MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – He injected extra fat into already well-marbled roasts, with a grin and an ever-present glass of wine. He laughed uproariously at his own jokes, and told Americans that cooking at home did not have to be particularly sophisticated or difficult (Julia Child, the only other major TV chef of his era, had pretty much staked out that turf anyway) to be wild, and wildly fun.
But always, Graham Kerr leapt. Decades before Emeril Lagasse shouted “Bam!” in administering a pinch of cayenne or garlic, Kerr defined the television cook as a man of energy and constant motion – “The Galloping Gourmet,” as his show’s title put it.
Starting in 1969, in front of a live audience (another pioneering step, long before the Food Network arrived) Kerr lassoed America into the 1970s with the novel concept that watching someone cook was, first and foremost, entertaining.
He was hunky and British and funny, and in that heyday of the sexual revolution, he could titillate audiences with a one-liner about circumcision while peeling a cucumber. The media christened him “the high priest of hedonism.”
His trademark gesture of cheerful abandon came in the first few minutes of every show, when he sprinted into the audience, armed with a glass of wine, then ran back and leapt over two dining-table chairs and onto his set without spilling a drop (thanks to plastic wrap across the top). He invariably ended by slumping into his chair with a little, “Whew!”
Today, at 82, Kerr is more measured. His leaping days are over, but he still speed walks every morning from his house here, an hour north of Seattle, where he lives with his daughter Tessa and her husband.
He still cooks, too, but will not make himself a hamburger because he believes that two ounces is plenty of meat for a meal and, he said, “you can’t make a decent two-ounce hamburger.”
Finding that place of moderation, though, was hard. In the 1970s, Kerr lurched from indulgence to asceticism and a denunciation of excess, including his own. Only gradually and with age, he said, did he find his way to a middle ground that allows for some prepared foods, cooked with minimal fat or fuss.
“Wouldn’t one love to think that one always has wound up with the middle way, and is now leading a perfectly balanced life?” he said, laughing and looking out over the Skagit River valley, which he fell in love with years ago because he could see water and mountains and farms all from one perch. “But I had much distance to go,” he added quietly.
There is little doubt, fans and cultural historians say, that Kerr helped define a certain corner-turning moment in America. He wasn’t the first male chef on television: James Beard got there in 1946. The run of “The Galloping Gourmet” was also relatively brief; CBS canceled the show in 1971 after a car crash in which Kerr and his wife, Treena, were badly injured, requiring a long recovery.
But in a time of profound anxiety and change – the struggles over civil rights and the Vietnam War were raging as he sprinted onto his set – Kerr’s upbeat message resonated. Even when he flubbed some kitchen maneuver, and perhaps especially when he flubbed, he reassured his audience that it was going to be all right in the end.
“It was more than hedonism, more like just joy,” said Kathleen Collins, the author of the book “Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows.” “He didn’t seem to worry at all about either the nutritional content, or the whole gestalt of drinking in the kitchen. It was all just about creating a kind of fun atmosphere.”
As a serious cook, Kerr was on shakier ground. A former White House chef publicly disparaged him, and New York Times television critic Jack Gould wrote that Kerr mixed “the informality of the Automat with food brought over from the Four Seasons.”
But for many fans, his mark was indelible.
Bill Fountain, now a high school teacher in Dallas, was barely 5 when Kerr began galloping. Fountain said his mother was ill in those years and his father was working two jobs, gone most of the time. Kerr made cooking seem like something a boy could do.
“He made a huge impression on me,” Fountain, 52, said in a telephone interview. “I really love cooking, and I think that passion and that joy of cooking came from Graham.”
Fountain, who produces a fiction podcast with a narrator who solves mysteries involving food, still regularly cooks Kerr’s jambalaya.
“There was this beautiful human quality to him,” Fountain said, something he also saw in Child. “He dropped stuff, made mistakes, spilled the oil, but he would always make it OK, and to this day, I think, how wonderful a thing to instill.”
Kerr grew up in the kitchen, the son of hoteliers in southern England, but he was an adult before he first made the connection between cooking and entertainment. He was working as a catering adviser to the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1960, when he suddenly had to fill in for an officer who was to conduct a cooking demonstration. Making an omelet, he also made his audience laugh. A TV cooking show in New Zealand, and then Australia, soon followed.
In his half-hour “Galloping Gourmet” segments, taped in Canada and broadcast in the United States between weekday soap operas (and seen in most British Commonwealth countries as well), the focus was on meat and a lot of it, often as not larded with cream. Vegetables were mere garnish.
The pace was frenetic, and not just on the set. In a kind of travelogue that linked food and foreign cultures – a precursor to Anthony Bourdain’s globe-trotting food programs – Kerr went around the world 28 times by his count, stopping to master specific dishes that he could then teach his audience.
In 1987, his wife (who also produced his show and came up with the idea of leaping over chairs) had a heart attack and a stroke at age 53. Kerr blamed himself – and his cooking.
He had already moved by then, he said, to a new way of thinking about food as a result of his religious awakening as a Christian in the mid-1970s, an epiphany partly prompted by the imbalance he had seen in his travels between countries with not enough to eat and those with too much.
His zeal only intensified as Treena Kerr began her recovery. He raged against nitrites, Alfredo sauces and supersize portions of anything, and became by his own admission an extremist.
“I used to call doughnuts ‘edible pornography,’ and I’d think I was doing the world a favor,” he said. “And I’m sorry about that, I really am. That was a bad time in my life.”
He recalled a moment when Treena Kerr, who died last year at 82, reached her boiling point. He had self-righteously stopped her, he said, from making a bologna sandwich for one of their three children.
“She flung the bologna in my general direction,” he said. In a voice loud enough for the neighbors to hear, he recalled, she shouted, “There is nothing left in this world to eat – nothing, nothing, nothing!”
Graham Kerr’s new middle path has steered his cooking toward more vegetables and greater convenience, but fewer rules – a message he also preached in his last television series, “Graham Kerr’s Gathering Place,” which ran on public television in the early to mid-2000s.
At dinnertime, he likes to cook for about 30 minutes while listening to NPR. He has written a memoir, “Flash of Silver: The Leap That Changed My World,” and teaches occasional cooking classes from his kitchen, by Skype.
In making lunch for some guests, though, he still sounded like a man on the set, describing every detailed step of a dish he called Graham’s Brunch, often with a quick aside or a joke.
He roasted a sweet potato, and seared a veggie burger in a small amount of olive oil. (MorningStar Farms makes a spicy black bean variety that is his favorite.) Then he folded together a mixture of whole eggs and Southwestern-style Egg Beaters, and topped the vegetable patty with a slice of the sweet potato, the egg mixture, a thin slice of cheese and a dusting of paprika. With this, he served a light green salad and an alcohol-free chardonnay.
These days Kerr cooks on an electric stove. Gas, he said, is for when you needed speed in a busy kitchen, and he is past that. His television hasn’t been connected to cable or broadcast service for 22 years, he said, so the current multitude of cooking shows is a mystery to him. He has also avoided watching his old programs.
His wife, he said, always advised him against looking too closely at what he did so spontaneously and so well, because studying what worked or what didn’t would destroy the spontaneity – and the joy.
“’If you watch yourself, you will become an edited person,’” he said, quoting her. “’Don’t do that.’”