Graham Kerr galloped into culinary celebrity nearly 50 years ago. He has spent most of the time since trying to walk away from it.
The charming, cheeky “Galloping Gourmet” was credited as one of the first entertainers of food TV, labeled “the high priest of hedonism”; he received a Broken Spoon Award from Weight Watchers International for the “dangerous” excess of his CBS hit. But Kerr abandoned that butter-and-cream persona when he ended the show in 1971. For decades after, his life followed new scripts — low-fat regimens, flavor-forward cooking, religious missions, vegetable gardening.
At 84, he’s still a master of human connection at his home in the verdant Skagit Valley near Seattle. His voice brims with warmth as he strides from his compact kitchen, balancing a platter of soup bowls. “Let me know who is vegan, please,” he said, serving a group of college students visiting for a gardening project and a Q&A. He extolled the local Samish Bay cheese on the table with delighted bombast: “It has a texture and a flavor that is a-maze-ing.”
Most of the 30-some students from an organic farming program at the Evergreen State College hadn’t heard Kerr’s name before; their parents and grandparents were more excited to hear about the day’s plans. But they were as intently focused as any studio audience, discussing goals and leaving with hugs and dreams of making the world a better place. That’s the kind of one-on-one impact that matters to Kerr now.
“I know what it is to have been big, and I know what it is to be me. And I really prefer to be me,” he said.
So how, then, is a Galloping Gourmet cookbook coming out this month? Kerr’s youthful face is smiling from the reissue of “The Graham Kerr Cookbook,” first released in the United States in 1969, at the height of his considerable fame. Original recipes, some newly annotated in Kerr’s neat, rounded script, include a saddle of lamb with brandied rice stuffing and a “Porterhouse Pie” of steak wrapped in pastry.
The answer takes in a much richer picture. Kerr hasn’t been walking away all these years so much as coming full circle. And the journey started years before he started leaping over chairs carrying a glass of wine.
“We kept finding he was a touchstone for so many people as an educator, not just as an entertainer,” said Ted Lee, who selected the book with brother Matt Lee for their Rizzoli imprint of vintage treasures. It was captivating, they said in a phone interview, full of integrity, decades ahead of its time while reflecting its own “James Bondian” era.
The book, researched over seven years and printed in Australia in 1966, was meant partly as a guide to cooking methods, with step-by-step photos for tasks such as prepping lamb kidneys. Kerr, a chief catering adviser for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, also tried to create a cooking style for the region’s stunning local ingredients: Queensland duckling, the small kumara sweet potato, the giant and now-rare Toheroa clam.
“I was brash in those days,” he said.
When the Lee brothers (“these young people from Charleston”) called, he reread the first edition for the first time in years, writing notes on his own copy. He gave the go-ahead to put it back on shelves.
The original, Kerr said, “was untouched by the Galloping Gourmet, except they put that title on it. . . . It seemed to me to be out of a time of my life which was unvarnished, if you will.”
It was also written before another tectonic shift in his life, when his most defining personal relationship — his marriage — turned professional.
Kerr was raised in Britain, the son of hotel managers and an only child. “I had to play somewhere. So I got to play in the kitchen,” he said. At age 11, he wrote in a 2015 memoir, “Flash of Joy,” he fell for a 10-year-old girl with tight black curls and “a face that shone with pure joy.” He and Treena married when he was 21.
“They were a unit. They are a unit,” said Suzanne Butler, Kerr’s longtime cooking assistant, before helping him plate dessert for the student gardeners.
He studied hotel management, served in the British army catering corps, and then briefly managed the Royal Ascot hotel before taking on the New Zealand position. Commercial TV was just getting its start in the country, and Kerr was asked to cook omelets on an early talk show.
He wasn’t a natural — not then. When the experience led to his own show, “Eggs With Flight Lieutenant Kerr,” Treena, a trained actor, found his performance about as engaging as the title.
He was “the most unutterably boring man in the entire world,” she told him, and he should liven up his act. Before long, he was rehearsing in front of her thespian friends, British expatriates with irreverent senses of humor.
She became his Emmy-nominated producer on “The Galloping Gourmet,” adding laughs and snappy signatures like his leaping entry.
Celebrity was instant and overwhelming. “Comedian in the Kitchen,” headlined the 1969 spread in Life magazine (which also included sniffy blowback from the likes of James Beard).
Kerr’s combination of food and entertainment was immediately pegged as a new phenomenon, and his style paved the way for today’s stars, author Kathleen Collins wrote in her 2009 book “Watching What We Eat,” a history of food TV.
Julia Child’s show aired in the United States six years ahead of Kerr’s, and they both tapped into the cultural shift that made people view eating as an experience, she wrote.
But Child was primarily an educator, appealing to the upper-crust PBS audience, she wrote. Kerr targeted “the great unwashed.” Between the two of them, Collins wrote, they captured virtually the entire TV-watching public in a way that’s hard to imagine today. “Julia made gourmet cooking feasible and Graham made it fun.”
The pace of “The Galloping Gourmet” was grueling, and the reviews that mattered most to him were the letter grades his wife wrote for each performance on an office whiteboard. The show became a pressure cooker of misery, straining their marriage and their relationship with their three children.
It ended after just three years on the air, when both were badly injured in a car crash, ironically rear-ended by a vegetable truck. Eventually, struggling toward a new life, they found God – Treena first. They walked away from financial security, relinquishing rights to the franchise in a dispute over religious references in their TV credits. (“Galloping Gourmet: I Gave Away $3 Million Fortune For Christ!” read a cover blurb in the National Enquirer.)
Treena produced hundreds of other TV episodes: “The Graham Kerr Show,” “Graham Kerr’s Kitchen.” It was his name, but so much was in response to her.
Treena’s health issues — a heart attack and a stroke — inspired Kerr toward “Minimax” cooking, minimizing fat and cholesterol and maximizing good things. And when he went too far, Treena drew him back, like the day he told her she couldn’t put a bologna sandwich in their son’s lunchbox.
He still smiles ruefully, recalling how she flung the slices of bologna at him like a dealer in Las Vegas, yelling, “There is NOTHING left in this world to eat . . . nothing, nothing nothing!”
In 2011, when Rachael Ray devoted a show to her food heroes and brought Kerr on air, he once again brought his life back to his wife: “Every meal for me is a challenge to be able to find a new way to delight her, and it’s wonderful,” he said.
Today, her smile shines from photos on his Mount Vernon wall. Treena died in 2015, just shy of their 60th wedding anniversary.
The loss was unimaginable. But Kerr, with time, is still looking forward. Living modestly — they really did give up a fortune — he expects to be able to stay in the house they loved. Although he shut down his website and email list, he has been recording short, personal videos about life alone, which he may post to help people on their own journeys — not on TV, not where anyone can sell things from it, just as a way to connect.
Seated on a tall chair before the students, he spoke with charismatic aplomb, gesticulating for emphasis, rising from his chair for what seemed like dramatic effect. (He said later that his leg had gone numb and he had to move around.)
“If each of us thought, we are not likely to get a major TV show, but we are likely to have neighbors — and if you could contribute to neighbors, like growing a garden or sharing produce — there’s nothing like it,” he told the group. He shared advice on picking mustard greens and stories of his first “tomahto,” of missions and being a catalyst for change.
Araminta Little, 18, asked whether he might consider doing a TED talk. Not anymore.
“You can make a difference on a one-to-one basis. When you yourself feel that you’ve got to inspire thousands of people, something rotten takes place inside, and you start to think of yourself as something more than you are. And we have a world that’s full of people like that, and they lead people astray very often,” he said.
The new book means so much to him, he told the students, but he didn’t want to go to New York for a big release party. He didn’t want to tour or speak on TV. “I would like this to be the formal launch of the book,” he told them. He read a blessing, and then went on.
“I want it to nourish people, and I want it to delight people, and I can’t think of anybody’s company I would rather be in the moment than yours.”
Once again, for Graham Kerr, applause filled the room.
Denn is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Kerr will join our online chat with readers at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
3 to 4 servings (makes 3 cups)
MAKE AHEAD: The soup can be refrigerated for up to 3 days; to reheat, you will need to add more broth or some water as the soup thickens quite a bit once chilled.
Adapted from “The Graham Kerr Cookbook: The Galloping Gourmet,” by Graham Kerr (Rizzoli, May 2018).
2 medium carrots, trimmed and scrubbed well
1 small, young turnip (3 ounces), trimmed and scrubbed well
1 small parsnip (2 ounces), trimmed and scrubbed well
1 medium onion
4 tablespoons clarified butter or ghee (see NOTE)
1 clove garlic, cut into thin slices
1¾ cups vegetable broth, preferably no salt added
3 bay leaves
4 stems parsley
3 sprigs lemon thyme (may substitute regular thyme)
9 whole black peppercorns
Kosher or coarse sea salt
½ cup heavy cream
Cut the carrots, turnip, parsnip and onion into ¼ -inch slices.
Melt the clarified butter or ghee in a large saute pan or skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in the vegetables and garlic; cook for about 4 minutes or until they have softened a bit. They should not pick up any color.
Add the broth, bay leaves, parsley, lemon thyme sprig and peppercorns, then season with a good pinch of salt. Increase the heat to medium and cook for about 25 minutes, until the vegetables are quite tender. Discard the bay leaves, parsley and lemon thyme.
Working in batches as needed, transfer the mixture to a blender (with the center knob of the lid removed and a towel placed over it) or food processor; puree until smooth. (Alternatively, you can use a food mill, and discard the solids.)
Return to the pan and stir in the cream. Taste, and add more salt, as needed. Serve warm.
NOTE: To clarify butter, place it in a saucepan over low heat. Cook without stirring until it has liquefied, then begin skimming the foam off the top (discarding the foam) until the butter is clear enough to see through to the milky solids at the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and strain the clear butter into a separate container; discard the solids.
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