Graham Kerr, Food TV Phenomenon

Galloping-Gourmet-in-kitchen

A pioneer in the area of food television is unquestionably Graham Kerr. The debonair, self-deprecating charmer of the 1960s and early 70s changed the face of tv cooking permanently. He is also a prolific writer on cooking and food, with 30 books to his credit.

Always dressed well whether casually or formally, his ever-present smile and quips kept the crowd rapt. It is a sign of his talent and appeal that a Briton who started his broadcasting career in distant New Zealand became an international food celebrity.

His award-winning Galloping Gourmet series was produced in Ottawa, Ontario from 1969-1971 after he was discovered on Australian tv as a pitchman. It launched Kerr’s enduring culinary fame. Kerr’s late wife, Trina, a former actress, produced the shows and was a key part of his success.

When the series ended they moved to California and Kerr was poised for a Julia Child-like ascendancy. A car accident and health issues for his wife set the family back for a while. Ultimately they changed direction and became born-again Christians. Kerr continued in the food and nutrition field and had good success still, focusing on healthy eating but abjuring the wine glass and racy jokes of old.

Nonetheless the later shows including on PBS did well enough, and even today, semi-retired at 82 and living near Seattle, Kerr keeps his hand in various food endeavours.

But it is the old Graham Kerr whom most will recall fondly. The Galloping Gourmet is well-remembered to the point the Cooking Channel has re-broadcast the series, as discussed in this informative blogpost by Sarah Levine.

In this Galloping Gourmet clip from c. 1970 you see him at the apogee of his success. He bounds into the kitchen holding a glass of wine, a fixture of the shows although he drank little or nothing on air despite impressions given. In this performance he does a stand-up routine to rival a professional comedian’s.

The show’s topic was recreating a beef and beer dish he had encountered at a hotel in Clifton, England. Sample quip, for a commemorative “Investiture Ale” used in the dish: “They can’t sell it so they use it for cooking”. His British accent emulations were dead-on, a recondite talent from an American point of view that did nothing to slow his career here.

As far as I know one can’t view online, if any episodes survive, his original, New Zealand television programme. It debuted in 1959, in black and white, called Entertaining With Kerr. But colour episodes of the Galloping Gourmet can be seen, at least a representative number, on youtube. They illustrate well a corner of culinary history.

Kerr wasn’t the first chef to appear on tv. James Beard may have been the first in North America, in 1946. I believe early BBC television, around 1938, featured a cookery demonstration. In Canada the Canadian chef and food author Jehane Benoit, of whom I wrote earlier, had appeared on CBC television by 1960.

But Kerr was the best of all of them, in the estimation of many. As for Julia Child he had exposure to the culinary field for years before becoming a household name, in his case in restaurants and catering. His family had owned a hotel in Sussex. He grew up in the business and his deft way with people must have come from those early years of always being “on”.

He served in the British Army in the 1950s in a catering unit, and later did similar work for the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Once established he would poke fun at himself for this. Military catering is in fact an important, ill-understood part of the culinary arts, but no one would consider it an apotheosis of military career!

Decades before Anthony Bourdain’s acclaimed food and travel series Parts Unknown, Graham Kerr was doing something similar. Indeed he set the template since many Galloping Gourmet episodes used Kerr’s filmed visits to reputed foreign restaurants as the theme, with Kerr recreating signature national dishes in Ottawa.

The Cooking Channel has placed online Kerr’s recipe featured in the Clifton, U.K. episode, you can read it here. It’s rump of beef with beer. The recipe to my mind is mostly English in origin yet with some Continental influences. The barding of meat with fat to tenderize is a French standby, not an English one or at least a modern English one. The sugar, vinegar, and herbs have a Belgian ring whereas the mushrooms and oysters sound more English.

In Kerr’s day catering and cookery were much influenced by the “Continental” style, a post-WW II construct. This entailed menu offerings blending different European traditions and offering a particular type of service and decor, especially in “international” hotels, and restaurants.

“Continental” sounds old-fashioned but the concept will come back, sole amandine, say (a fine dish).

But at bottom the Clifton way with beef and ale showed old English influences. Kerr had returned 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 New York Times story on Kerr from only last year will bring his career up to date for interested readers.

 

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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