In the first season’s 13 episodes, production was restricted to subjects who live in the New York tri-state area. Rocca has seen the audition footage but meets the cooks only when shooting gets underway. A crew of 10 is small compared with the team needed to produce Bravo’s “Top Chef,” but it can create cramped conditions in someone’s home over the course of two days and close to 24 hours of raw footage.
The end result has its charms, and its shtick: 20 minutes of Rocca engaging his host, making jokes at no one’s expense, taking instruction on how to extract the bite out of sliced onion, season jerk chicken or pronounce “kreplach.” It’s Master and Grasshopper — a reference to the mid-’70s TV show “Kung Fu” that Rocca gets immediately.
The day after our interview and dinner at Mintwood, Rocca heads to Potomac, where he has agreed to a “Grandmother’s Ravioli”-type session with a local senior citizen. Who knows? Maybe casting for next season’s episodes will start in his hometown. He meets Helene Mankowitz, a stylin’ 71-year-old retired makeup artist whose offspring are happy to let her do the cooking. Her grandchildren call her “M.” She greets Mo with her picture-perfect signature apple crumble pie and coffee.
The dish du jour is chicken and egg noodles. It is close to her heart. Simple, one-pot comfort food. Her late mother learned to make it as a young Romanian child transplanted to Reading, in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Mankowitz has committed the recipe to memory only, so she’s nervous about measuring this and that.
Within minutes, they have struck up a playfully antagonistic rapport. She teaches him how to chop celery. He looks for approval. A dialogue sampler:
She: You know, I’m a potter.
He: Did you love the movie “Ghost”?
She: It doesn’t work like that for me.
He (hands not on the just-poached chicken): I’ve never dealt with a chicken like this. It’s very cathartic.
She (actually dismantling the chicken, pointing to the flap of skin and bone at its tail end): My mother called this the pupik.
He: The badonkadonk!
She: That’s not Yiddish, is it?
About an hour later, the pair has tasted from the pot and adjusted the seasoning. Rocca would push for more black pepper, but this is not his show. He praises the tenderness of the meat and the texture of the noodles and carrot coins; Mankowitz needs to get off her feet. The back-and-forthing has reached a more intimate, supportive level. It would warm the cockles of the toughest customer. It would make good television.
Rocca will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.