A Cooking Show That Celebrates Place

Other shows were “forgetting the person behind the craft.”
George Hirsch, left, inspected an apple tree with John Halsey of the Milk Pail stand at his orchard in Mecox.

Facing the 20th anniversary of the launch of his first cooking show on public TV, George Hirsch, a classically trained chef with an impressive culinary background, decided to do something different. For his current 13-episode series appearing locally on WLIW and numerous outlets nationwide, he chose to highlight the food and foodies of his home, the South Fork.

If truth be told, he has always done things differently. For his first cooking series, launched in 1994, he chose as his theme outdoor grilling, a first, he said. Studying the shows airing at the time, he realized they were all studio-based. The idea occurred to him after a stint as a guest chef at Sears headquarters, where he prepared a spring luncheon with a grilling theme. As he flew back from Illinois he noticed below him on Long Island “all these blue dots on the ground” and thought, “ ‘That’s it!’ ” It was swimming pools that caused his aha moment. Americans, he reckoned, spend a lot of time in backyards. The show, on which he used an outdoor grill to make everything — from appetizers to desserts — became “Grilling With Chef George.”

“We were the single largest launch of any new show on public television,” he said recently over coffee at the 1770 House in East Hampton. “And the most beautiful part of it was that it was something everybody could relate to.”

Since it was out of the studio, locations were key. He grilled on a golf course on Lake Montauk, at Waikiki beach, and eventually produced 26 shows at Epcot with backdrops such as an ersatz Eiffel Tower setting the mood. That program lasted till 1997, after which he developed several more shows. Interesting locations were always a priority, with segments featuring Cirque de Soleil to Canyon Ranch to horseback riding in Monument Valley.

He stopped producing his series a decade ago  when the shows began to go into syndication. In 2011 a new show idea began to percolate. Why stick with just recipes, he questioned. Why not branch out to vintners and farmers? It made sense to bring it home to the South Fork, where he knew the food producers, from fishermen to chefs. Other shows were “forgetting the person behind the craft.” Anyway, he wondered, “How much can you put on a plate?” The only hesitation he had with focusing on the Hamptons was, “Would it play in Mississippi? Oregon? Boston?”

“I wanted to bring cooking shows back to their roots because they’ve gone so far afield,” he said. Their main problems are in the “sensationalizing of food” and the fact that “there’s no takeaway.” As he formulated his approach while contemplating the current spate of food shows he was aghast. “When I see shows about the world’s worst restaurants or kitchen disasters, I wonder why does it always have to be controversial? I came from a position as an educator.”

Indeed, the veteran chef, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America, later became director of the Culinary Arts Center, a school he built up to 600 students. He bemoans the attitude of students today. “When they graduate they think they’re going to get a book deal and a show. In my day you knew your craft first and foremost.” Mr. Hirsch started his career as executive chef for the chairman of Grumman Aircraft, went on to run a couple of his own restaurants UpIsland, and opened the Palace in Manhattan for Leona Helmsley, a notoriously difficult taskmaster. “I never had a problem with her. My standards were as high as hers.”

So when he teaches, it’s not about “teaching you how to make an apple-rhubarb-strawberry pie; it’s teaching you how to make a pie right.” The takeaway Mr. Hirsch hopes to give his audience is empowerment. “My tagline is, ‘If I can do it you can do it.’ ” A cookbook author and a spokesperson now for Sears Outdoor Living, he finds it helpful to break down the steps of a dish or meal. “It’s not rocket science, it’s about passion.”

For his current show he has featured Mark Smith of he Honest Man restaurant group surfcasting at the base of the Montauk Lighthouse; Scott Chaskey, poet-farmer at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett; Art Ludlow, the cheesemonger of Mecox Bay Dairy in Bridgehampton; Theo Foscolo, who makes Miss Lady Root Beer; Roman Roth, the winemaker at Wolffer Estate and Mr. Hirsch’s “longtime friend” during grape crushing time, and Jacques Franey, owner of Domaine Franey Wines and Spirits in East Hampton, whom Mr. Hirsch calls a “wine whisperer.”

His intent is to highlight artisans over chefs, though he has featured Joseph Realmuto of Nick & Toni’s, Kevin Penner of North Fork Table & Inn, and Michael Rozzi of 1770 House. “It was important to me to get Michael’s views,” he said. “He’s third generation out here. Joe is really about how he embraces the community, and Kevin is a consummate artist.” Each also makes a point to source their ingredients locally.

“George Hirsch Lifestyle” can be seen Sundays at 2:30 p.m. on WLIW, channel 21, and will be airing on the Create channel later this summer.