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Kitchen Wit of 'The Frugal Gourmet' : TV Series Host Whips Up Some Humor With Ingredients

August 01, 1985|BARBARA HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

You never know what Jeff Smith, television's "Frugal Gourmet," will say next. Considering Smith's flair for breezy, nonstop witticisms, that is saying more than a mouthful. Some examples: "Using too many spoons when you're cooking is like reading too many sex manuals."

On training his sons to cook: "My sons will never be dependent on a woman for food. That way, they can marry a woman because they love her."

On the role switch in his home, where Smith cooks for a working wife: "I always meet her at the door with a glass of wine--and a fresh apron."

Smith is the former college chaplain whose entertaining way with food catapulted him from a small-time television series in Tacoma, Wash., to big-time success with "The Frugal Gourmet," a public television cooking series shown nationally.

In July, Smith signed a three-year production and development deal with WTTW Chicago. Under this arrangement, he will tape 26 to 39 segments of "The Frugal Gourmet" annually and will develop a number of special shows that will not necessarily be confined to cooking.

Last year saw publication of his cookbook, "The Frugal Gourmet" (William Morrow: $14.95). The book and the television series are not devoted to low-budget food, as the word frugal might suggest. "Frugal doesn't mean cheap," Smith emphasized. "It means you don't waste anything."

Food and Relationships

Born and reared in Seattle, Smith started his career as chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, a Methodist school in Tacoma. Food soon became involved in his work. As a means of improving campus relationships, Smith invited students, faculty and administration members to his home to share meals. "The table is the best place for communication of every kind," he observed.

The administration did not respond, Smith said. But the hungry students came not only on time but early, in order to learn cooking techniques themselves.

That led to a cooking class called "Campus Survival" offered by the chaplain's office. Then Smith combined theology and cooking in a course on "Food as Sacrament and Celebration," which steadily packed the classroom.

Next, he considered acquiring a doctorate in theology but changed his mind after studying employment opportunities in that field. Instead, he resigned his university post and opened the Chaplain's Pantry, a cooking school, delicatessen, wine shop and two restaurants in Tacoma.

Smith's television debut came in a series called "Cooking Fish Creatively," produced by a small educational station in Tacoma. "Nobody knew what to do," Smith said. "The shows were just awful."

Success a Surprise

However, the studio prospered with a government grant that permitted the taping of a new series in color. The success of these shows surprised Smith. "I didn't expect they would ever get out of town," he said. Instead, they traveled down the West Coast, over to Denver and across to Chicago, and their popularity started Smith on a new career.

The success of "The Frugal Gourmet" enabled Smith to sell the Chaplain's Pantry. "I hope I never work again," he said, amending that statement to allow for television and cookbook projects. Smith's office is now his home in Tacoma. His day starts at 5 a.m., and instead of a bathrobe he puts on pants, shirt and tie. "Otherwise, I'll forget I am at work," he said. While Smith stays home, his wife, Patricia, goes out to run a bookstore.

Smith has dedicated his cookbook to their sons, Jason and Channing. More than half the recipes are taken from his television demonstrations. They show a wide-ranging interest in food, with chapters devoted to Chinese recipes, Polish dishes, New Orleans cookery, French and Italian breads, crepes, omelets, vegetables, garlic, chicken wings and more. Smith's early interest in cooking was shaped by a Norwegian mother and Lebanese uncle, thus there is a group of Lebanese recipes.

Control of Dietary Fats

Low-salt, low-fat recipes reflect his own dietary concerns. As a result of a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, Smith, now 46, has an artificial heart valve. A beef stew flavored with dried mushrooms and Marsala wine shows his resourceful approach to the control of dietary fats. The stew is so rich that one can eat only a small portion. "That's my sneaky way of cutting down animal fat content," Smith said.

Smith dons a jade fish pendant, the gift of a Chinese friend, for all performances and never tapes a show without having a glass of Sherry. He works without a script, without rehearsals and without stopping the tape to redo blunders. "I think that's one of the reasons the show is so popular," he said. "People know I'm bulling my way through."

The following recipes from Smith's book include the rich beef stew; a tomato-topped version of the Italian bread, Focaccia, which Smith said he "stole" from a San Francisco baker, and a pasta casserole inspired by Avanzare, a Northern Italian restaurant in Chicago.

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