What happens when a young chef cooks latkes on live television for the first time?
It’s forty minutes of gut-wrenching anxiety followed by five minutes of adrenaline-infused glory.
Our son, Ben Rubin, was asked by Baltimore’s WBAL TV to appear on its sunrise news program the morning before Chanukah to demonstrate his wide range of latkes and toppings. The chef/owner of AllSpice Hospitality, he believes that latkes should appeal to today’s diverse, food-obsessed Americans, especially its many mixed, blended and multi-ethnic families.
In preparation for the broadcast, Ben set to work preparing a smorgasbord of international toppings, everything from Greek tzatziki to Indian raita, from tart and tangy to hot and spicy.
But here’s the kicker: He insisted on serving every latke fresh and piping hot because a day-old latke is a fat-soaked recipe for indigestion. And that meant making every pancake right there in the studio.
What could go wrong?
6 am Arrival
Following a 45-minute ride in pre-dawn darkness, our chef and his two helpers – dad and wife Luana — arrived at the station and were escorted through the empty newsroom to the holding area outside the studio. Sitting on top of three boxes containing enough food and equipment to cater a bar mitzvah, the troupe contemplated the scene that would unfold when the massive, sound-proof doors parted. Finally, during a break in the live broadcast, the studio opened before us: the green screen for weather to the left, the anchor desk in front us, and to the far right, the countertop that would be transformed into Ben’s TV kitchen. It was a three-ring circus broadcasting live to anyone unfortunate enough to be awake at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
Actually it was a four-ring circus, as we found out soon enough.
6:15 am Creating the Kitchen
While the broadcasters reported about traffic accidents and other tragic fare, chef and company were quietly setting up the kitchen. Out came the frying pan. The food processor. The bowls. The knives. The chopping block. The raw vegetables. The eggs. The bread crumbs. And, of course, the oil. The frying pan was plugged in and the sparks began to fly – literally. It shorted out the extension cord.
6:20 The Fourth Ring of the Circus
While the meteorologist shared the good news of an unusual heat wave, an orange-aproned lady from Home Depot set up a Christmas ornament display next to Ben’s ersatz Jewish kitchen. Merry Mickey Mouse, blow-up Darth Kringle, and Fuzzy Puppy, a seven-foot inflatable, would oversee the latke-making. Anchorwoman Jennifer Franciotti was so impressed with her multi-cultural studio that she sent a panoramic photo to her Facebook followers.
6:30 Where’s the Food?
With ten minutes to air time, not a single latke had been cooked. Not the potato latkes. Not the yucca pancakes. Not the ginger and sweet potato fritters. No savory parsnip latkes to be seen. Moroccan carrot fries? Nope.
The last of the veggies needed to be grated in the food processor but, oh yeah, a live broadcast was taking place so it could only run during commercials. We prayed for an ad before airtime.
The oil announced that it was ready to take on the latkes with a loud pop that sent a globule shooting into the air.
Meanwhile, the anchors – decked out in Ravens purple — chatted about that day’s football game. Maybe the latkes would be ready for kickoff.
6:35 The Chef Kicks Into Gear
Suddenly, with no time to spare, Ben’s training at the Culinary Institute of America and his years of experience in high-pressure kitchens around the world turned him into a cooking machine. He had one hand on the food processor and another at the frying pan. Latkes were flying onto the display plate. The studio started to smell like bubbe’s kitchen – if bubbe cooked Cuban potato pancakes.
With oil crackling and hissing just a few feet away, Home Depot Lady extolled the virtues Martha Stewart Christmas ornaments. Blow-up Darth Kringle was unimpressed. He comes from the Dark Side, after all.
6:40 And Ben Goes Live
The robocamera magically turned its unblinking eye toward Ben, and anchorwoman Deborah Weiner – a self-proclaimed Jewish mother – introduced Ben to Baltimore. There was kitchen chemistry going on and, as he continued to cook, they bantered like Burns and Allen.
He: How’s your heat threshold?
She: That’s a personal question. [Pause for effect] Oh you mean spiciness.
As Ben explained that latkes are “a vessel” that can take on the flavors of the toppings around, a second camera panned across his home-made condiments: maple-walnut cream cheese, Greek skordalia, Mexican pico de gallo and more. By the time that Home Depot Lady’s Fuzzy Puppy was fully deflated, the segment was over and it was time to pack up.
In a vote of confidence, the WBAL crew descended on the counter and gobbled up the goodies. It was yucca latkes with raita sauce for breakfast that day.
And then it was back to the news.
View the cooking segment here.