If repetition is the soul of cooking, Graham Dailey was on the cusp of a spiritual breakthrough. The Peninsula Grill chef was preparing scallops with butternut squash and cauliflower for the fifth time in two hours, jiggling the plush shellfish in an orange cast-iron grill pan and dotting them with sage.
Opposite the gleaming countertop stove, a scruffy young cameraman in a plaid shirt with pushed-up sleeves glanced through his viewfinder at Dailey and the inquisitive television news host alongside him.
When Dailey motioned toward a ramekin of root vegetables, she wanted to know how he chopped his cauliflower. When he reached for oil, she wondered why he didn’t coat the pan with it. And when Dailey instructed her to scribble the dish with a sorghum glaze, she asked for detailed guidance.
“Just have fun with it,” Dailey advised, halfway rushing his words in concession to the clock ticking on the three-minute segment. “Don’t be shy. Get on it.”
Jane Hanson, the nine-time Emmy winner playing Dailey’s foil, beamed. Without knowing it, Dailey had parroted back the advice that Hanson and Amy Rosenbaum had been giving the modest chef all morning.
“Very good, honey!” Rosenblum, a former “Today Show” producer, exclaimed when the filming stopped. “That was so good. I just thought you were great.”
Hanson and Rosenblum get paid to tutor reluctant media subjects in the quintessentially modern art of shining on screen.
They’ve coached legal experts, digital entrepreneurs and cosmetics inventors who’ve landed the chance to sell their products on television.
Earlier this month, they came to town courtesy of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, which hired the consulting team to help local chefs hone their presentation skills.
Unlike many cities, Charleston doesn’t have much trouble ginning up national media interest in its food scene. Epicureans so reliably swoon over the region’s easy way with seafood and mastery of ingredients with Colonial antecedents that Charleston in coming weeks will host two of the most significant events on the national culinary calendar, Cook it Raw and the Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit.
But food journalists with an interest in shrimp tend to fixate on seafood towers at The Ordinary, and journalists chronicling benne seeds always seem to end up ordering Husk’s cheeseburger.
Although the CVB didn’t provide an official explanation for why it invested in media spruce-ups for chefs at many of the city’s best-known restaurants, it seems likely that tourism leaders appreciate that chefs Mike Lata and Sean Brock can’t be solely responsible for communicating to the world why it’s worth eating in Charleston.
To cement the city’s reputation as a top culinary destination, it needs to cultivate more chef-jacketed personalities who can connect with diners in Boise, Idaho, and Bangor, Maine.
The problem is many chefs chose their profession partly because they’re not comfortable in hyper-social settings, such as morning talk shows, which have become a fixture of the restaurant promotion circuit.
“There’s a word in New York: Schmooziness,” Rosenblum told Dailey when he balked at joking with Hanson. “Remember, you’re the entertainer.”
Marc Collins, executive chef of Circa 1886, didn’t intend to entertain when 17 years ago he took over the kitchen of a AAA Four Diamond restaurant as a 23-year old.
“I got into this because it was a passion,” he says. “I wanted to work in a restaurant where people are lined up to get in. I didn’t even think, like, ‘I’ll write a cookbook.’ Maybe it’s the old school in me, but I got into this because I love the craft, not because I love PR mechanics.”
Collins has reluctantly courted TV attention, even applying for competitive cooking shows, because he believes it’s become the only way to seduce guest traffic. For years, Circa 1886’s biggest challenge was its location off downtown’s main commercial strip. Nowadays, though, potential guests aren’t content to merely find a restaurant, they want to plumb the depths of the person behind it.
“I’ve got to get myself out there,” says Collins, a participant in the CVB program. “That’s the reality now.”
Chefs who bristle at having to parade their personas worry that food media’s current affection for chefs who breezily divulge kitchen secrets on television, eagerly hobnob with fans at splashy food festival events and party hard after guest chef dinners could result in an unfortunate homogenization of high-end cooking, since ego’s almost always apparent on the plate. But Joe Palma, High Cotton’s executive chef, says the most successful chefs have never sequestered themselves in their kitchens.
“The people you heard about like Frank Stitt, that wasn’t Twitter-driven,” Palma says. “Knowing a customer’s son’s name and where his daughter goes to college, that’s how you build a business.”
Still, Palma admits handshaking is far more straightforward than the skills needed to impress an audience of millions (Hanson and Rosenblum like to play down stage fright by encouraging chefs to think of every TV appearance as a one-on-one visit with the viewer: Their students still frequently shake and sweat during their first mock taping.)
“I wish I had this opportunity five years ago,” Palma says of the training, which he considered “continuing education.”
“I was kind of freaked out the first time I did something with the “Today Show.” You have no idea how fast it is until it happens.”
Cooking with sorghum for three minutes, Palma says, is a routine task in the kitchen. But when the same chore’s transferred to a soundstage, chefs have to worry about angling their hands so they don’t block the shot, explaining the ingredient’s significance while not burning it and dealing with unfamiliar equipment. Palma once appeared on camera with a grill that didn’t heat up: A raw burger languished on its surface for a tortuous 30 seconds.
“I think a lot of people see chefs on TV and it looks very natural to them,” he says. “That’s their forte. And then there are other people whose day-to-day bread-and-butter have nothing to do with that. These guys, myself included, need some help.”
Dailey describes himself as shy and “probably a little bit introverted,” a point made by one of the glossy magazine ads his employer’s concocted to lure visitors to Peninsula Grill. In the photograph, Dailey’s waving at a shrimp boat. Only his back is visible.
“When these things come up, I don’t volunteer,” Dailey says. “I stay in my comfort area. The public wants more, but I like being in the kitchen.”
When the “Today Show” filmed in Charleston, the culmination of a two-year, CVB-led campaign to disseminate the city’s splendors, Dailey was tapped to show off Peninsula Grill’s coconut cake. “I heard Hoda had a crush on you,” Rosenblum teased. What Dailey remembers of the taping is the time crunch: his segment was cut from four minutes to 45 seconds without warning.
“See, that’s a really unfortunate circumstance, but that happens all the time,” Hanson told Dailey at the start of his two-hour coaching session in the Le Creuset L’Atelier kitchen. Dailey remained unnerved: Seconds later, Rosenblum called for an assistant to lower the room temperature.
“I don’t want him sweating,” she said.
“Can I get some water?,” Dailey asked.
During his first take, Dailey made many of the mistakes he’d feared every time he turned down a chef demo or television appearance. He stammered. He frowned. He missed Hanson’s verbal cues. And he stopped cooking whenever he started talking, pushing the segment past its allotted time.
Watching the playback, Dailey squirmed: “I look like such a dork with the glasses,” he said. Rosenblum and Hanson concurred, and the glasses were put away for the rest of the session.
Yet what bothered the trainers most was Dailey’s somber mood. “I want you to just have fun,” Rosenblum counseled. “This isn’t ‘60 Minutes.’ This is fun. I’m going to need you to smile and have fun.”
Everything else fell into place first. Over the course of successive takes, Dailey remembered to discuss the popularity of scallops in Charleston and his love of grill pans. But even as his movements became more fluid, his demeanor remained distractingly serious, which he attributed to an unwavering focus on technical correctness.
“You’ve got a fabulous voice, you’re really cute, you make great food,” cajoled Rosenblum, who spelled out “fun” in block letters on a poster-sized sheet of paper. “What’s the downside here?”
Dailey will probably never grin like Fabio Viviani, the “Top Chef” alum who hawks pizza for Domino’s. But on the final take, he proved that even casualness comes with practice. He looked relaxed as he joked about his restaurant’s trademarked coconut cake, his voice engagingly tripping the intonation scale as he described how it’s shipped all over the country. Dailey called the transformation “amazing.”
“You grew,” Rosenblum told him. “You really grew.”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.