Thursday, November 01, 2007

TV Dinner: A Conversation with Joey Altman

When I moved to the Bay Area in the late 1990s (this was my second of three moves to the Bay Area in my life), Comcast Cable didn’t offer The Food Network on any of its basic cable packages. So I got my cooking fix from the chefs on PBS and locally on KRON4-TV with Bay Café and its chef host, Joey Altman.

Originally from New York, Joey (OK, how can you call a guy by his last name when he’s named Joey?) cooked in places such as France and New Orleans before arriving in San Francisco where he worked at Stars and Miss Pearl’s Jam House—serving up Caribbean- and African-inspired dishes. But most people know him as the man with the boyish charm cooking with Bay Area chefs and sipping cocktails at some of the area’s trendiest places on Bay Café, which has received three James Beard awards for Best Local Cooking Series (2000, 2001 and 2006).

The show is currently on “hiatus.” (KRON4-TV, which became an independent station a few years ago, now works under a model similar to PBS where shows are supported by a particular sponsor instead of just ads. Bay Café is currently looking for a sponsor.) Since Joey has a break from taping episodes, I got together with him recently for lunch to talk about the show, what he’s working on now and a bit about his chefs’ band, the Back Burner Blues Band.

We met at Pancho’s Salsa Bar & Grill in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond neighborhood for some tacos, tostada and quesadilla. With Joey was his 3-year-old daughter, Piper, whose birth (fans of the show will recall) was featured on an episode of Bay Café. Of course with Piper along, we went for ice cream afterwards around the corner. (In the photos, you’ll see that Piper did her best to keep her dad distracted.)

The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

Chef Ben: When you are working on Bay Café, how often do you tape the show?

Joey Altman: It depends on what we’re doing. Each show is different. Sometimes we can do a whole show in one day. Some days the segments are involved, so we’ll only shoot a segment or maybe two segments in one day and the next day or the following week we’ll do another and we’ll put it together in the editing room for a whole show. … For the last few years we’ve only been doing 26 shows a year.

CB: How many years have you been doing the show?

JA: Nine years, 578 shows. Many, many episodes.

CB: How do you think Bay Café has changed over the years? When I first started watching, you were mostly demonstrating a recipe or cooking a meal. Then it seems to have broadened over the years to more.

JA: We were very fortunate to have a producer come on board a few years ago who’s an Emmy-award winning producer/journalist, and she really saw the ability for the show to take on broader topics and go wider, deeper into subject matters. And since we were no longer bound to the studio, we could go on location and really explore different concepts that were always food-based.

The mission statement that I developed at the beginning of the show was that Bay Café was to be a celebration of the culinary landscape of the entire Bay Area. So not just San Francisco-centric. I get a lot of requests for the show to explore negative food topics. … Like the use of GMOs (genetically modified foods) or obesity or any of those food topics. While they’re important, I always wanted to keep the show an upbeat celebration of the food theme.

… The show has developed in a way that I think has allowed me as well as our audience to experience more than just how to make something. It was either the story behind it or the people who are on the peripherals and just see a little bit more shades of gray, if you will.

CB: What was your favorite thing to do on the show? Was it visiting a new restaurant or working with a chef in the kitchen?

The show is such a gift to me because it gives me so many different experiences. I love meeting and working with new chefs. I love meeting up and cooking with my friend chefs. … But I also love meeting people who I would never meet because they’re just not in my day-to-day life. And travel out to a restaurant in Pleasanton or a cheese maker, sausage maker, or winemaker in another county. We’ve done shows where I’ve had everyday people who are good, passionate, strong cooks, who we’d come across.

CB: This is a small thing, but I’ve always wondered when TV chefs react to food on camera with such gusto whether that’s an honest reaction. How about when you’re on Bay Café? How do you handle a situation where you taste something that might not be that great?

JA: Actually, and I’m not just saying this to brag or anything, but a lot of thought goes into the recipes that we’re going to do and I can’t remember a dish that I’ve actually made myself that I didn’t like. Some I really like a lot; some I think are just good. … But when other people are cooking, 99.9 percent of the time it’s been good.

I can remember one time, and I don’t even remember who the chef was, but we were doing a pork tenderloin. This was early, must have been our first or second season. The chef was a caterer from the North Bay and he was doing a roast pork tenderloin dish with a cherry sauce. Now on paper it sounded fine. It was around the winter and Thanksgiving time, so I thought maybe he’ll use dried cherries, I wasn’t sure. The recipe just said a cup of cherries. And cherries definitely weren’t in season at the time so I thought it’ll be interesting to see what he’s going to use. And he literally opened up a can of cherry pie filling and heated that up and added nothing to it and sautéed this pork loin and spooned this cherry pie filling over it. I remember taking a bite of it and it wasn ’t good, but I wasn’t going to say “you know, I don’t care for this.” I just said, “This is interesting.”

And as far as I’m concerned as the host, my job is to be the best, gracious host-conduit to the audience as possible for my guests, because really, the philosophy of the show is I’m there only to facilitate and make it watchable and give my guests the best stage possible to present what they’re doing and not upstage them in any way or make it about me. So in a situation like that I just talked about the things that were positive about it. “This is easy, you just need to open a can and heat that up. That is easy for sure, and an interesting way to use what would normally be a dessert filling with roast pork, huh?”

CB: How do you decide which restaurants get featured on the show? Do you or the producer decide?

JA: We both. What we try to do is we have this really complex matrix, and we’ll do this in the beginning of the season. We’ll say: “What do we want to accomplish this season? What broad topics do we want to look at so we’re not redundant? And what new restaurants are coming on line that we want to feature?” And then at the end of the day it’s, “What are we in the mood for, what are we interested in?”

And we’re a small crew—me, the producer, and the cameraman. … Because we’re a small crew, we can really work on the fly and go, you know, let’s not do that this week, let’s just go to that restaurant we read about or that person told us about. So it’s really very loose.

CB: It must be easy in the San Francisco Bay Area where there are so many great restaurants to feature?

JA: The show can literally be on one every day in perpetuity and never run out of material. It’s ridiculous. The shows that I love doing are the ones that feature small places. I love doing small places. Places like Postrio, Masa’s, Boulevard, while they’re great and fun, I get more joy out of doing places like Swan Oyster Depot or P.J.’s Oyster Bed or Nate’s Barbeque because they have so much color and character. And they’re the ones that deserve that kind of attention. Those are the ones who really need it, the small mom-and-pop places.

CB: Which places do you like to go outside of the show, just for yourself?

JA: Well, with three kids it’s hard to get out that often. But every now and then we’ll steal away. My wife is in the business (she’s on the finance side, now with the PlumpJack Group’s Jack Falstaff restaurant) so she knows a lot of people. And we definitely like when we go out to patronize our friends and help them out. We appreciate when people are nice to us and comp some of our stuffs, but we really like to go out and spend money because we know every dollar that you spend in a restaurant is a dollar very much earned at these places. So we’ll go to Delfina. I go to A16 quite a bit. Gary Danko—we’ll go to the bar a nd sit there and have a glass of champagne and some appetizers. We love that.

CB: So what are you up to now?

JA: I’m a consultant now for a few restaurants and a few food products and a wine group. So I get to do a lot of my recipe development and marketing stuff from home.

CB: Have you been consulting for awhile, even while doing the show?

JA: Even when we were in full production (of Bay Café) my work week was two days a week, at most. So it allowed me to do a lot of other things. Having the celebrity notoriety from the show opened up a lot of doors for me that normally wouldn’t be there for me.

CB: Has being a celebrity chef changed your life in any way? Do people recognize you walking down the street?

JA: Yeah, I don’t walk, I skip. (laughs) No, it’s a double-edge sword. I was talking about this with my older daughter yesterday about how being a celebrity just for being the sake of a celebrity is not really interesting, because people make these assumptions about you that’s based on such a small slice of your life that they know.

And it’s always very nice when people come over and say, “oh, I’m a big fan of your show. I love your show. We watch you all the time.” That’s fine, but then there are people who think it’s OK to come up to you when I’m changing her diaper (he’s pointing to his daughter Piper) in a bathroom in a mall and somebody would come over and start up a conversation with me. It’s just like, there’s a time and place. I think people think that you’re a celebrity and they have access to you.

CB: Does that ever make you wonder how much longer you’d like to be on TV and being a celebrity?

JA: Oh no, I’m not that big. I was doing something with Tyler Florence not too long ago. Now here’s a guy who can’t go anywhere without people stopping him. And it forces you to behave in a way that’s not really you. You don’t want to be sort of rude or abrupt, but if you’re not, people will consume you.

CB: Do you still cook and work in the kitchen?

JA: Yeah, and I love that. It gives me an opportunity to do what I love to do, where on the show I literally would cook for 30 minutes and that was it. So I cook a lot at home. I cook also at a restaurant down the street here and I did the opening menu and got to really spend weeks at a time in the kitchen and that was great. It was also great getting out and not having to be there forever.

CB: There’s probably a difference between developing a menu and then getting out, and staying as an executive chef and cooking every day and night?

JA: I have very little desire to have my own restaurant. While I would love to have an equity position in a restaurant as a partner, the day-to-day operations, I don’t miss it. There are too many variables that are out of your control that you have to deal with. You know, I’ve got three kids and that’s enough uncontrollable variables in my life right now.

CB: Do you adjust what you cook at home because of your kids?

JA: Oh, no. I still cook what I want to eat for me and I make them pasta with butter. No, my palate hasn’t gone down. I still cook for myself and I’ll put it on the table at the same time, knowing that they’ll slowly acclimate and try different things. Like two nights ago I made a dish that I’m working on for a project I’m doing, and it was a chicken dish with dates and ginger and these roasted padrone peppers. And my 13-year-old who up until very recently wouldn’t even touch pepper—salt was it—is now starting to try things, so it’s fun to see their palates develop.

CB: What else do you have planned for the near future?

JA: The big project I’m working on currently is an opening of a restaurant in Jack London Square called Miss Pearl’s Jam House.

CB: Weren’t you involved with something with the same name when you first started your career?

JA: Yeah, it was my first restaurant chef’s job. I opened Miss Pearl’s Jam House in 1989 at the Phoenix Hotel with Chip Connelly, who’s the owner of many hotels now. That was his first hotel back then, and he’s involved with this project at Jack London Square and it’s right on the water and he called me out of the blue to say, “hey, we’re doing this project and we’re thinking of doing a Caribbean restaurant here and I wanted to know if it’s OK with you if we use the name Miss Pearl’s Jam House?” And I said, “absolutely, that’ll be awesome.”

So we started to talk and he said “would you like to be involved?” And I was like, “yeah, that’ll be great.” So I’m going to be the consulting opening chef. I’m going to write the menu. They have another chef there, a great chef named Jennifer Cox, who was based here in San Francisco for awhile, and I’m going to work with her and help basically bring that vibe back and create a menu that’s sort of inspired by the food of the sun. There’ll be some Latin American stuff, there’ll be some Caribbean stuff, Flori-bbean. They’ll be very healthy, but at the same time big, bold flavors.

CB: I never got to try Miss Pearl’s Jam House when it was around the first time. What kind of food did it serve?

JA: Well, it first started out as this tropical tapas restaurant. And we were one of the first places in the city to do small plates. And each dish would be on something the size of this (points to a small plate) and our largest menu at one point—and this was in the heydays—I think we had like 35 small plates and they’ll be something like salmon paillard with ginger tamarind glaze with an avocado salsa. And then we’ll have grilled shrimp skewers and we’ll have coconut pork dumplings and jerk chicken, obviously jerk pork, corn breads, hearts of palm salads. And then the kitchen would just get slammed. Because at a table of four each person would order four items because they were all inexpensive. So for doing 150 dinners, we would wind up making a thousand plates of food in this little kitchen. So we thought, “this isn’t working. It’s too ambitious.”

CB: With the new restaurant in Jack London Square, are you going to bring back the same vibe and food of the original Miss Pearl?

JA: It’s definitely going to have the same vibe. It’s going to be the vibe of a tropical urban oasis. Miss Pearl was really funky in its décor. Funky as in like weather-beaten. We made it look like you were in Montego Bay. … But this (the new Miss Pearl’s) is going to be a little cleaned up but still give you a sense of being laid back and fun.

CB: Was it when you were at Miss Pearl’s Jam House that you started your blues band?

JA: The blues band came on quite a bit after that. I’ve always been playing music on the side. I was on the high school band, mostly classic rock kind of stuff. Miss Pearl’s was mostly a lot of reggae stuff. I did every now and then sit in with the reggae band. But the blues band, the chef’s band, started when Jan Birnbaum was the chairperson for Meals on Wheels seven years ago and he had us play three songs for the opening of the event. And so we got together and we learned three songs. We found these guys from being on my show. I would talk to one chef and say, “hey I’ve been asked to do this, do you know any chefs who are musicians?” And word of mouth I found these guys.

Gordon Drysdale was a good friend of mine, Scott Warner I knew, who’s an amazing guitar player. So we got together and had such a good time doing it that we decided after the event that we’ll get together and play. It was like therapy for us. Here we have five chefs who are all in the business and all play music, who can get out of the restaurant, beat on our guitar and drums and scream at the top of our lungs. … And it was just a good, open environment where we weren’t embarrassed to talk about our pitfalls and shortcomings in the restaurants because there was never any ego stuff going on. We’re very lucky to have a good group of guys. And then the band just sort of got better and we got more opportunities to play, and the more opportunities we got to play the more we enjoyed it.

CB: Do you guys do paying gigs?

JA: Oh yeah, we do paying gigs. I like to say we do restaurant openings, benefits and bar mitzvahs. Basically any opportunity to play out, we’ll take it, we’ll do it. It’s so much fun.

CB: If you could do anything you want, would you rather be in a rock band or a chef?

JA: If I would be able to make a living playing music I would do it in a heart beat. … I love playing. For me it’s therapy—doing something creative and tactile.

Many thanks to Joey Altman for taking the time to chat with me and for agreeing to be featured on my blog (and special thanks to Piper for sharing her daddy with me for the day). I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Bay Café will return from hiatus soon, and we’ll get to see new episodes of Joey continuing his celebration of culinary life in the Bay Area.

Pancho’s Salsa Bar & Grill, 3440 Geary Blvd. at Stanyan Street, San Francisco. PH: 415.387.8226

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful interview! I met Joey back in the mid 90's before Bay Cafe. I worked at an ISP in San Jose and he was either dating a girl there or her sister (can't remember which!). I knew he was a cook but not much more. I have photos of him at some of our work events. I remember a softball game, a broken nose and Joey not being happy I had photos of it :)