NEW YORK — Graham Kerr is having a group of guests over to his home so he’s decided to whip up a batch of his Farmhouse Vegetable Soup.
It calls for a blended medley of carrots, onions, garlic, parsnips, sweet potato and onion. The recipe is from his groundbreaking the Graham Kerr Cookbook and it’s tried-and-true — he’s been making it for more than 50 years, for royalty and commoner alike.
The dish is also a way to chart the remarkable life of Kerr, who began as an energetic TV pioneer with a love of clarified butter on the Galloping Gourmet, swung dramatically toward health food after dealing with tragedy and now embraces a middle path embracing nourishment and delight.
“It’s a thick soup which I used to make with cream,” he says. “I now take out some of the vegetables, whizz them up in a blender with some evaporated skim milk, and pour that back in in the place of cream. I find it just as unctuous.”
That his soup has endured from late-1960s ham and hedonism to today’s Pilates and probiotics is a testament to the strong architecture of the recipe. That strength has prompted publisher Rizzoli to re-publish Kerr’s 52-year-old cookbook this spring.
“This book is close to my heart because it’s a method of cooking which is good. You only need to change the ingredients and the weight of some of them and it works just as well today as it did 52 years ago,” Kerr said from his home in Washington state.
The book came out in 1966, several years before Kerr first leapt over a chair on the Galloping Gourmet. Some of the ingredients have not aged well — toheroa, a green clam from New Zealand, is almost extinct — but Kerr’s clear and concise methods for everything from carving chicken to poaching fish are timeless. He included three types of measurements for every recipe — grams, ounces and cups.
He taught basic preparations for sauces and meats and then offered readers ways of building on them. The reissue includes new archive photos — including remarkably small-looking chickens by our standards today — and charming handwritten commentary from Kerr.
Cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee are behind the push to reissue forgotten culinary gems and they were stunned to find so much still relevant in the Graham Kerr Cookbook.
“He’s really expressing a very enlightened way about food, the likes of which American culture wouldn’t see expressed in popular culture for 40 years,” Matt Lee said, citing Kerr’s embrace of using meats nose-to-tail, his thriftiness and attentiveness to food waste by using the whole vegetable.
Lee also credited Kerr’s book — along with Julia Child and James Beard — with empowering home chefs at a time when the culinary world was cloistered. “This was to empower you to take these techniques to whatever protein or vegetable that you may encounter,” he said. Kerr even went further — he encouraged readers not to obey his recipes to the letter.
Kerr, 84, was born in London to a hotel-manager father. He grew up living on the property and eating meals in the restaurant before the customers arrived. He was trained in the French culinary traditions at college and briefly became manager of the Royal Ascot Hotel in London.
In 1958, Kerr moved to New Zealand, where he was named chief catering adviser for the Royal New Zealand Air Force. His break into television occurred two years later — courtesy of an injury.
The air force was going to film a live TV segment with a physical-education instructor, but he sprained an ankle. Kerr was ordered — “I said no and they said:‘This is an order,’ ” he recalls — to do something on-air. So he did something basic. He cooked eggs.
That eventually led him to gallop: Kerr and his producer wife, Treena, moved to Canada and created a cooking show that showed off Kerr’s charisma and humour on the Galloping Gourmet, which ran from 1969-71 and reached 200 million viewers around the world each week.
On the show, Kerr would cook in a suit coat, tie and a colorful shirt or a tuxedo, mixing Monty Python-esque humour with a generous helping of innuendo and a splash of video clips of exciting food places around the world.
The tall and handsome chef was liberal with glugs of sherry and his use of egg whites. His dishes often boiled over or he spilled ingredients and he invited audience members up to cook with him. His humour got him an invitation to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1970.
A car crash in 1971 left Kerr and his wife badly injured. While they recuperated, the family sailed the world. When Treena suffered a heart attack in 1986, her husband reformed his culinary ways and tried to wring as much fat, salt and sugar out of his recipes as possible.
“I did go through a phase in my life when everything started with ‘b’ — it was brown rice and bulgur and barley — and it really tasted like the backside of the moon, whatever that must taste like,” he said.
“My son, who was 12 at the time, said: ‘Dad, I’m 12 years old and I don’t expect to get cancer of the bowels, so would you please find something else?’ I finally came to the conclusion that things must be delightful.”
These days, he loves local cheese and vegetables and lamb loin, and makes porridge with local fruit, nonfat Greek yogurt, skim milk — and a splash of hazelnut creamer (“I would never tell anyone except you,” he says, conspiratorially.) Now a widower, he loves to share his culinary skills with friends and strangers alike.
“I have had a life of being filled with joy. And, OK, the ingredients have changed, that doesn’t really matter,” he said. “It’s the end result of nourishing someone and giving them a delightful experience and laughter at the same time.”