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Christine Cushing Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

Christine Cushing is easily Canada's most recognised chef, if not most loved. When I sat down to lunch with her recently in mid-town Toronto I could see the other patrons looking over to our table, whispering and nodding in what could have only been admiration. When a couple of ladies of a certain age came over they gushed, "We just love your show". So, it's fitting that Cushing is harnessing some of this good will with her new line of fine food products, Pure. The name is apt, since Cushing is adamant that "what's not in a product is as important as what's in it" and she won't compromise her pasta sauces with preservatives or ingredients that an eight year old couldn't pronounce. The label also imports a Cretan olive oil that's an absolute bargain at about $17 a 500ml bottle. How many other supermarket available extra virgins list their acidity level? Of course, it was the gift of communicating her passion for good food to a wide audience that propelled Cushing into the spotlight...

Gremolata: So you've got your olive oil and your pasta sauces, what's next?

Christine Cushing: I have something in mind, but I can't talk about it yet - it's just not at that stage. I can say that it will be something that will help people in the kitchen. It's got to really help, it can't be like - I don’t know... Balsamic. There's enough Balsamic out there. What am I going to bring to Balsamic, you know? Anyway it will be the same criteria: tastes great and all natural. There won't be anything in it you don't want. What's not in a product is probably as important as what is.

Gremolata: Is there anymore TV stuff going on?

Christine Cushing: I'm in development for a new show.

Gremolata: Can you talk about it?

Christine Cushing: All I can say is that for this show it's important for me to get out of the studio. I loved doing that, but I've had my day and I want to do other things.

Gremolata: I loved your first show, though. I couldn't believe you could be cooking a meal, interviewing a guest and taking phone calls all at the same time!

Christine Cushing: That show was where I found my sweet spot. I really loved it. I loved doing it. I loved the energy. There’s something about being live that you can't replicate. If it's taped, it's a totally different set-up. Everyday was a different thing and that was the beauty of it. We had a plan, recipes and we'd figure what we were going to make, but you never really know what might happen.

Gremolata: I remember once you had Antony Bourdain on doing French bistro and someone called in and said, "My husband just shot a deer, how should I cook it?" and he couldn't believe it.

Christine Cushing: He was a fabulous guest.

Gremolata: He looked like he was having fun.

Christine Cushing: We had quite a few high-profile guests and sometimes you expect a level of, I don't know, snottiness. But he was very friendly and matter of fact. The first time we had him on, we just chatted. He's such a great talker. And you have to be careful about that, because some people can't speak that easily. But Anthony was very genuine and just himself - no big entourage or anything. He wanted to meet everybody, all the kitchen staff. Very impressive.

Gremolata: What about Jamie Oliver?

Christine Cushing: Same thing. I remember before meeting him thinking, if he's very different from how is on camera I'll be shocked". And he was great - it's not an act.

Gremolata: He seems like he's on all the time.

Christine Cushing: On! He made me feel like I was in a coma! Wow! But his big issue is that he always has all these people around him, and it would be, "You can only get him from 8:03 to 8:17," and that can get ridiculous. But he was a lot of fun and high energy and I thought we had good chemistry and we did good recipes.

That was what was so great about that show: I met all these fantastic people and when there was good chemistry it was amazing.

Gremolata: what about the callers? What if you couldn't answer the question?

Christine Cushing: I would get some questions I couldn't answer, where I had no clue what they were talking about. So I'd say, "Well, I don't know, but here's what I think..." But you know what would drive me insane?

Gremolata: What?

Christine Cushing: When they would call in and say something like, "I had this soup today and I wonder if you could give me the recipe for it." First of all, you can't give a recipe on a show anyway - I mean verbally. You might list a few ingredients and give a general idea what to do. But I'd no clue what they were talking about!

So, after the live show wrapped up, I thought I'd like to take it to the next level, which is to have fun, get out of the studio and do something totally different. The studio and the live thing has been done. I can't tell you too much about the new show - we've pitched it and it's in development, but it's out of the kitchen and in the field. A half hour show that layers entertainment and food. It'll be fun, high energy.

I think that if you look at all the Food Network chefs that have had longevity, they’ve all evolved and done different things. It's about honing your craft and taking it to the next level. And [adds emphasis] keeping the audience excited. The viewer is very savvy now and she has a lot of choices. So, a guy like Jamie [Oliver] is a perfect example. After he did 'The Naked Chef' he did that second (and his worst) show that was in the same kitchen. It was completely not him, and he looks uncomfortable. So they took away the raw, shaky camera work, the conversations he had with the woman off camera and tried to clean it up, and his "mates" are coming over and he's wearing these shirts - it was horrible! So, He realised very quickly that he had to change and everything since then has been different and phenomenal.

Gremolata: I love the Italian one. It's hilarious.

Christine Cushing: I absolutely love that show. Speaking of different, I just saw Nigella [Lawson]'s Feast and it's not as good.

Gremolata: I think they're trying to appeal to an American audience. It's like she's actinGremolata: acting the part of Nigella instead of just being like on Nigella Bites

Christine Cushing: She's not just being Nigella.

Gremolata: Yeah, even her friends that come over are all obviously made-up and camera conscious.

Christine Cushing: Isn't interesting how we can tell that? It makes me think of the new Jamie show when he's cooking for the monks and it's at the end and they're all drinking sparkling wine and dancing around to the Cure! I saw that and thought, oh my God, if you read that on paper you'd think, what are they nuts? Monks dancing to the Cure? So I think that's real. That's evolving and being yourself.

You can't do food if you're not madly in love with it. It's got to be your passion and that's why it's so hard to fake. Especially on television, it doesn't work.

Gremolata: How did you get on television?

Christine Cushing: My last full time job was at Scaramouche. I got into food because I loved it, but I just wasn't feeling it anymore." I could see the brick wall, I had tendonitis in my wrist and the daily grind of the restaurant was not the glamour it appears to be. I went into the kitchen one day to speak to Keith [Frogett], and I said, "Keith, I think I need to do another job."

Now I should say I love Keith - he was amazing - and all the people at Scaramouche. The staff is incredible. It's such a special environment.

Gremolata: For the diners too.

Christine Cushing: Absolutely. After I left I started doing some catering and some food styling, just trying to scrape together a portfolio together. I was teaching classes, going into people's homes. Just doing all these patchwork things. One of my clients was Kitchen Aid. I was doing a demo for them at one the shows, with a headset on, and some guy came up to me and said, "Do you want to audition for a cooking show?" Right place at the right time.

Gremolata: So then what?

Christine Cushing: I was put into a pre-existing show called Dish It Out. Back then specialty television wasn't really defined. They'd basically just say, "Get out there and cook and do your thing." It was a bit like [Rachael Ray's] 30 Minute Meals, but my culinary skill was a little too advanced for that. They were trying to push me in that direction, but it wasn't me - I couldn't really dumb it down. But it was simple things, just with my twist on them.

Oh, and there was a big web component. They built a million and a half dollar website and the show was supposed to be interactive.

Gremolata: A million and a half dollars!

Christine Cushing: Yeah, it was huge, but we didn't know it at the time. It was a company called Digital Renaissance - they were phenomenal. It was a great site. You know, everyone was talking about 'convergence' and that TV and the web were going to come together. But way too far ahead of its time. One of the things was you could download the whole show, but that was before cable and high-speed...

Gremolata: Everyone would have been on dial-up! It would've taken longer to download the show than to watch it!

Christine Cushing: Yeah, but that was what it was and it was also when I began with Juan [Salinas], who I had met catering. I needed someone I could depend on behind the scenes - he's a shark in the kitchen. And I also needed someone who would work well with me and my style of cooking. That synergy was important since our "prep kitchen" was a tiny space with a home stove, a home fridge and a boiler plate next to the vending machines in the studio. We were shooting five shows a day, a day! It was insane. So much work. And that was for nine days; we shot 36 episodes at once. I could barely remember my name halfway through, but we learned a lot. And we had fun.

Gremolata: How did you go live?

Christine Cushing: In the third season [Food Network Canada] sent me down to New York to go on Sara Moulton to see how it went. Being a guest on that show was my chance to see if I could sink or swim. I was probably a little too high energy, looking back on it now, but I really wanted it to be a "wow" or nothing and it got me a live show, which I did for four years.

I think of it as: "There's the ocean, here's a life raft, get in there and watch out for the tsunamis."

Gremolata: And were there tsunamis?

Christine Cushing: Oh, there were tsunamis. At first, it's very stressful because you’re analysing everything to death and there are 14 executives giving you advice. And they just want to make the show better, but you start to question everything. I think it was season two where it just started to click and season three is where I really found my voice and thought this is what I love to do and I'm comfortable with it. And it was a great group of people. We had a riot, very high energy. A lot of fun.



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