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Friday, September 23, 2011

"Easy Chinese: San Francisco" Behind the Scenes

Posted By on Fri, Sep 23, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Ching-He Huang with the Josh Jones Jazz Band at The Palace of Fine Arts - J. NEWTON
  • J. Newton
  • Ching-He Huang with the Josh Jones Jazz Band at The Palace of Fine Arts

This summer I had the unique opportunity to work as the kitchen manager for the Cooking Channel's "Easy Chinese: San Francisco." Working behind-the-scenes on a cooking show is not as glamorous as you might think. Hard work and long hours are commonplace on any culinary production. However, there is something extremely satisfying about being able to see the results in the finished product. I've seen a few clips of the show, but I'm looking forward to watching the series when it airs.

Making congee at the Manilla market - J. NEWTON
  • J. Newton
  • Making congee at the Manilla market

My duties as kitchen manager included shopping for and sourcing ingredients, testing recipes, food styling (making dishes look pretty) and preparing "swap-outs" (dishes in different states of preparation) of host Ching-He Huang's recipes.

A large part of my time at the beginning of the production was spent researching and setting up an inventory of ingredients. I made daily trips to Clement Street's New May Wah Supermarket to stock our RV with staples like Shaoxing rice wine, Sichuan peppercorns, fermented black beans and Guilin chili sauce.

Shopping for the show became so tedious that by the end of the production we had a full-time shopper whose sole responsibility was to buy groceries. Yet sometimes we still ran into difficulty finding the right ingredients.

For episode 11, Ching requested fresh rice noodles for her black bean ho fun recipe. Our shopper scoured all of Chinatown and Clement Street, but they weren't in stock anywhere. One store promised they would have a delivery by 10 a.m. the following day, so we moved some things around and waited. At noon, they still didn't have the noodles. In the end we got our hands on some fresh noodles. To be honest, I don't think the noodles were really Chinese ho fun. I think they came from a Thai market. At that point we had been waiting for so long, no one seemed to notice or care.

My days were split between a prep space we rented at Mission Creek Kitchen and various makeshift kitchens on the moving set. The backstage setup consisted of plastic folding tables, portable butane stoves, multiple coolers and several large containers of cooking utensils, props etc.

La Taqueria - J. NEWTON
  • J. Newton
  • La Taqueria

The production changed locations almost every day, sometimes multiple times in one day. We filmed in restaurants, outdoor spaces, stores and private homes. Some of my favorite culinary locations included the Wok Shop, Manila Market, the Chairman Bao truck and Avedano's butcher shop.

On one trying day, we were shooting outside the Palace of Fine Arts. Ching was grilling and serving lobster with fennel salad to a local jazz band. This was our second location of the day and everyone was exhausted. It was a rare sunny summer afternoon in San Francisco and the park was packed.

The coolers were stocked with several pounds of par-cooked lobsters, multiple batches of coconut marinade, cucumber ginger juice and the ingredients for the fennel salad. I made everything in our prep kitchen in advance.

The culinary team worked in pop-up tents in an attempt to keep the lobster fresh and the salad from wilting. We rigged grills by placing flat Le Creuset grill pans over two propane burners. The wind was blowing so hard that we couldn't keep our burners lit or tools from flying off the table.

Swarms of people surrounded what appeared to be a new San Francisco lobster street food venture. We were working about 15 feet away from the crew and had to cross over a bike path to bring the food to the set. Every biker, jogger and roller blader stopped to watch and several asked if we had lobster for sale. It was a difficult day. Despite many obstacles, the crew managed to finish the episode before the sun went down.

Chairman Bao truck - J. NEWTON
  • J. Newton
  • Chairman Bao truck

For every episode I was responsible for preparing the recipes several times in different stages, in case the culinary producer requested a swap-out for the set. In the episode where Ching made pork bao buns on the Chairman Bao truck, I had to purchase and prepare 12 pounds of pork belly to show the various stages of the recipe (simmered, fried and braised).

We always had to have extra food in case multiple takes were necessary or in the event that something went wrong, but didn't end up needing all the pork belly on that day.

In one situation, making a large amount of a recipe in advance backfired.

For episode 13, Ching cooked for an engagement party at Wente Vineyards in Livermore. In addition to having backup food for the segment, we actually needed to feed a group of real guests. One of the items being served was red bean and banana sesame balls. I had tested the recipe weeks in advance with no problems. I made two trays of sesame balls the day before and stored them in the fridge.

When we went to cook them the next day, they weren't frying correctly. I had taken them out of the fridge in advance, but they were still slightly cold. They weren't puffing up as I remembered and the middle was not cooking all the way through. In order to get them to cook thoroughly, they were black on the outside which obviously wasn't acceptable on camera.

We had extra rice flour and I was able make another batch in time for the party. To make matters worse, no one understood how important it was that we save these new sesame balls. It appeared that we had more than we needed, but most of the ones we had were unusable. I hid the treats, but people (mainly my assistant) kept eating them.

In the end, we had just enough for the segment and for each of the guests -- with not one extra to spare. It was a close call.

Every day on the show was a new crazy adventure. I was pushed and challenged on every level, but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. The best part of the job was the amazing crew of people I got to work with, people that I plan to stay in touch with and hope to work with again.

Marla Simon is a San Francisco-based chef, food stylist, and food writer.

Follow her on twitter at @Marla_Simon

Follow us at: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.

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Marla Simon

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