Andrea Goto watches two of the tastiest food shows to come out of the Hostess City.
Food television has been my solution to reality TV’s blubbering bachelors and housewives that are anything but “real.” From the Food Network’s Iron Chef America to Unwrapped, any way you fillet it, fry it, slice it or dice it, I’m going to tune in.
I’m not a cook. At best, I’m a “microwaver.” Nonetheless, feel-good food TV inspires me. Mostly it inspires me to eat Hi-def dishes I can’t actually sink my teeth into. But as Savannah becomes the stage for a growing number of foodie shows, including Jesse Blanco’s Eat It and Like It and Jamie Deen’s new series, Home Cooking, I feel a deep appreciation for what the Hostess City is serving up.
Now in its second season, “Eat It and Like It” (Sundays at 10 a.m. on WJCL-TV) scouts the alleyways of the Lowcountry’s food scene to find its most tasty treasures. It’s like a local version of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-in and Dives,” and like Fieri, the show’s foodie front man, Jesse, can probably throw a touchdown pass as adeptly as he can dice an onion. He’s a big guy with a Cuban-American heritage, but it’s his underlying sweetness that makes him a comforting presence in the wings of the fast-paced kitchens he visits. Plus, Jesse isn’t interested in going undercover to expose shoddy practices or substandard servings; he’s simply a good guy on the hunt for good food.
“Ever since the show began, we got people saying, ‘Hey, try this place,’ and ‘Hey, there’s a barbecue place in Statesboro you need to go,’” says Jesse. “So I’ll ask the people I’m working with to take a trip out to Statesboro and try that barbecue place. If it’s good, then I’ll go. And if I like it, we’ll put it in.”
Jesse introduced Savannahians to a variety of trending food experiences in the first 12-episode season, which premiered in September 2011. Each show had a how-to segment hosted by a local chef. In an episode dedicate entirely to chocolate, he talked shop with the best chocolatiers around and sizzled up a batch of chocolate bacon with chef Roberto Leoci of Leoci’s Trattoria. Watching the series, it appears that Savannah has an endless array of eateries and food avenues to explore.
The second season kicked off with an episode on “wedding fare,” and Jesse says that future shows will cover “sushi, barbecue and beach food” and more familiar faces behind the city’s foodscape.
“We’re shooting a show on the legend of Leopold’s,” Jesse says. “Stratton and I are going to put on mics and he’s going to take me through the old neighborhood. Apparently he has the original counter from the old Leopold’s in storage at his house. So he’s going to go in there, kick off the dust and show me around.”
Jesse’s kitchen studio, where he films recipes and how-to segments, is just six doors away from his historic downtown home.
“The first time we shot there, we forgot garlic,” says Jesse. “My mom was there watching so I gave her the key to my house and said, ‘Can you run home and get the garlic?’ So far it’s really worked out.”
The home is the actual residence of an orthopedic surgeon and his family, who invited Jesse and his crew to film in their downstairs kitchen.
“They have a secondary kitchen upstairs, so they say, ‘Take over our house for a Sunday—we’ll be upstairs!’” laughs Jesse.
Jesse seems surprised by the success of a show that aims to spread the good word about great food, which in just one season raked in enough viewers to get picked-up for a second season. “It’s amazing how many locals have told me, ‘You know, we’ve always wanted to try that place and then we saw the food on the show and went,’” he says.
Out on the islands, a more family-focused division of the Deen Empire is taking shape, cast in the form of the charming, deep-dimpled, tousled-topped Jamie Deen. Like his younger brother Bobby, Jamie acknowledges the influence of his “momma” (celebrity cook Paula Deen) and her home cooking, but he aims to do something beyond her Southern tradition of big, battered and buttered. His new television series “Home for Dinner,” scheduled to air on the Food Network in early summer, brings fresh and healthy family meals to the small screen.
“The big trend now is cooking for families,” explains Deen. “What I’m trying to do is show that instead of cooking one dish for me and a different one for the kids, I can make something that my wife Brooke and I can enjoy that is easy, affordable, healthy and tasty for Jack and Matthew.”
Jamie is a hands-on father. He can maintain an adult dinner conversation—albeit about comics—in the same breath that he directs his 5-year-old son Jack on bathroom etiquette. And when Matthew, 11 months, launches into what can best be described as a seagull’s battle cry, Jamie snaps to attention, whipping out a tried-and-true technique used by parents who prefer not to make a scene: distraction. Within seconds, Jamie’s uninhibited antics will have transformed Matthew’s squawks to delightful giggles and dinner will continue mostly uninterrupted. It’s a natural role for Jamie and, consequently, one that he’s not willing to compromise.
“When I was doing ‘Road Tasting’ with Bobby back before Jack was born, the show had found some success,” says Jamie. “The Food Network wanted to pick it up and order more episodes but I said ‘No’ because I just couldn’t go on the road anymore. Everybody involved in the entertainment industry said, ‘You’re making the biggest mistake of your life by walking away from this successful show.’ But everybody at home who knew me understood. At the time I was almost 40 years old and about to have my first child and I didn’t want to travel six months out of the year.”
“When given the opportunity to shoot at her home in Savannah rather than go to New York, Mom was super excited,” says Jamie. “Then, after a couple of seasons, she was like, ‘This is terrible!’”
Brooke shares her husband’s interest in keeping work close to home, just not in the home.
“Filming literally destroys your house,” she explains. “It’s not just the number of people, but there’s also so much equipment.”
There are other, more surprising, disadvantages as well. Real or imagined, Brooke recalls how Paula would struggle to find her kitchen utensils after filming had wrapped.
“We laugh all the time about how she would say, ‘They took my spatula!’” says Brooke. “She refers to ‘they’ as the ghost of the film crew.”
Eventually, Jamie got what he wanted: a 10-minute commute and a workplace that encourages his family to be underfoot.
“We found a great space to shoot out on Tybee,” he explains. “And I’m excited that Brooke and the boys could be in the pilot. We shot a lot of footage of Jack. We got him on the playground and playing on the beach. We shot stuff at The Lady and Sons and me picking up Jack from school. We’re just portraying the life that I live everyday”—a life that he’s successfully managing to live on his terms.
Photography by Katie McGee.