Partners in life and work, the Hearty Boys whip up a cookbook. EXTRA WEB CONTENT – A RECIPE!
By Gregg Shapiro and Angel Curtis
As multitalented hyphenates go, Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh rank high on the list. Their combined CVs include stints as cater-waiters and model/actors in their early years, and have grown to include food-service entrepreneurs, reality-show competitors (and ultimately winners), cookbook authors, and, finally, gay dads. The life partners recently sat down to tell me about their current food-related ventures at their offices of their soon-to-be-opened HBTV site.
Gregg Shapiro: Who came up with the title of the cookbook, Talk With Your Mouth Full?
Steve McDonagh: I think that we just really wanted something that is going to reflect how we feel about parties, which is very irreverent. And we also want it to reflect what’s inside the book, which is not just a collection of recipes. Tons of people have collections of recipes. We want it to be stories about sitting around the table—we want people actually reading the book. That was very important to us. So with that, we thought it was about eating and talking and sharing at the same time, so it kind of has a double meaning in that way.
Dan Smith: Also, with the show, on Food Network, we got a lot of e-mails from people saying, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” You’re doing a cooking show. You have to taste the food that you cooked at the end of the show. No one ever told us, “Take TV bites, take little tiny bites,” so the first couple of shows we taped we took big bites, and then were talking with our mouths full. Irate mothers would call, “I teach my kids not to talk with their mouths full and you’re teaching them something different!” That’s our response.
SM: But your kids have more than 10 seconds to take a bite. And [on the set] the fingers are going down from 10 on the stage manager, and you’re going, “It’s delicious!” And “Cut!”
I’m glad you mentioned reading it for enjoyment. Was there a cookbook you looked to for inspiration when creating your own cookbook?
SM: Yeah, there was. I bought Dan an Italian cooking book years ago, called Mangia Little Italy. It doesn’t have photos. It doesn’t have expensive paper. It’s just the story of this woman who grew up in Little Italy and all of the stories of her grandmother, and how each of the food items, the recipes, reflects something in her life.
DS: Each of our recipes has a little header. A lot of them are stories about my family or about how Steve and I came up through the ranks and worked as cater waiters and the history of each recipe.
SM: One of the things that was tricky about our book was that it had to be written with two separate voices. We had to be very clear about who did what. Immediately, we set up that I would write all of the party tips, and Dan would write the intros of the recipes, which is the way we run our business.
DS: Because I’m the cook of the duo. I am the development person. I am the one who cooks, and as Steve tells everyone, he’s the one that does everything else.
I’m glad you mentioned that other cookbook and the stories about family. Was there a family member, for each of you, who made your favorite dish as a child?
DS: Hands down for me, it had to be my grandmother. She died when I was five years old, but when I think about the impact that food had on me, and my family, it would have to be my grandmother. There was this Sicilian pizza that was always sitting on the counter. It was really great. [Laughs]
SM: My family food history is very different than Dan’s. My family is from England, and the eating habits are different. I’ve always thought that I should be either Italian or Jewish. I would have been fed really well. My interest in food is more self-motivated then anything, although I still go home on the holidays for my mother’s stuffed mushrooms. Or my dad with the fried egg sandwiches on those little snowball rolls that we would could get in New Jersey, that I have never found here. Just a little roll that was very eggy, with a light powder of flour on it, that just was very airy, as well.
DS: I pull a lot of inspiration from the food that I ate growing up. That had a huge influence on me. Sometimes people will comment on my style of cooking, and say it’s really kind of retro. I think that it’s from where I draw my inspiration in large part. I didn’t go to culinary school, so I draw everything from my own background.
GS: Mine would involve Space Foods Sticks and Funny Face to wash it down.
DS and SM: [Laughter]
SM: I think our whole style is kind of retro because there is something that we have always liked about the retro aspect of party-throwing. Not just the food, but the whole idea of the ’50s to ’60s mid-century being the heyday of the cocktail party. And that’s what we do more than anything—cocktail parties—and that’s the time that it was done best. I think we do reflect that in all of the choices we make.
What about a companion CD with songs by Pink Martini?
SM: As a matter of fact we thought about that for the second book. We thought the second book should be cocktail hor d’ouevres and should be called, Sing at the Table. So you have Talk With Your Mouth Full and Sing at the Table. But our publisher keeps saying, “Do you know what that would cost to get the rights?” But I think it would be a great idea.
Would you say that your cooking style has changed since you have become parents?
SM: At home, it certainly has, because our kid won’t eat.
It’s like you’re been punished for something.
SM : It is total karma. We dedicated the book to him. “To Nate, who better not grow up to be a picky eater.”
DS: He’s two years old, and he is completely a picky eater.
SM: Every single night…
DS: …you hold your breath hoping that he’ll eat something…
SM: …because it’ll always be the second or third thing we give him. He will only eat plain pasta, hot dogs, sometimes chicken fingers, that’s kind of it.
DS: He likes ketchup, all by itself.
SM: And crackers.
Didn’t Reagan say ketchup was a vegetable?
SM: I say that to him all the time. “You know that’s not a vegetable, buddy, even though Reagan said it was.”
Is there a Chicago style of food that you can’t live without?
SM: Chicagoans, I don’t think, will ever go to New York and say, “I’m dying for a piece of pizza,” because it’s not Chicago pizza. But as New Yorkers, we’re always looking for a New York piece of pizza here.
DS: And whenever we’re in New York, the first thing we do when we get off the plane is go get pizza.
SM: I think what you want is what you grow up with.
DS: In the last couple of years, I have really enjoyed the hot dogs in Chicago. It’s almost like having a whole buffet on your hotdog, which is kind of cool, because again, growing up in New York, you have mustard and sauerkraut on your hotdog and that is it.
As people who participated in [The Next Food Network Star] and won, what do you think of the whole idea of a cooking competition?
SM: [Laughs] Right now we just don’t want any more competition. We are ready for it all to stop. [Laughs]
DS: At the same time, they are fun to watch, and there are so many coming up on different networks. I used to watch Iron Chef because it was fun to watch, and then Top Chef came on, and I watched that because that is fun to watch. I like the ones that are kind of good-natured. I don’t like to watch Hell’s Kitchen, basically because it just scares the hell out of me. In a lot of ways, it is not reality. To have a chef take a dish and mash it into your chest—that just doesn’t happen in restaurants, and if it does you just look like a lunatic.
SM: I once worked at a restaurant where the chef wasn’t like that, but the manager was. She was a maniac! She was a screaming, over-the-top monster woman. So I quit one day, and as I was walking out, she literally ran down the hallway and got on her knees and said, “I am down on my knees, I’m begging you not to leave.” Because she was so insane.
That’s wild! Gay men from Chicago appear to have an increasing presence on cooking shows. There are you guys, Dale Levitski [a Top Chef contestant], and Art Smith [known as Oprah Winfrey’s chef]. Why do you think that is?
SM: I think there is a sea change right now, in that mainstream America is starting to understand that a huge amount of our chefs are gay men, because they just aren’t represented that way. You watch Food Network, and it’s not so much us as it is Bobby Flay, Ace of Cakes, Emeril—testosterone guys. Why is cooking a male-dominated sport, if you will, with all of the female cooks? But it is. For some reason we view it as a male-dominated culture, and women don’t have as big of a part, and certainly gay men haven’t had as big of a part.
DS: I think so, and as for why the proliferation of gay men in Chicago who all of a sudden are celebrities, I have no idea.
SM: It’s the hot dogs.
DS: There are a lot of celebrity chefs in New York, but I am kind of racking my brain, trying to think of even one that is gay. New York has all of the straight celebrity chefs. Chicago has all of the gay celebrity chefs. It’s the hot dogs.
And this interview is taking place in the new venue. Can you say something about it? And what actually happens there?
DS: Our first party is actually scheduled for the end of September. It’s called HBTV. What we’re doing is, I like to call it Cooking Karaoke. We will have people come in and teach them how to cook in front of a TV camera on a set with a teleprompter.
SM: A live video feed on the monitor.
Do they get to take it home with them?
SM: Yeah, everyone will get to try out a three-minute demo of their own, which is what we do on the morning news, like three minutes. People think it’s easy, and it’ll be fun to get people to see how easy it is. [Grins]
DS: But they’re going to get the true cooking TV experience. We’ll have a culinary producer. We’ll have a stage manager.
SM: Cooking television is so hot right now and everybody wants to know what it’s about. Our cookbook [published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang] is us opening up our catering bag of tricks, telling them how the nuts and bolts work, because people like behind-the-scenes stuff. That’s what we’re trying to do with HBTV. It’ll open up as a cocktail party. Dan and I will go downstairs and actually do a demo for everyone. We’ll talk about how to work with a teleprompter and how to get a culinary point-of-view in a very fun and irreverent kind of way. There’s going to be cocktails and some food, we like to call it a fun night with liquor and knives.
SM: But it’s really been a challenge to get everything open because it’s the first time in the country this has been done. No one has ever done anything like this. It’s hard to explain to someone in a sentence what it is, because it’s a hybrid. It’s not a cooking class, and it’s not media training. It’s a party in between. It’s a whole evening. It’s like going to dinner theater, or dinner and a movie. It’s a whole evening experience.
You guys are pioneers here.
DS: Yeah, we definitely are.
Goat Cheese and Roasted Red Pepper Tart
Cornmeal Peppercorn Crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into bits
3 tablespoons ice water
6 tablespoons butter, softened
7 ounces goat cheese, softened
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
2 roasted red peppers, cut into strips
9-inch disposable foil cake pan
Pie weights (or dry rice or beans)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
To make the crust, place the flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles little peas. Place the mixture in a bowl and add the water 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring with a fork to incorporate. Do not overwork.
Press the dough into the tart pan, making sure to work it up the sides of the pan. Place in the freezer for 10 minutes. Remove the crust from the freezer, line it with foil, and fill with the pie weights (or rice or beans). Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the foil and bake another 5 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
For the filling, put the butter and goat cheese into the bowl of a mixer and beat until well incorporated, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time, then add the sour cream. Mix well. Chop half the red pepper strips to make ¼ cup. Fold in the basil and chopped red peppers. Pour the mix into the prepared shell and arrange the remaining pepper slices on the top like the spokes of a wheel. Place in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the filling is set and the top is lightly brown. Let cool completely before chilling for a minimum of 1 hour. This will set the custard and make it easier to slice. Bring back to room temperature before serving.
Yield: 9-inch tart
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
*Can be made and refrigerated up to 3 days in advance.
Fray’s Spinach Parmesan Balls
There’s controversy within the family as to whether this recipe came from my mother, for whom I’ve named it, or from my mother’s Aunt Mary. You can be sure that when Aunt Mary gets a copy of this book, there’s going to be some phone calls made, and it’s going to be the topic of discussion at the next family gathering. I can tell you, though, that these flavor-packed balls have been a staple at our gatherings and in our catering business for years. So, Aunt Mary (and Mom), you can both take credit and be proud.
1-pound package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1 large onion, minced
10 tablespoons margarine, melted (see note)
1 cup shredded Parmesan
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 3/4 cups Italian-style bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Squeeze the excess water from the spinach and place it in a large mixing bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well by hand. (Wearing latex gloves while mixing and forming the balls will keep your hands from getting clumped up with spinach mix.)
Form the mixture into 1-inch balls, either by hand or by using a small ice cream scoop. Place the balls closely together on a sheet pan. Bake on the top half of the preheated oven until firm to the touch, 20 to 25 minutes. Let the spinach balls cool for 5 minutes, then remove them from the pan with a spatula and serve immediately.
Yield: 30–40 pieces
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 25 minutes
*The baked spinach balls can be frozen for up to 1 week. To serve from frozen, place in a 350-degree oven for 20–25 minutes.
Cook’s note: Make sure to use margarine. We tried making these with butter once but the fat in the butter tends to leach out of the spinach balls when baking, leaving them dry, whereas the margarine combines well with the ingredients and keeps them moist.
Recipes from Talk With Your Mouth Full: The Hearty Boys Cookbook (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Reprinted by permission.