Show: My Grandmother’s Ravioli broadcast on The Cooking Channel
Airs: Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time; repeats at 12:30 a.m. Thursday and throughout the week at various times.
You went to Harvard, you were president of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals — what is a fun fact people wouldn’t know about you?
That I’m actually pretty good at gymnastics. I can do a one-handed cartwheel with a glass in my hand and not spill a drop — I really can do that. I am tall for it, so I don’t always stick my landing … plus I’m 43.
What’s the best part of doing your show, My Grandmother’s Ravioli?
These people love cooking and they tend to really open up; I get to hang out with them and learn about their lives. They’re all in a good place. We had a Thai grandma, Manee Soohoo, and at the end of filming she was talking about where she is in her life now. She said, “I let things roll off me, whatever they say.” We were all thinking, “I wish I could be more like her.” It was a really great moment.
Many of the grandmothers are immigrants, but you also made a clambake and peach ice cream with Genevra Higginson at her 300-year-old home in Cohasset, Massachusetts. Did you really get to stay at their house?
You think a lot of WASP drinking, not eating. It was nice to shine a light on it. Yes, I really did stay there. I think it’s important that I spend as much time with the people on the show as possible, but I always meet them for the first time when we start filming the episode so that you really see the relationship as it develops.
Do the grandmothers tell you that participating in the show is a good experience?
Yes, they tell me it was a great experience. Here’s the funny thing: People who really want to be on TV are usually not good on TV. The people who don’t want to be on TV are usually the best. The casting directors are great — they go out to senior centers, churches and synagogues, ethnic grocery stores, and people they know. The show is a moment in time. It’s not high stakes for them. One of my favorites was the Polish grandmother. We were there two days and at the end she said, “OK, kiddo, now get out of my house.” It’s hard to find people who don’t want to be famous. Their lives are really rich and full — I want this to be the show that makes you want to get old.
Have you done grandfathers as well as grandmothers?
We’ve done several grandpas. There’s Gaitano Varbero — he just re-turned from elk hunting — I’m not kidding. He’s 92 and he’s a badass. We made venison stew and fried green tomatoes. The fried green tomatoes were fascinating. I didn’t know about the pickling process. He also took me shooting and taught me moose calls. We also have a very young firefighter grandpa coming up, 49 years old. He’s a military veteran. We have an Italian couple, Tom and Mary Napolitano. They’ve been married 62 years, and they were fantastic.
What is your favorite meal that your grandmother made?
Her ravioli. That’s where the title came from. I hate to even drop a name like this, but Nora Ephron was on my NPR radio show, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! We went out after, and I was talking about the show and about how I loved my grandmother’s ravioli, and she said, “That’s the title.”
What do you look forward to eating most when you’re in San Francisco?
I love Tadich Grill, the history of it, the seafood. I’ve been lucky enough to be brought to the Slanted Door, which is pretty fantastic. La Taqueria — we did that on my other show, Foodography — the cabeza burrito is amazing.
Have you learned to cook, and have you added any of the grandmas’ recipes to your repertoire?
I would be lying if I said I had been using them — the production has been so heavy for the show. But after production wraps, I could definitely make many of them. I’ve learned a lot on the show, and I could probably do about half without a refresher, just looking at the recipes.
You’re a longtime judge on Iron Chef America. Which of them, past or present, would you want to cook your last meal?
Only because I judged more of his episodes — Mario Batali. He could take a brick and make it taste good. When they did Battle Fennel, the challenger was a married couple now ex-married couple from Chicago, and they did this amazing art-like stuff with mirrors, and when it came to the table it was impressive. Mario did his on a white plate with a sprig of fennel and some pork, and my mouth started watering immediately. He delivers the goods in such a fundamental way.
What’s coming up?
We’ve aired six episodes and we have seven to go. On the upcoming episodes we have the firefighter, the Napolitanos, Ecuadorian, Jamaican and German grandmothers, and the Polish woman who told me to get out of her house.