Graham Kerr, The Food TV Phenomenon, Beer Cookery

Galloping-Gourmet-in-kitchenA pioneer in the food tv area is unquestionably Graham Kerr. The debonair, self-deprecating charmer of the 60s and early 70s changed the face of tv cookery shows, permanently.

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 television and food career in far away New Zealand became known ultimately around the world.

The award-winning Galloping Gourmet series, produced in Canada from 1969-1971, launched his enduring culinary fame. When the series ended, he relocated to the U.S. He was set for a Julia Child-like ascendancy but a car accident and health issues for his wife set them back for a while. They changed direction in life and became born-again Christians. Kerr stayed in the food and nutrition field and had good success still, focusing on healthier eating and abjuring the wine glass and racy jokes of old.

He has had many shows on PBS and internationally, and is still active at 82.

But it is the old Graham Kerr whom many remember with fondness. As the series is still well-remembered and was so successful, it has been shown again on tv, on the Cooking Channel, as explained in this informative blog entry from Sarah Levine (from which the image shown is taken).

In this 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 but he drank almost none of it when working despite the impressions given. As was typical, he does a stand-up routine that would rival many professionals in comedy. The theme is the recreation of a beef and beer dish he encountered in a hotel in Clifton, England. Sample line, for the “Investiture Ale” used for the dish: “They can’t sell it so they use it for cooking”. His English accent emulations were dead-on, a recondite talent from an American point of view that did nothing to slow his career in North America.

As far as I know, one can’t view online, if any survive, his original New Zealand television programme. It debuted in 1959 and was in black and white, called, Entertaining With Kerr. But his colour Galloping Gourmet programmes can be seen, at least a representative number, and illustrate well a corner of culinary history. He certainly wasn’t the first chef to appear on tv. James Beard did it as early as 1946. I believe very early BBC television, c.1938, featured a cookery demonstration as well. In Canada around 1960, the Canadian chef and food author Jehane Benoit, of whom I have written earlier, appeared on CBC television.

But Kerr was the best of all of them in the estimation of many. As in the case of Julia Child’s brilliant career, it was preceded by years of professional training working with food, in his case in restaurants and catering. His family had owned a hotel in Sussex, he grew up in the business and a deft way with people must have come early to him. He served in the British Army for years 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 and not-well-understood part of the food world, but no one would consider it an apotheosis of military career).

Decades before Anthony Bourdain’s acclaimed food travel series, Parts Unknown, Graham Kerr was doing something similar. Indeed he set the template since the Galloping Gourmet episodes were based on his visits to reputed foreign restaurants and recreating their dishes in an Ottawa studio.

The Cooking Channel has placed online Kerr’s recipe featured in the Clifton episode, you can read it here. It’s rump of beef with beer. The recipe itself to my mind is English in origin but has some Continental influences. The barding of meat with fat to moisten it is a French standby, not an English one or at least a modern English one. The sugar, vinegar and herbs used with the beer have a Belgian ring. The mushroom and oysters part sounds more English. “Beef and ale” is certainly an old country specialty in Britain and my own library of beer cookery offers numerous examples. The Clifton one can be counted a variation.

In Kerr’s day, catering and cookery were much influenced by things “Continental”, a post-WW II concept. This entailed a menu blended from different European traditions and a particular form of service and decor, especially in hotels, and restaurants with an international flavour. The term sounds old-fashioned, but the concept will come back, sole amandine, say. (Fine dish).

 

4 thoughts on “Graham Kerr, The Food TV Phenomenon, Beer Cookery

  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

Leave a Comment