Having breakfast with Graham Kerr 44 years after The Galloping Gourmet made him a culinary superstar is deliciously surreal.
Who could have expected the saucy London-born chef who guzzled wine on-air and flamboyantly created gourmet dishes brimming with butter and cream would be eating porridge and cheerfully encouraging us to eat our veggies?
Accompanied by Treena, his lovely wife of 58 years, Kerr, at 79, looks dapper in a crisp blue suit with a rainbow-coloured tie. His endearing charisma and boyish enthusiasm is intact, and he’s as pleasantly particular as ever.
“If you’ve got a pot, and boiling water could possibly hit that tea — not the stuff you make coffee with — and bring two per cent milk on the side, that will start my day wonderfully,” a grinning Kerr asks the waiter at Aura Restaurant.
The original celebrity chef was here to promote his appearance at the 12th annual Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival in Port Angeles, Wash. (Friday to Sunday). He’ll be chatting about food, signing copies of his kitchen garden cookbook Growing at the Speed of Life and others, doing cooking demonstrations, sharing his special low-cal crab cake recipe and judging a gourmet chowder cook-off. (Visit cohoferry.com for information on Black Ball Ferry Line’s packages and increased sailings.)
What Kerr doesn’t do is race into the restaurant or leap over his chair as he did weekly on his syndicated cooking show.
“I might jump over a glass of wine but not a chair — 485 chairs leapt was enough,” jokes Kerr, who no longer drinks.
The cognac Kerr once used to flambé dishes has been replaced by de-alcoholized wine, his artery-clogging sauces have given way to low-fat alternatives and his “big words” nowadays are “nourish” and “delight,” he says. It’s his new recipe for culinary satisfaction and healthy living.
Says the Mount Vernon, Wash.-based chef: “I want to achieve by 2020 a 100 per cent increase in daily plant food consumption in the Pacific Northwest.”
He asks his guest to take “threat” and remove the “h” to make a point about portion sizes.
“Everything starts treat-size and because we desire more we extend the volume of it,” he says, lamenting the marketing of excessive consumption. “We have been fattened by our economy . . .You can be perfectly satisfied with something small.”
As part of his culinary crusade, Kerr advocates using the inspired fusion of fresh produce and other low-fat ingredients in smaller portions as a “smokescreen” to replicate the fulfilment fatty foods have conditioned us to feel.
“More plant food, less risk. It’s as simple as that,” he says.
Kerr began developing lighter cooking in the early 1970s to combat seasickness when he and Treena, also his longtime producer, sailed around the world with their three children aboard Treena, their 71-foot yacht.
A traffic accident in 1971 that left him temporarily paralyzed on one side and required Treena to have surgery, including the removal of part of a lung, triggered their therapeutic sailing adventure, followed by another life-changing episode.
After Treena became addicted to Valium and other drugs for chronic pain, their lives changed when their maid Ruthie, a missionary, inspired “everybody to come to know Jesus,” as Treena puts it. The revelation came when Treena had a vision and became able to stop taking the medication.
“We were very needy people,” admits Kerr. “It had also become clear to me I had failed as a husband and father.”
That Treena was genetically predisposed to severe health problems furthered their resolve to alter their lifestyle. Treena, who had a stroke at age 54 and a heart attack, has had a triple bypass and has diabetes and hypertension.
“Other than that I’m fine,” she quips before the couple recite a love poem of forgiveness she once wrote her husband.
“I’m almost at the point of making 24,000 meals for Treena in the remedial style and I did 24,000 meals when I mismanaged that,” Kerr notes. “I malnourished Treena with the finest food in the world and now I see someone I love absolutely doing well on what we do. You start out again and you nourish and delight, in that order.”
While Kerr has changed his philosophy, he says he has no regrets.
“We did what we did with every single ounce of energy and well-wishing,” he recalls. “When you stick your teeth into a tenderloin of beef sauteed in clarified butter, flamed in good cognac, drowned in double cream and set on a croute with paté de foie gras . . . you just wanted to tell the world about that.”
He admits being thrilled when Weight Watchers International, after calling him “the most dangerous man in the world for anyone who wants to be well,” awarded him its Broken Wooden Spoon citation.
“I wrote to the CEO and said, ‘Madam, the only thing concerning me as you stand there with your trembling teaspoon in your starched white uniform is that you might one day be run over by a bus and that moment think to yourself, ‘I wonder what Fettucini Alfredo actually tastes like?’ ”