Eat, Drink, and Be Wary
In Catholic tradition, the patron saint of cooks and chefs is St. Lawrence the Martyr, one of seven deacons charged with giving help to the poor under Pope St. Sixtus. Story goes, the Prefect of Rome executed Pope Sixtus and commanded Lawrence to bring forth the wealth of his church. Lawrence brought Rome's poor, and the Prefect ordered Lawrence tied to an iron grill and roasted, ever so slowly, over a low, open fire. (Thus Lawrence's divine association with the culinary arts.) But not only was Lawrence a good roaster, he was a real cut-up: During the whole being-cooked-alive ordeal he dropped pithy comments on the judge, such as, “Turn me over, I'm done on this side,” and, as he took his final blackened and bubbling breath, “All right, I think I'm cooked.”
Kitchen humor, it's timeless. Which brings us to Feast or Famine.
Not since the days of subtitled episodes of the Japanese cooking show Iron Chef have the drunk, the hungry, and the belligerent failures of home economics had such a reason to rejoice. Feast or Famine is a cable-access cooking show that airs on the second and fourth Sunday of each month (originally on Channel 53, but now in the lofty stratosphere of Channel 29). The premise is this: Mike and Stu, two highly qualified but notoriously inebriated chefs, arrive at your front door with a fully loaded beer cooler named “Big Red.” Their challenge is to make a meal from whatever pathetic ingredients you might have on hand but, before the cooking portion of the show, there is the rummaging-and-beer-guzzling portion of the show during which you, the hosts, are humiliated and chastised on camera for having a tremendous assortment of moldy mustard, crusty cheese, mystery muck, and Starbucks paraphernalia, which is why we, the viewers, tune in — for the spontaneous humor of the cooks, the complete denigration of the hosts, and the humping (more on that later).
This brilliant premise was concocted during a beery night in which the then-26-year-old Elroy's chef Mike Yakura whipped up an impromptu dinner at a friend's house, out of not much at all. Friends signed on as cast and crew: Chris “Pete” Parker, producer, director, and editor; Scott Kramling, boom operator, on-camera interviewer; Andy Lund, music director and audio engineer; and Kristen Miro, second camera, boom operator, beer runner, and cupboard rummager. Mike has cooking skills, natural good looks, and a knack for making people feel at home while mocking them; the obvious task was to find a complement for Mike. They needed a chef with charisma, style, and savoir-faire, someone with real star potential. Enter 25-year-old Chris “Stu” Randall, a brawny, foulmouthed carnivore of a man with seven years of fine restaurant experience. Though they'll say they met through a personal ad, Mike and Stu met at LuLu, after Mike quit his graphic design job and lied his way into a line-cook position.
The first few episodes of Feast or Famine were filmed at friends' homes — Stu likened it to cooking for the floor staff at LuLu, trying to make interesting food out of the same ingredients night after night — but soon invitations were pouring in. Over the last year, Feast or Famine has achieved local cult status among denizens of CityVisions, the public access television station for San Francisco, which also boasts Bug Girl, Phil the Security Guard, Queen Bee TV, and the too-be-avoided Noisy Kitchen.
Inside bars and cafes, folks with their fingers on the remote and their eyes on the future ardently discuss their favorite segment: the invigorating ironing-board stair surfing; the beer-and-cigarette pre-show sit-ups; the exciting hand-blender nipple massage; the borrowing-salt-from-the-neighbors interlude; the jumping-over-the-neighbors'-gate interlude; the ever-erotic dish-towel dance; the “sphincter” update, given after the discovery of moldy corned beef hash; the skipping-through-the-sprinklers dream sequence; and the relentless, endearing, SoCal straight-boy dry-humping-with-clothes-on routine.
But all is not frivolity and giggles on Feast or Famine. As any repeat viewer knows, there is always the potential for tragedy and heartbreak, as during the infamous “Pokémon” episode, in which Mike — deserted by Stu and left with only ancient, unidentifiable Asian foodstuffs as ingredients — suffered a complete breakdown on par with Martin Sheen's hotel scene in Apocalypse Now. Or the episode, in which a line of masking tape was run down the middle of the kitchen to prevent our cooks from shedding each other's blood. At the same time, Feast or Famine can be a teary testament to brotherly devotion and unconditional love, as at the end of “Pokémon,” when Mike affectionately licks the face of his vagrant partner, whom he finds drunk, sprawled out on the couch in front of a fan, dressed in a long scarf and sunglasses like a fading silver-screen starlet.
I invited the crew over, not realizing Chris Parker, who is responsible for the three days of editing that each show requires and all the equipment he borrows from his real job at CNET, had put the show on shooting hiatus. After being featured in a segment of Evening Magazine, Feast or Famine was apparently looking for bigger fish to fry, or at least some chick who looks good in a Jacuzzi.
WB20 “Bay Beat” host Catt Sadler, a supple little number for whom Parker has a certain remote yearning, thinks it would be great to do a segment in the home of another WB20 news anchor, Cheryl Hurd, so a shoot is scheduled and to Vallejo we go. Of course, the directions are a little misleading, and Mike and Stu are late. So, in grand Feast or Famine style, the crew cracks open Big Red, standing on the sidewalk in a cul-de-sac of precisely manicured lawns and suburban sensibilities, at 1 p.m. Scott Kramling takes off with a beer in hand to drink and stand watch for Mike and Stu at the main crossroad, causing Hurd's neighbors some consternation. Several beers later, Mike and Stu arrive, rolling out of their car, rhapsodizing about a “Jesus is the Light” garage door down the road, but looking decidedly less lubricated than normal.
As Parker explains, the guys get a little nervous before shooting; in fact, 40-ounce gulps of beer are sometimes necessary. A few cigarettes and a few gulps later, Mike and Stu don their aprons and their brown Ben Davis shirts, grab Big Red, and get down to business. Cheryl Hurd answers the door, already wearing stage makeup and a big smile. Hers is a nicely carpeted home with slow jams playing in the background; there is no huge mess, but the place bears the evidence of a woman on the go. She escorts the boys into her kitchen, which is not huge but more spacious than Feast or Famine is used to; it even boasts a counter facing the living room, “almost like on real cooking shows.” Sadly, Hurd is due on the air in a few hours and is unable to imbibe. But that doesn't stop Mike and Stu, who begin rifling her cupboards after pretending to eat her potpourri.
In the fridge: pork roast from last Sunday and “pasta surprise.” In the freezer: leftovers from Christmas and Thanksgiving, and plenty of salt pork. But it's the cupboards that impress Mike and Stu. While Kramling interviews Hurd and Sadler on the back deck, Mike and Stu go to work. “She's got three of everything — two are opened — in four different cupboards,” laughs Mike.
“It's like playing Where's Waldo,” says Stu.
They invite me into the kitchen.
“What would you call this cupboard?” asks Stu, revealing a cabinet with two electric skillets, an open bag of pretzels, a can of Black Flag insecticide, a bowl of fruit, a stapler, keys, and vacation photos. “It's the 'Mike and Stu are coming over cupboard.'”
Enticed by black-eyed peas and Creole seasoning from New Orleans, Mike and Stu decide on a Southern meal of succotash, peach cobbler, corn bread made with evaporated milk (there's no other), and chili made with (Stu shudders) frozen ground turkey.
Mike and Stu brave a jar of pickled okra.
“Where's the garbage?” asks Stu, shaking his head. “This lady doesn't throw anything away.”
With the return of Sadler and Hurd, the cooking begins in earnest, augmented by much beer, both in the recipes and in the chefs. There's some mild ridicule, the vulgarity of which is tempered by the WB20 camera crew shadowing Chris Parker and a pressing time line; several hours later, supper is served. The chili is a little crunchy, but the succotash and cobbler are delicious. Hurd seems slightly embarrassed, but no worse for wear.
On the way home, Mike and Stu talk about the ups and downs of Feast or Famine.
“It's hard to find good protein,” says Stu.
“And salt and pepper,” says Mike. “People don't have salt and pepper, but they have a lot of penis pasta.”
Mike and Stu would like to invade the homes of the rich and famous, Robin Williams or Joe Montana, on a network station, but that's not the real aim of Feast or Famine. “The idea is to get people into their kitchens,” says Mike. “People shouldn't be afraid. If you fuck up, that's OK. Just have a beer and laugh about it.”
Suddenly, Mike swerves across several lanes of freeway traffic.
“In and Out Burger!” the two men shout.
They order two of everything, with grilled onions.
Conversation drifts to important matters — Olive Garden commercials and cook-by-color recipes at Pizza Hut — as Mike and Stu look to the future, and as we look forward to the “lost footage” of the “Das Boot” episode, in which a basement apartment, with no windows and no ventilation, drives Mike and Stu to the brink. Of something.
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