TVFF.com Exclusive: An Interview with The Hungry Detective's Chris Cognac
Sunday, October 22, 2006 | posted by Mike
We’ve had a couple of previews of the newest show on the Food Network, The Hungry Detective (in fact, here are 1, 2 and 3). Those posts have given you plenty of info about Chris Cognac, the 14-year veteran of the Hawthorne, California police force and food writer for The Daily Breeze and on the Internet. After appearing on Feasting on Asphalt and as a judge on Iron Chef America, Chris began working on his own show, which takes him to a new city each episode in search of off-the-beaten-path cuisine.
Mr. Cognac took time out of his busy police officer/food writer/TV star schedule to speak with TVFF.com via phone from Los Angeles.
TVFoodFan.com: So, what is it like now that the show has premiered?
Chris Cognac: It’s almost surreal because I’ve been pretty much working nonstop since its inception right after Iron Chef. Right after Iron Chef taped was when we started moving on the show, doing a demo and then having that repeated and doing a pilot, which, actually, Vegas is the pilot. And that was the first TV I ever have done, the Las Vegas show.
And, you know, it’s almost surreal, it’s just kind of weird. But it’s neat, people come up to me now, even in uniform and I find it’s nice, as a policeman, to be able to approach people or people approach me and really break down that barrier. And everybody has food in common.
TVFF: Every foodie has a moment when food goes from being something they enjoy to being a passion. When did that happen for you?
CC: You know, it was gradual. There was no defining moment, although I did have a defining moment with the wine, which is when I had a bottle of Malbec, Santa Julia Malbec that was fantastic. And it made me a wine freak.
But, food-wise…I guess, when I was on a radio call with my partner and we went into this halal meat market and they were arguing over the meat being halal and not halal. So that amazed me that two 24 year old Caucasian policemen were determining what was halal between these two old, Muslim guys. But the food was phenomenal. A place called al Watan, this Pakistani market which is a dump, but the inside was beautiful and the food was gorgeous.
And it hit me there that, wow, food could be so much more than hamburgers. And I’ve always been a food guy, but I liked the generic “white guy” food groups. And Japanese food, because I live in an area with a lot of Japanese. But that was essentially it.
Then I moved up to detective and had to do a little bit more to keep my mind off things. I was a sex crimes and child abuse investigator, so I dealt with pretty horrific things. I needed something else to keep my mind on. So that’s how the writing came about.
TVFF: You are very active on the Internet, including your site and the many message boards to which you contribute. How has the Internet had an impact on your writing and restaurant exploration?
CC: The Internet is the number one research tool besides your friends, and if you don’t have a lot of friends, the Internet is the best thing. I think, because it gives the common person the ability to be a food critic. I think most people will research the Internet before they research newspapers about where they want to go.
And it’s been fantastic for me because I’ve been able to make fantastic contacts with people. I’m a big networking guy, whether it’s doing police stuff or food things.
And, you know, places like eGullet, Good Eats Fan Page and ChowHound have been fantastic. You know, my only problem is when they’re overly moderated. Some of them are great and it has really meant a lot.
TVFF: I suppose you had some level of anonymity when you wrote only for The Daily Breeze. But now you’re on TV. How do you deal with being recognized...both in restaurants and in the squad car?
CC: Well, the best part is that most of the places that I review don’t watch the Food Network, so they don’t know who I am. You know, they’re mom and pop taco shops and little halal Pakistani places.
High end dining? Yeah, of course, I’m not going to be able to go into a lot of places and be anonymous. But that’s fine because I don’t really review, per se, in the newspaper, high end dining. Merrill Shindler does that and was here before me.
But I’m a big fan of sous chefs. Sous chefs rule, in my opinion. And I’m always for giving sous chefs their due. I mean especially young, hot, up and coming chefs. I did a big article on guys in Las Vegas who are just top chefs in their field and they’re 25, 26 years old. One of them, Adam Sobel, from the show, is running Guy Savoy. And, the other guy, David Varley from Bradley Ogden. And Brian Ogden, Bradley’s son. Gerald Chin of The Mansion at MGM and Sean Griffin of Nero's.
I’ve had tasting menus there that are just unbelievable. And these guys are 25 or 26 years old and they’re basically running the kitchens at the top restaurants.
TVFF: So, I guess you’re kind of motivated by discovering and revealing, whether it’s a small place or a person who is under the radar at the big place?
CC: Totally. If I can give that guy a boost that will make him on another level, totally. And, so, now I scout young sous chefs all over the country. And I’ve submitted guys to Iron Chef and helped get guys on that. I’m all about pushing the levels up.
I like to get these guys because they’re the ones who toil every night. They’re the ones who are really making your dinner when you go to fine dining, and I’m all about throwing a bone to any of these guys. Not a bone, but putting their names out there. They’re tomorrow’s super-chefs.
Don’t jump on the bandwagon, you know? Lead the bandwagon, pull the bandwagon and create it.
TVFoodFan.com: You have mentioned how much work filming The Hungry Detective is.
Chris Cognac: You could say that!
TVFF: Tell us a little bit about what goes in to putting together an episode, particularly when it comes to you and your staff scouting a new city.
CC: We have to go and do a lot of research. We find foodies in the area or we do research on the local food scene for whatever city we pick. We figure out what kind of food we want to have because we don’t want to have five shows on hamburgers at five places.
But, since we do five, we want it to be varied. And, since it’s a two-day format, we try to stick to “breakfast, lunch and dinner/breakfast and lunch.” We also try to hit one kind of “ethnic-y” restaurant and then one nicer one and we do a bit of breakfast. We want to target those things.
We need to make sure those places are good and a lot of foodies will help us out. For instance, a guy named Greg Wilson from Good Eats Fan Page did a bunch of research for us on Atlanta. A couple other guys did, too. They took pictures and sent them to us, which really helps in choosing what we want to do.
And then, you know, we’ll just go for it. We get there and, most of the time, we’ve made ourselves known, “Hey, we heard about your restaurant and we going to come film it.” And then we’ll talk to the owners and make sure that they’re going to be personable and into doing this.
But, sometimes, we’ve actually dumped restaurants and gone to other ones. So we’re pretty flexible when it comes to that. But if we see something that’s really “kick-butt,” and we need to go there, we’ll just go.
TVFF: So it’s a pretty mobile operation that you run?
CC: Well, it’s mobile, but we have a crew of anywhere from eight to nine people. We have two cameras, the lighting guy – that’s why our food looks so good. We have great food porn. And it gets better from Vegas, trust me. The food looks delicious. And our camera guys are phenomenal. There’s a guy named Eric Smith who is the “B” camera guy who does all of the food shots…he’s just – he’s the king. He gets in there close to the steaming cauldrons of boiling sauces and everything. It scares me to death.
TVFF: Does he get hazard pay?
CC: Yeah, I’m telling you, man, you need it! Some of the kitchens were slippery.
But that’s why our food looks so good. It’s lit really well. We have great lighting and the guys really worked their butts off.
TVFF: We know that Alton Brown is a friend of yours…what other food TV programs do you watch?
CC: It’s kind of funny because I was watching the Food Network for years and then, when I got to make Food Network TV, I never get to watch it anymore. Because I was making it, and the shoots are 12, 14 hours a day. And so I’d get home to the hotel, I’m so tired. And it’s one in the morning and I’m like, “Damn, it’s only reruns!”
But, one of the shows I’m a really big fan of is The Thirsty Traveler Kevin Brauch’s show. Kevin’s a super-nice guy, by the way, and his show is beautiful. Another show I really like is The Wandering Golfer. I mean – gorgeous! And how rough it is to work with golf courses and shoot them well?
But, obviously, I love Good Eats. I love Alton’s stuff. You know, Giada, I think Giada’s show is absolutely beautiful. It’s so well shot and she’s very eloquent and her food is fantastic. I haven’t seen the new show, but I love Nigella. She makes food so sensuous.
Then, of course, I love Iron Chef America – I’m obsessed with it, and I’m so disappointed that I can’t judge anymore. But, hopefully, I can still squeeze myself into the "Ohta Faction" role and demand that my sous chefs go challenge the Iron Chefs. Maybe when I get a little more juice I can hit up Bruce Seidel for some of my sous chefs as challengers.
TVFoodFan: You were just in TVFF.com’s neck of the woods and we have lots of visitors from the Philadelphia area. What was your culinary impression of the Quaker City?
Chris Cognac: Bread. It was all about bread, and what you can put on bread. We did the working man’s thing. We hooked up with a guy named Holly Moore from HollyEats.com, who is a fantastic Philadelphia food resource. We used his assistance and then we just cruised around on our own a bit. We went to Johnny’s Hots and had the Philly surf and turf, which is a fish cake mashed onto a sausage on a role. It was fantastic.
We went to Mezza Luna and I had the ricotta gnocchi. That’s a good one there. We got that lead from the DiBruno Bros., a cheese store down in the Italian Market.
We went to Sarcone’s as well, but it’s not going to be on the Philly episode. We have like eight or nine segments that are extra from the season that we felt that we’re going to see if we can hopefully wrap up into one show at the end.
TVFF: Or maybe they make it onto the web?
CC: Yeah, something like that. We want to make sure they get exposure.
We went to some other places, too. You know, the best part of me and food is that I’m not a food snob. I’m just as comfortable eating a tasting menu as I am eating a Philly surf and turf. As long as you like it, it’s good.
It’s like that with wine. It doesn’t matter about the cost of it. If you think it’s a good wine, then you know what, damn it, it’s a good bottle of wine!
TVFF: How do you hunt for wine? How does that work for the non-expert?
CC: If you’re not a wine expert, and you don’t really have an advanced knowledge, I wouldn’t spend more than $15 on a bottle of wine. Probably more than $10. I went years and only bought $10 bottles of wine because I couldn’t tell the difference between an $80 bottle of wine and a $15 bottle of wine, so why not buy a $15 bottle and then you have $65 left over for filet mignon, which I can tell the difference on?
And I did a lot of training. You can train yourself with wine. You can have a tasting party. You drink several bottles of the same varietal, a Cabernet or whatever, and you’ll see the differences. Especially if you bag them and make it a blind tasting. I hold blind tastings down here a lot with my friends – we have a big group and it’s fantastic, it’s really fun to do.
And you learn a lot and really develop your palate. Again, wine is great and wine is good for you. At least that’s what I tell myself.
TVFF: I get the feeling you’re not the kind of guy who goes to the concierge for dining tips.
CC: You know what, actually I do. For any meal, I go for multiple sources of intelligence. We just hit up a concierge the other day. The concierge is like a little mini-detective. They’re great, but if there is a concierge and there’s a guy working on the street outside, I’ll ask them both, see what they say, and if they both say the same place, then you know, damn, that place is good.
TVFF: Other than the concierge, who are the best folks to ask?
CC: By far, the cops. Firemen can cook, so they don’t know where to eat. Cops always know where to eat.
Cops are good, and look at the street guys, like the water guys, because they really go over a large area doing the water mains and they’re out and about working every day. They’ve got to know the coolest spots. The gas men, the FedEx guys – the FedEx guys are good. And UPS, not to be…
TVFF: You don’t play favorites when it comes to that.
CC: No, not at all. But those guys are great, too, because they know the neighborhood. Anybody who goes inside a bunch of businesses. Cops go inside because they have radio calls, FedEx guys go inside because they deliver packages.
The thing is that you have to step inside the door and take that risk. Most people drive right by. Certain people will go in the door. That’s the difference between us and them.
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