What a weekend! I spent last weekend in Chicago filming “A Ben Starr Christmas” for the Kenmore Live Studios. Beena David, who is both a classically trained vocalist AND the host for Kenmore’s shows, has been working with the Chicago area MasterChef contestants, and I met her on my recent mega-roadtrip to the northeast. (She was present for my notorious Turkey Hypnotizing at Tony Scruggs’ farm!) Beena told me she wanted to bring me back to Chicago to film a Christmas special, so we got to work planning it!
I arrived in Chicago Thursday night, and immediately went to the grocery store. (Of course! Isn’t that what EVERYONE does first thing after leaving the airport?) I spent the first night with my dear friends Nana and Will, who are about to move to London, so it was great to spend some time with them and their adorable daughters before they left. I didn’t arrive until 7pm, and luckily Nana had a pressure cooker (good girl!) so we were able to quickly throw together a lamb and barley stew with parsnips and rutabagas and red wine! It was yummy, and Nana made her signature kale salad, of which I ate 4 ENTIRE PLATES it was so good!
The next day, my good friend and former housemate Thomas wanted me to cook for a dinner party with his friends. I had asked him, “What should I cook? Mexican? Italian? Indian?” And he immediately piped up, “Indian!” I said, “Does anyone have any dietary restrictions, and will everyone like Indian?” And his reply was, “Of course, they all love Indian and none of us has any dietary restrictions.” So early on Friday I started preparing for the Indian dinner at Nana’s house. Then I packed up all the food and began the pilgrimage across town to Thomas’s. Halfway there I get a text, “We can’t have Indian food, two of the guests hate curry, and one has a 3 week old newborn who is apparently allergic to some spice in Indian food.”
What happened to no dietary restrictions?!?
So I headed to the grocery store to plan an Italian meal at the last minute. At 6pm I got to Thomas’s and began to make homemade bread…something I normally take 24 hours to make…along with an eggplant lasagna, and an appetizer of dressed field greens, crispy polenta, a poached egg, and eggplant caponata. (This is quickly become my signature Italian plate…people are freaking out over it!)
I am finally able to serve at 11pm (ugh!) but everyone was thankful that I didn’t serve Indian. And Thomas has a fridge bursting full of half-prepared Indian dishes he can finish off this week. (I think that was secretly his plan all along!)
Saturday I woke up to fluffy snow drifting from the sky! It was almost like the cottonwood cotton we get flying through the air here in Texas during the late spring. It was SO light and fluffy, it didn’t even look like snow!
I showed up early for my production meeting at Kenmore studios, and was hungry, but the only restaurant close by was Hooters. (I later learned that Graham Elliott’s restaurant is around the back corner, but I doubt they’re open for a speedy lunch at 11am!) So I made the mistake of entering a Hooters for the first time in my life. (For international readers, Hooters is a restaurant and bar that features waitresses dressed in VERY tight clothing, and it’s primarily men who eat there.) Well, I learned that people don’t go to Hooters for the food. I ordered their signature buffalo wings, and they were downright terrible. The waitress kept trying to convince me to order a Miller Lite, which was their “featured beer” that day, and there was a contest to see which waitress could sell the most. “It would really help me out if you’d order one,” she said.
I stared at her. “Sweetheart, if I try to drink a Miller Lite, I will vomit all over you and your lovely restaurant. Miller Lite is not beer. Bring me a Guinness, please.” Which was the “best” substitute for beer they had on the menu. I was sick to my stomach for the rest of the day after their oily wings, which were in theory supposed to be hot, but were boringly mild.
The production meeting was great, and the rest of the afternoon was spent prepping for the live show. The show was supposed to be made up of 10 minute segments filmed sequentially, which means I had to cook EACH demonstration entirely within 10 minutes. Talk about a time limit!!! But the Kenmore Live Studio is decked out with their top-of-the-line appliances, including a full induction cooktop.
If you don’t know about induction, you should. It’s the next generation in cooking surfaces, and it’s light-years better than gas or electric. It uses electromagnetic induction to excite molecules in the pan itself, which turns the pan into the burner. No heat is generated by the cooktop itself. This means that when you turn off the burner and remove the pot, the surface is cool to the touch. It’s infinitely more energy efficient than electric cooktops, doesn’t have the “carryover” that you get with an electrical element (when you turn it down, it takes a few minutes for it to cool off) and heats up MUCH faster, too…water boils in less than a minute. And it doesn’t produce the water vapor that you get from gas burners, which dampens your kitchen, and it’s much more nuanced than gas…you can tweak your temperature much better, plus it’s more powerful than gas, too. I want one of these SO BADLY, but a full cooktop costs thousands of dollars. (If you’re interested, you can get single induction burners which are very portable for around $100.)
Beena told me there would be a surprise segment in the middle of the show, but that’s all she said.
The audience started to arrive around 6, and I was excited to see old high school and college friends among the many familiar faces. Some friends from the MasterChef top 100 were also there. And many fans who I’ve talked to on Facebook and Twitter were there, also. Eventually the studio was packed to the max, with people standing along the walls. A great crowd!
Ultimately I wasn’t very happy with the cooking demonstrations. It’s just incredibly difficult to complete a demonstration in 10 minutes, then have only 30 seconds to set up and move into the second demonstration. So the actual food produced wasn’t up to my normal standards. However, the filming itself was a blast.
For the first segment, I was joined by Nicholas, an 8 year old super fan, and the son of Christina, another superfan who I talk to on Twitter all the time. He had written an essay about how he wanted to become a chef after watching me make my pumpkin carrot cake on MasterChef, and how he had already learned how to make scrambled eggs at home from his mom. I modified my pumpkin carrot cake recipe into pumpkin carrot pancakes, a much more approachable recipe for an 8yo, and the ONLY thing I could have done in 10 minutes remotely related to my cake. Nicholas did a great job, and we surprised him with an “I’ve Ben Starr Struck” apron, along with cupcake versions of my pumpkin carrot cake. This was a tough segment because we didn’t actually have time to fully cook the pancake, so it was “presented” still mostly raw. But that’s the price to pay when you’re filming a live, timed segment! I’m learning….
The second segment was on bread. I could fill HOURS of television on bread making. I had brought the bread in 4 different stages to show the audience the progression as you make it. And this recipe I taught is so ridiculously easy…I think it takes maybe 15 ACTUAL minutes of your time…the rest of the time it’s just sitting peacefully on your countertop, or baking in the oven…it requires precious little interaction and results in a stupendous loaf of bread. The recipe is here. I was fairly pleased with this segment, even though I could have rambled on about bread for hours.
The third segment was the surprise segment. Beena had me doing a silly quiz, where she’d ask a question like “This ingredient is sweet and rhymes with ‘booger.'” I’d say “Sugar” and apparently I’d get to keep whatever gift was behind me out of my site. The audience could see what it was, but I couldn’t. I won all 3 questions (of course…because they were all easy) so Beena said to turn around, and there were 3 of my friends from MasterChef, Suzy, Tony, and Erryn!
I went a little nuts. I’ll admit that I hadn’t contacted them about coming to my show. They’re all busy doing their own things, and I didn’t want to sound like I was bragging saying, “Oh, come to my Christmas special!” But here they were and I just lost it…it was SO good to see them!
Then Beena said there was one final question for the grand prize. I can’t remember what it was, but I got it right apparently, because CHRISTIAN COLLINS walks out from backstage! Now I know many of you MasterChef fans don’t like Christian very much…but I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, Christian is one of the most amazing people I’ve EVER met in my life…I DROVE to Massachusetts to visit him and his family, and I can’t love the guy any more than I already do. He’s an amazing father, a great husband, a forager, a fisherman, and one of the most brilliant chefs I’ve ever met. I went nuts again.
The fourth segment was a song. I played guitar and sang “Deck the Halls” along with Beena (who is a brilliant alto) and Hyun Suk Jang, a celebrated soprano from Korea. It was utterly silly for me to be singing alongside these professional singers…they are SO amazing! But it was fun…though my mind was still on my MasterChef friends standing over on the other side of the studio!
For the final segment, I was showing the audience how to make a Chocolate-Covered Hazelnut Toffee, which is an easy Christmas gift to make for friends and family. They brought Christian on stage to cook with me, which was funny and ironic, because he was heavily criticized on MasterChef for “stirring” his caramel during a group challenge. (Stirring can cause boiling candy to crystalize, but you really HAVE to stir candy, otherwise it can burn on the bottom and not cook thoroughly on the top. There are many solutions, but mine is to add some glucose (in the form of honey) which prevents the sucrose in sugar from seizing into crystals.) Of course there wasn’t time in 10 minutes to finish the segment, but it was awesome being up there with Christian in front of the audience. I love that guy.
After the show was over and I had met everyone in the audience, we had 2 hours before our appearance at WGN radio, so Suzy took us to Fedora, just 2 blocks from the studio, where she maintains a kitchen to prepare the samosas that she sells at her very popular food trucks, Suzy Samosas. She whipped us up some nutella stuffed dessert samosas and served them piping hot with ice cream and…for my benefit…a pumpkin sauce. I ate until I was stuffed.
After 2 hours of drinking we went to the WGN Radio studio to spend an hour on the Brian Noonan Show. Originally, I was supposed to play guitar and sing Christmas carols with Beena and Hyun Suk. But now that we had a whole crew, including one of my best friends Monty who flew in from NY to see the show, we descended en masse on the studio, overwhelming poor Brian Noonan. He took it like a champ, though, even though he was sort of confused as to why singers from the Chicago Symphony Chorus, contestants from MasterChef, and then Monty…were there in a single group. But we turned it into an hour of laughs and music, and we all had a blast.
If you want to listen to the segment, you can download it as an mp3 here, but I warn you…it’s almost an hour long and it’s filled with some truly ear-splitting Christmas carols when all us drunk folk are piping at the top of our lungs. Luckily, these are interspersed with a few verses where just the Chicago symphony folk are singing. (Well, technically I’m singing tenor with them, but these are professional opera singers, they easily drown out my meager voice!)
Yes, you may have noticed that Christian’s sweater is lit up. The crafty fool MADE this from a thrift store sweater and some battery-powered LED lights. It was inspiring jealousy in my friend Monty, and the two developed a radio rivalry that eventually inspired an ad-lib song by Beena. It was a pretty crazy hour. I wish the whole thing was on video.
Luckily, Suzy took a few clips with her iPad, and you can catch the orneriness here:
It includes an ad-lib segment from Yours Truly, something about making Figgy Pudding and getting drunk.
After the show, Tony had to head home, as he had an hour-long drive. So Suzy took me and Christian and Monty on a tour of her favorite Chicago hotspots, including Moe’s Tavern, where Suzy has designed a drink called Suzy Sangria which is STUPENDOUSLY good. It is a tangy, tart, spicy blend of juices and alcohol, topped with a jalapeno that contains habanero-infused vodka. I had 2 and could have had a gallon. DELICIOUS.
This is what you look like after a few Suzy Sangrias:
Before we knew it, it was 3am and I’d been running all weekend on practically no sleep. Monty and I excused ourselves back to his hotel, but Christian stayed to party up the town with Suzy. (We left him a key to our room in case he needed it later. He did…he burst into our room at 4am and jumped in bed with us and we laughed and told stories for an hour. Christian Collins is a crazy person and I love him for that!)
Of course, it was such a fun night that I missed my flight the next day. But that’s what happens when you visit dear friends.
This was an amazing weekend! Videos of the Christmas special will be uploaded soon, and I promise to post them. Thanks to everyone who made this event so special!