Friday, September 16, 2011

Q&A with Bill Grimes, Appetite City author & TV show host

Food Historian, book author, cultural curator, former New York Times restaurant critic -- Bill Grimes has earned a lot of notches on his food belt. 

Add Entertainer to that championship belt. 

Bill Grimes, Author, Restaurant Critic, TV Host: Appetite City

Based on his best-selling book: Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York published by North Point Press, “Appetite City” TV is a show about the stories behind the iconic food New Yorkers love. 
See August Appetite City premiere coverage on Master Chefs blog below and on Food and Drink:

The stories Bill narrates makes the food all the more curious and kinetic.

Bill is an engaging, smart, affable expert.  He has an impeccable pedigree for his role as master storyteller.
On his weekly TV show, “Appetite City,” Bill takes the viewer on a fun food journey.  No imperial tutorial or snobby know it all. 
Bill loves food culture and clearly wants to share his unreasonably good fortune being at the front of the food line. 
Think sitting around the dining table listening to him eagerly spin the history of food and restaurants in New York City, blended with witty gastronomic anecdotes, whipped frothy with urbane charm.

But with actual footage and images to add spice and depth.

Recently, this reporter was privileged to interview Bill Grimes.

How did you come to do the TV Show, Appetite City?

It’s funny because I knew the program manager, Diane, who was developing a new program with the station NYC Media, focused on the cultural values of New York City. 
They were intrigued with my New York City historical work. They approached me.
I started by going out with Top Chef Masters host, Kelly Choi, who conducted three-minute interview spots with me at historical hot spots like Times Square.  They soon determined the spots could be expanded.
Together, NYC Media and I brainstormed what to cover.  Certain things are obvious: for example, Street Food, GreenMarkets, Chinatown, oysters. 
Then they had to be sure I’d be good on camera!

The current season is eight episodes, broadcasting at 8:30 pm every Thursday.  The day after they can be seen online. There is an enduring life cycle to the shows.

What is a typical Day in the Life of production like for you?

During the taping season, we typically start at 9 am and I interview the subject. We work many months in advance. That’s why you’ll see me in heavier coats on some of the first episodes. There is b-roll footage shot.  We work anywhere from two to three hours up to five or six hours a day. We’re frequently hopping all around the city!
Essentially, I am talking to the resident expert of the day (profiled) on the show. For example, the deli owner Arthur Schwartz or Chef Marcus Samuelson (
I do stand up at different locations.
There is no script.  I fill in the background and history of the place for the viewer.

How do you choose your subjects and how is that different, if at all, how you chose the restaurants to review while at The New York Times?

While the themes and culinary chapters are gleaned from the book, the resident expert subjects featured in each show are new.  The producers and the team research and select the resident experts for each show.
I don’t do any editing.  They do all that.  I trust them to make decisions. I didn’t want to do any of that. Leslie Farrell is a brilliant producer and director and a great collaborator!
At the Times, I reviewed the restaurants and topics I wanted to cover.

What can you do on TV that you can’t do in print? (besides the obvious!)

TV opens up the picture.  At the risk of being obvious, TV can provide those great images from The Library of Congress, for example.  It’s a big thrill to see the romance of the history, the romance of time travel – to feel as one would in the 1890’s. With the footage and pictures we can see what people did.
Food is ephemeral. So we can’t taste what it was like then.  But here we are recreating episodes that capture the other senses of the sight, and sound surrounding the aura of the food. That is enchanting.

Until recently, we didn’t take care to take stock of our culinary culture.  I got started researching menus at the Library.

Since you’ve covered culture, arts and theater, your are in a unique position to cover food as art. Do you agree that food is an art form or is there a food culture?

Yes, and no.  Yes, but it’s closer to Craft.  It starts out as workaday form of cultural expression.  Think about it as a sculpture and painting? Hardly compares to bread or dough. While cooking is one of the greatest forms of expression, some would argue it’s an insult to the Picassos of the art world.  It’s a pointless argument.

In the same way, go back to the Renaissance.  The people who created the fountains in the public square or tapestries were craftsmen -- laborers with a particular skill.  There was no distinction between high art and craft.  Artist as genius – as privately inspired  --came about much later. 
This is frustrating for food historians.

How has the reporting about food changed with the emergence of a Foodie culture and bloggers, where everyone seems to be an expert?

The emergence of the Foodie culture has given rise to a great interest in food that is close to the land, to heirloom breeds and animals. The internet has allowed us to transmit that interest and be our own food and restaurant critic.  (This phenomenon) is still in its infancy. Some of the food news is terrific – there is great enthusiasm. Some of it is annoying.

What do you think makes a good food critic?

Ultimately, we each make the decision to what tastes good. 
Food criticism has certain set of standards and a knowledge base.  A reader has a feel for the critic’s way of thinking which is very useful as a guide – as a way of describing the eating experience. They have to trust the critic.
A good food critic is someone who can express in words the pleasure and sensations of food; who has a wide experience with food – traveled and experienced different food cultures and made food for himself…. Has a feel for performing the technical aspects of cooking. And to have the stamina to go out every day, every night to cover the restaurants. And to keep up with the trends.

What is your favorite piece of food and drink?

No one single story stands out.  I’ve enjoyed them all. I loved the out of town coverage I got to do on breaks from the regular column. I covered different cultures and restaurants in London, Paris. I wrote features for the Times’ Dining Section like, dining around Texas for hamburgers in Waco!

How have your books impacted the world of food?

Of the two books I’ve written, I will say that my book about cocktails, “Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail” IS a classic of its kind.  Now, all that is happening. But at the time, it was very much ahead of its time.  All the bartenders I talk to use it and refer to it, which makes me pleased and proud. 

It may be a bit premature with regard to “Appetite City.” The information is solid and it hadn’t been done before.
The book began with the publisher saying I should take advantage of my position as restaurant critic and do a history of restaurants in New York. 
I had done a show for the New York Public Library about menus and that in turn sparked material for dining out and food.
With the TV show, I get to reach a wider audience.  We take a chapter and expand each one, including many more aspects or elements.  We’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg.  We can do BIG things.

What do you see for the future of food? Any upcoming trends on the horizon?

There are mega food trends such as globalization that reshape the future.  By that I mean there is an awareness of other cultures now. In the past, France’s food culture reigned supreme.  But things have evolved and there is a great democracy – a United Nations of food– and that is exciting!  As a trend, technology will only intensify this mega trend… There is an ability to transport ingredients globally.  For example, you can readily get fish from Australia or New Zealand. There is a global demand for this -- for those not satisfied by the Alice Waters’ back to the land sensibility.

The sense of culinary regional distinctiveness that preceded the industrialization or manipulation of food before World War II in the US wiped clean the slate of cultural food memory, unlike Italy or France. 
We are just now finding our way back.  It was all kicked to the curb.
For a lot of immigrant food cultures here, the heritage dishes meant poor and poverty and they wanted to become modern – to have abundance. So they dismissed their way of cooking to embrace what they thought was American.

In this country, there was a perceived reason for people to devote themselves to plant hybridization.  Some new breeds are better.  But then on the other hand, there are certain breeds of pig in Germany that were almost extinct because people became fearful of fat!  Someone made the effort to rebuild the population and continue breeding. Why? Because the meat is so delicious.

Appetite City broadcasts new episodes until September 29th on NYC Media NYC TV Life, Channel 25 on Time Warner and/or Channel 22 on Cablevision and online at and available to download for free from iTunes.

Oh -- and Bill and his wife recently returned from what he described as a very non-foodie vacation where he says outside of Amish bakeries, it was a wasteland of franchise restaurants. 

Nice to have back in Appetite City, Bill.  New York loves you….

Be sure to stock Bill's two game-changing food and drink book.  Not unlike the man himself, they are fun and smart, filled with great stories:


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