah Levine linked in the text. All intellectual property therein is owned solely by its lawful owner, as applicable. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*Note added March 22, 2018: this NYT story on Kerr from last year, brings his career to the present.

 

4 thoughts on “Graham Kerr, Food TV Phenomenon”

  1. Thanks for this piece, Gary. I remember watching him as a young boy with my parents. They loved the show, and I enjoyed watching it with them. Mom thought he was rather dashing, and would giggle a lot while trying to keep up with frenetic note taking. Dad loved the fact that he was always drinking (your revealing his not finishing his wine would not please him…though I’m sure he would insist he was drinking it down on breaks and refilling…LOL), and I just thought he was…peculiar. As a youngster, it was fun to watch such antics on the few staid television stations available at the time.

    • Thanks Joe, and nice to hear all this! I don’t think he ever had a drinking issue, and I’ve read the glass had cellophane on it so the wine would stay in when he did a jump. 🙂

      You should check out his website, http://www.grahamkerr.com, he’s 82 now and lot’s changed, still interesting though. If I could sit down with him, I’d have lots of questions, e.g. what was it like during the war in England, and his years of military service. What did he think he Canada, what does he think of the current food scene, etc.

      Gary

  2. Excellent Gary.
    I just watched the episode mentioned.
    He’s extremely charming and funny, very “old school” (in the best way), but smart too and obviously (humour aside) passionate about food.
    Dishes like these must have seemed, as you suggest, fairly exotic back then.
    “International”, when most wouldn’t have dreamed of traveling to Europe.
    Alan.

    • Thanks, Alan, watch this extract from 1:52 in Part 4 of this excellent British documentary on Kerr:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d176AY_4gzo&ebc=ANyPxKoUYSASl4fYfWApYBjTOnmwx3nR4_JptZMde-rfnwBmABtCU_e7VcQel_mC83O1rwtFQxAg

      All the parts are well-worth watching, and Kerr’s pre-Ottawa days are reviewed, from his army service in catering in England through to the NZ and Australian tv career. There are black and white clips of him in the Australian mid-60s period.

      As you say, he was (is) smart obviously, and his wife Trina (now deceased) clearly had a big part in his career as well.

      No question he knew food very well, you can’t pretend about this kind of thing and get to the level he did. He had other quirks and features, as did Julia Child, which helped them on their way, but the deep knowledge they had of cooking is evident in all their work. I could tell just from how he did that beef and beer dish.

      Gary

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