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Hosting a food stage brings its own unique challenges

03/26/2014 4:17 PM

03/26/2014 4:17 PM

I had a new experience in the food arena recently, and it’s one I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.

Not long ago, I was asked to host the Food Stage at the Travel and Adventure Show in my hometown of Chicago. The show, which is sponsored by Cuisine Noir Magazine, is a two day affair. I was told the Food Stage was a fairly recent addition to the event, and that I came highly recommended.

Flattered, I asked what my duties would be. I was told I’d be interviewing chefs as they cooked and interacted with the audience during the cooking demonstrations. The trip would get me back to Chicago for a couple of nights, which meant two awesome dinners, and it sounded like light lifting, so it didn’t long for me to say, “Yes.”

I’m glad I did it. I was certainly right about the incredible meals, but boy, was I ever wrong about the “light lifting” part.

There were seven 45-minute demos lined up over the weekend, four on Saturday and three on Sunday. One chef, Tim Matthews from Confederation College in Whitefish Bay, Ontario, was on stage both days, but otherwise the chefs were on for just one demo.

It’s no big deal, but it did mean five chefs with five different backgrounds, five sets of “talking points,” five vastly different personalities and five very different ideas of how much, if any, they were willing to allow me to actually “host” the stage.

In producing 275 half-hour episodes of my food, wine, and travel show, Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert, I certainly encountered my share of chefs with varying degrees of “ego,” but it’s one thing to deal with that and them in a taped environment that I controlled and quite another to be in a live situation that I did not.

Now, I’m not saying these guys were egomaniacs — well, maybe one was. I’m just saying it’s a little like herding cats. I wanted to have a conversation and engage the audience while some of the chefs just wanted to cook and tell the audience what they were doing.

As I quickly discovered, it’s tough to keep an audience engaged when they’re being lectured to. What was a first-time stage host to do? Well, I interjected when I could, got the audience to ask questions whenever possible and used my decent culinary knowledge and spotty sense of humor as often as possible.

Day one was rough — three hours of high energy live demos with another two hours of “prep” time, which included introductions, a little conversation and in two of the four demonstrations, a discussion on how we would proceed.

As for the other two demos? Well, let’s just say the chefs chose to do it their way. I ended day one totally exhausted and more than a little frustrated. Things definitely improved over dinner, a sumptuous affair at the legendary Shaw’s Crab House, which was perhaps even better than I remembered.

I’ll have much more on my meal and Shaw’s in a future article, but for now let’s just say I returned to the hotel tired, but satisfied and determined to be a better host on day two.

By Sunday, the clouds had parted and the sun shone brightly. Perhaps this was a harbinger that day two was going to be an improvement over day one. A disappointing Italian beef/sausage combo prior to a return to the stage notwithstanding, the day was definitely looking up.

Chef David Blackmon was up first, a young guy with a terrific attitude who directs the culinary arts programs for the Chicago School District. He was great, and although the audience was a little sleepy at first, Blackmon and I managed to rouse them out of their slumber, elicit a few laughs and serve up some pretty mean looking Catfish Croquettes with a Creole Remoulade Sauce. The fact that there was plenty to sample did not hurt matters.

Chef Matthews was up next. We had already discussed the day before how we could do a better job promoting White Fish Bay — the folks who paid for him to be here — and get the audience more involved. So, Matthews, originally from Yorkshire, England near the Scottish border, made fun of the Scots and their cuisine and I likened it to how Chicagoans felt about the “cheeseheads” in Wisconsin.

A few Bears-Packers references, a slight or two against Haggis, and we were golden. Afterward, one of the more engaged audience members commented what great rapport Matthews and I had and was floored when I told her we’d only met the day before.

Brimming with confidence, I forged ahead with the final demo of the show, Chef Dwight Evans, another bright young talent with a sparkling personality. Having done plenty of television and radio, Evans was a natural and his Pan-Seared Rainbow Trout with Baby Bok Choy was a big hit.

Evans’ demo was mercifully short. He was self-effacing, and I was tired enough to be just irreverent enough to be occasionally moderately funny.

During the day, I also met a guy I had gone to college with who had just gotten out of the radio game and had several people tell me how much they enjoyed Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert, so all in all, I’d have to say it was a success.

Still, after my three day weekend and “vacation” in Chi-town, I told my wife I needed some time off. Alas, that was not forthcoming. Ah, the topsy-turvy live of a food stage host. I’ll be better the next time. I promise.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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