Cable-access production values are a few grams shy of a ‘good thing,’ but The Hippy Gourmet has more in common with Martha’s Kitchen than Wayne’s World.
BY ED MURRIETA
Behind the heavy-lidded gaze, shaggy gray beard and mellow baritone of a Summer of Love dee-jay lays a classically trained French chef who wants to feed the people and feed your head. If his television cooking show, cookbooks and DVDs reap profit and popularity, that’s far out, too, man.
Bruce Brennan is The Hippy Gourmet, a Jerry Garcia-meets-James Beard bear of a man whose cable-access cooking show originates from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The show, 50-plus episodes strong, airs weekly on nine Bay Area stations and recently started in Amsterdam, Boston, Chicago and New York.
Production values lean a few grams shy of a “good thing,” but “The Hippy Gourmet” has more in common with “Martha’s Kitchen” than “Wayne’s World,” pardoning the psychedelic music, paisley graphics and occasional presence of Manny the Hippy, famous for his tripped-out tete a tetes with David Letterman.
“‘The Hippy Gourmet’ is the antithesis of most TV cooking shows,” says producer-director James Ehrlich. “Bruce is the anti-Emeril.”
“Not a lot of clip, clip, clip, action, action, bam, bam, bam,” Brennan adds in his best mellow bellow.
Published Feb. 19, 2003, San Francisco Examiner.
EAT YOUR HAIGHT OUT
There’s no script and no army of sous chefs turning out finished dishes at perfect moments, but the format is familiar, with touches that might freak out some foodies. Each 30-minute show covers side dishes, main dishes and desserts. Brennan’s typical attire is aloha shirt, denim shorts, sandals, two-tone ball cap and wax-dappled talisman. His typically laid-back delivery includes instructions to “chunk it up” and announcements like, “This’ll be a while before it gets rippin’.”
The set is a renovated Ashbury Street Victorian which Brennan and his sister, Pam Brennan, operate as The Herbin’ Inn, a boarding house whose rooms sport names like Sage, Rosemary, Coriander and Thyme. The kitchen, designed by Brennan, boasts hand-made cabinets of hand-selected local tan oak and a vintage O’Keefe and Merrit six-burner stove with twin ovens. The formal dining room houses a Sixties’ museum, first stop on Brennan’s Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour.
Outdoor excursions include a vegan barbecue at an animal sanctuary, a wild-huckleberry hunt, a sunset snack at the beach. Scenes of Haight Street’s demimonde and mood-altering shots of waves and flowers bookend segments. Shows
end with “yummy shots” and tribal-gathering meals.
“The Hippy Gourmet’s” culinary philosophy is easy, tasty and inexpensive. The rainbow of recipes runs from tofu satay to fried yucca to baklava; from shrimp ravioli, potstickers and tiramisu to black bean chili, veggie pate and apple crumble. Only one show has featured meat (lamb brochette) — and that was served with an apology.
“The hippy part is that we have really good ideas for eating healthy, low-cost foods,” Ehrlich says. “We want to reconnect people to the environment, reconnect people to where the food comes from.”
Although his garden brims with savory herbs, Jerusalem artichokes, peaches, avocados and tomatillos, Brennan favors things not typically associated with back-to-the-land granolas.
“Sometimes we get vegan-heads who get tired of Bruce’s butter-and-sugar routine,” Ehrlich says. “But we do go out of our way to get food that’s organically grown.”
“Hey, I was trained in the French style, classically,” rationalizes Brennan, who has a penchant for hearty sauces and a reputation for killer cheesecake.
An episode that began with a live fish and ended with dinner no doubt bummed out a few fish-huggers. “We did do an episode where we had to whack a six-foot sturgeon,” Ehrlich admits. “It was like a ‘Sopranos’ episode.”
The show assists nonprofit groups it features in documentary segments, like the Hamilton Family Center, the Buckminster Fuller Institute and the Progressive Animal Welfare Society. Tapes of shows are donated for the nonprofits to sell and keep the proceeds.
“We like to focus on people and organizations doing good things,” Ehrlich says. “That’s what hippies are all about. We believe in being proactive about good causes.”
Which doesn’t mean they aren’t seeking their own groovy grail of commercial success. “We see a late-night slot on Food Network,” says Ehrlich, a former day-time TV producer, rock tour manager and Silicon Valley software executive who uses un-hippy words like “marketing,” “ancillary products” and “demographics.”
“Hippies now are CEOs and attorneys,” Ehrlich says. “We also hit the elusive youth market.”
To jumpstart their own Grateful Dead-style gravy train, Brennan, 49, and Ehrlich, 39, enlisted an agent to sell “The Hippy Gourmet’s” U.S. and international broadcast rights; DVDs and cookbooks. There’s also a line of spices and, of course, tied-dyed aprons.
BURNING MAN, NOT VIETNAM
Brennan’s hippy and culinary credentials are legit. An adolescent radical whose mother ran a head shop, Brennan got kicked out of public middle school in Long Island in the ’60s. He fell in with Abbie Hoffman’s crowd and organized busloads of kids to cut school and march in anti-war rallies. He attended Northern California’s alternative Pacific High School.
At 16, Brennan started washing dishes at IBM’s Long Island Management Training Center. He worked his way up the kitchen and learned from IBM’s top chefs and interns from the Culinary Institute of America. He went on to restaurants in New York and Los Angeles.
In the ’70s, Brennan bought land in Nova Scotia, built geodesic domes and waited out the Vietnam draft.
Back in the States, he catered “budget weddings.” “It was mostly cold cuts and salads, but it would knock your eyes out the way we laid it out,” Brennan says. There were gigs at Bill Graham’s rock shows and a 1,000-person event for the Mission of Ghana at the United Nations, complete with flowing robes and specially slaughtered goats.
Brennan and Ehrlich connected three years ago at Burning Man, where Brennan was cooking olmettes for a hundred happy campers.
Their original idea was to tape two pilots and see how things went. “The Hippy Gourmet” first aired between “Bikers for Christ” and a Black Power show. After a year and a half of sporadic taping and positive vibes from their small-but-growing audience, Brennan and Ehrlich realized they were on to something and stepped up production and distribution.
“I know when you say ‘cable access’ people think of some dominatrix with whipped cream and a razor at 3 in the morning,” Ehrlich says. “But we’re providing a service for the community. People who don’t subscribe to premium cable rely on access stations for innovative programming.”
A broadcast technician from one local network affiliate emailed to say that “The Hippy Gourmet” isn’t just good cable-access television, it’s good television.
Brennan’s manic energy clicks on when the camera stops. On the deck for a cigarette break, Brennan enthusiastically riffs on topics from cosmic connections to pharmaceutical conspiracies to Euell Gibbons. Get him talking about hippie history and hold on for a long, strange trip.
Under the influence of his commercial dreams, Ehrlich talks about re-shooting every show using broadcast-quality equipment. He wants a budget bigger than the $1,200 per show he mostly self-finances. He wants crane shots, a second-unit crew, travel funds and the means to license music that draws hippies of all ages.
“We need the Allman Brothers, we need he Grateful Dead, we need Blues Traveler, we need Phish,” Ehrlich says. “We want to travel to spots in the world where indigenous people are doing indigenous things. I want to have a show that’s the best quality.”
Brennan has mellower ambitions: a prep cook and a dishwasher.
“I would keep Bruce the way he is,” Ehrlich says. “But I’d like to get Bruce a couple of co-hosts. Bruce is a very mellow guy. The show needs people who provide fun and sex appeal. We’re not yet tapping into what we can be tapping into. That takes resources.”
Here’s yet another pre-conceived hippy expectation sent up in smoke: “The Hippy Gourmet” stays blissfully apolitical and resists jumping into hippy-friendly frays like medical marijuana. So for the time being, “The Hippy Gourmet’s” “special ingredient” special is just a viewer’s pipe dream.