Monday, December 5, 2011

Turning Star Chefs into Must-See TV

At a recent meal at Jean Georges restaurant in New York, Charles Pinsky pushed a dish of foie gras on brioche with spiced fig jam toward his dining companion. "You eat mine. It's delicious, but I've had it about 200 times," said Mr. Pinsky, shrugging. Describing dining at El Bulli in Spain shortly before it closed, and attending the restaurant Chez Panisse's 40th-anniversary party, he waved his hand, muttering, "Yeah, yeah. I'm over it."

Being cynical about star chefs and immune to the glamour of haute cuisine may sound like the kiss of death for a producer and director of food television. But being easily bored may be Mr. Pinsky's greatest asset.
Throughout his 20-year-plus career, which has included four James Beard awards and dozens of public television cooking series and specials—with chefs and celebrities like Mario Batali, Jacques P├ępin and Gwyneth Paltrow—Mr. Pinsky, 61, has been on a continual search for the "the next new idea."

Before he takes on a project, Mr. Pinsky said, he asks himself how it will be different from what he has done before. This principle pushed him into a series that he is developing with Phil Rosenthal, a comedy writer and the creator of the television show "Everybody Loves Raymond." The attraction to Mr. Pinsky is figuring out how to combine comedy and food.

 To flesh out an idea, Mr. Pinsky schedules many long conversations with a potential collaborator, often over restaurant meals. In late August, he went on a four-day eating journey through Los Angeles and San Francisco with Mr. Rosenthal, whom Mr. Pinsky describes as "a skinny guy who can out-enthusiasm and out-eat just about anybody." The pair began at Mozza restaurant in Los Angeles, then flew to San Francisco to eat eggs with pork and kimchi at Boulette's Larder. Over the next couple of days, they came up with a series idea in which Mr. Rosenthal will accompany famous chefs as they live out their ultimate food fantasies, while providing comedic, direct-to-camera narration.

 Each series begins with a scouting trip. As he scouts, Mr. Pinsky takes pictures with his BlackBerry of interesting characters or scenes, and writes a two-to-three-line description about who and where they are. Then he emails these mini-portraits, sometimes one or two per day, to a list of about 20 friends, including chefs Mr. Batali and Gary Danko, cookbook authors Mark Bittman and Julia Turshen and Mr. Pinsky's two sisters. There's little science to this method—Mr. Pinsky doesn't count votes—but he said that a big cheer from his list will usually lead him to shoot the story.

Scrolling through his BlackBerry, Mr. Pinsky landed on a picture of an elderly Korean woman in traditional dress stooped over a cauldron. She was demonstrating how to make cabbage and pork soup, a combination of ingredients that Mr. Pinsky's star, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, grew up eating in France. Mr. Pinsky said that his email panel loved the image and the idea that a world-famous chef and an old Korean lady had a comfort food in common. These scenes became a high point in a show he produced in Korea about the chef, his Korea-born wife and actors Heather Graham and Hugh Jackman.

Read the rest of the story here.

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