It's Noon. Do You Know What Your Children Are Eating?

Fernando Saralegui is in 'Papi's Kitchen' trying to help kids with healthy habits

Cheese Blintzer on the scene
Cheese Blintzer on the scene (Photo By John Anderson)

Fernando Saralegui is, as usual, at the center of a whirlwind of activity. A self-described type-A personality, the Austin cookbook author is always on the move, driven by his involvement in one project or another with an array of local organizations. In his spare time, he is Tarrytown's Mr. Mom, cooking for the family, participating in the development of Cassis Elementary's organic garden, and taking an active part in the lives of his two children while dreaming up his future projects. His latest endeavor, and the one that finds him so busy now: trying to get a bilingual educational children's TV series off the ground.

Saralegui came to Austin from New York with his young family in 2001 to open a restaurant but instead ended up serving as the director of the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival for one year. One of seven children from a family of Cuban immigrants, he grew up in a very united, bicultural atmosphere. Their rich culinary traditions are the basis of his heartfelt cookbook, Our Latin Table, which emphasizes the importance of family, meal preparation, and sharing at the table. While he was still living in NYC running his restaurant L-Ray, his children practically grew up in the kitchen among pots and pans, chefs and produce suppliers. He realized how engaged they were in the whole process and how these people had become part of their family. From this idea, he imagined a TV series for children in the style of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, with a dollop of Pee-wee's Playhouse. The program would show kids where food comes from, how it's cooked, and how it should be shared with friends and family. That was the original kernel of Papi's Kitchen, as well as for his cookbook.

After his cookbook was published, Saralegui's vision for the TV series started taking shape when, in conjunction with TDA, he brought a proposal to KLRU. They green-lighted the project and asked to see a pilot of Papi's Kitchen. Saralegui then applied and received a statewide competitive annual grant from the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas to produce the episode. He started assembling an advisory committee for the development of Papi's Kitchen, which is a group of chefs; farmers; childhood health, fitness, and education professionals; and media experts, to provide ideas and advice. Among these consultants are Paul Carozza, owner of RunTex; and chefs Mario Batalli (a longtime friend who donated all the cooking pots and pans for the show from his new line of cookware), Lidia Bastianich, and Dean Fearing. Alice Waters is a prospective member, as well. In early 2005, he brought longtime friend Noah Michael Levine on board, and they began character development and script writing.

Michael Vilim, owner of Mirabelle and Castle Hill restaurants and president of the WFFT, and foundation Chairman Larry Peel have been ardent supporters of the project and key elements in Saralegui's network in Austin. Thanks to the $30K grant from the WFFT, along with "about $60K worth of goodwill effort" from other sources, the pilot was shot over three days on location at Boggy Creek Farm and at the private residence of Emily Lott, a botanical consultant. It is currently in postproduction and is expected sometime in July. The production company, Alpheus Productions, is a husband-and-wife team (Mat and Beth Hames) that has produced other PBS documentaries and worked with the Lance Armstrong Foundation on the Discovery Channel's Bike Team documentary.

On the set of <i>Papi's Kitchen</i>
On the set of Papi's Kitchen (Photo By John Anderson)

Papi's Kitchen is an ambitious project that seeks not only to entertain but also to educate children on topics like food production, eating local fresh products, good nutrition and fitness, food history and traditions, cooking lessons, and family and community connections. Like Saralegui himself, it also tries to involve and connect as many people as possible from the local Austin community and beyond, including the Sustainable Food Center, local farmers, food producers, chefs, etc. It strives to promote the mission of the USDA and the Texas Department of Agriculture to provide better guidance for healthier eating and exercise habits for children. It also seeks to include the growing population of Spanish speakers to foster a bilingual culture for the children of Texas. This is why the show's title and dialogue are liberally seasoned with Spanish as a means of inviting Latino families to tune in rather than being excluded. "Learn culturally, and it becomes part of your fabric," Saralegui says. He should know.

Papi, played by Saralegui (Papi is his children's nickname for him, Spanish for "Daddy"), is the main character. He rides around the neighborhood on his bike and interacts with the rest of the characters as he goes about his food-preparing journeys. The show also features a group of children, including Saralegui's own Isabel and Mateo. There are also some fun animated characters and puppets. Smelling Bee is Papi's amigo in the kitchen, a helpful bee that loves food and spells out key words for the kids at home. Professor Whom is an owl and an expert on global geography and culture who teaches from a chalkboard. Her chalk lines morph into images that tell the day's lesson. Powerhouse Animation animated these characters, and Sandy Wood (the voice of StarDate) provides the voices. The puppet – created by Pattie Clubb, an artist and Toy Joy employee, whose name would be an ideal candidate for a character in the show – is Cheese Blintzer, a TV reporter that is "a bit Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live's 'News Update' and an Anderson Cooper wannabe." He is purple and has bright orange pipe-cleaner hair with a comb-over and a soul patch below his lip. He provides "play-by-play" voiceovers throughout the show and appears toward the end to do the recap. Levine gives the TV-talking-head puppet a "Ted Baxter meets cheesy game show host" voice. Levine also plays the part of Dr. Foodstein, a character described by Saralegui as "Underdog meets the Nutty Professor," who provides science facts.

Sarelegui envisions Papi's Kitchen as "a weird hybrid of cooking show, science show, sitcom, and children's show." The target audience is children from kindergarten to fifth grade, and each episode will be centered on the preparation of a healthy recipe. "The idea is to develop a sort of scavenger hunt around a recipe for ingredients, the stories of people that bring us the food, plus the history of the cultures behind the recipe," Saralegui explains, "and the scavenger hunt ends with everyone at the dinner table together. So, there are as many episode possibilities as there are recipes." In the pilot episode, Papi and the kids ride their bikes to visit Carol Ann Sayle, owner of Boggy Creek Farm, who teaches them "the ABCs of eating locally." From there, they go to Papi's kitchen to learn the historic, cultural, and ethnic background of the recipe from Professor Whom. In this episode, it is a Spanish Caldo Gallego, which they prepare with Papi and the help of Smelling Bee. Every episode will end with everyone sitting at the table to share the meal they all had a part in creating. While Saralegui agrees with Hillary Clinton in that "it takes a village to raise a child," his take is that "it really just takes a dinner table."

Saralegui himself learned this whole concept while working at Alice Waters' famous Chez Panise restaurant in Berkeley for four years during college. It was Waters who inspired and encouraged him to feed everyone and to always use the freshest locally available ingredients. "We must bring the culture of food back to the source, since this brings sanity to today's food dilemma," he says. "Sanity brings health by making good choices." Saralegui is using all of his experiences, loves, and passions in life to bring this project to fruition. And he has the perfect personality to inspire people about it.

"Obsession divorces you from culture," Saralegui adds. "People who are diet freaks or health and sport nuts are obsessed and carry things to an extreme. That's not healthy. Europeans have not divorced themselves from their culture or from the earth, consequently their naturally healthy eating habits appear to have avoided causing harmful eating disorders." Papi's Kitchen is aimed at getting kids away from boxed, processed, and fast foods while adding an entertaining dose of fitness: biking, gardening, and sports. "Kids don't want to be patronized," Saralegui says. "They want real food, good snacks that are kid friendly and that they can make themselves." He envisions a "Saturday morning slot at KLRU, as a connection between the morning's children programming and the afternoon's gardening and cooking shows to appeal to kids and their parents alike." After all, many parents still need the same cooking and nutrition education that their kids do.

America's eating and health habits have become a hot topic lately, especially with the staggering statistics on child obesity and diabetes. "The answer to the problem is not fad diets and artificial ingredient substitutes," Saralegui says. "It is simply a balance of local, natural, tasty foods prepared with family and eaten in moderation, paired with exercise and information. It's really not rocket science, but it may take a NASA-like effort to get the simple 'back to the garden' message across." The Michael Dell Foundation, through a substantial donation to the University of Texas, recently created the Dell Center for the Advancement of Healthy Living. Saralegui is encouraged by the attention of big business, along with the development of government initiatives, to get our children healthy. While the pilot is in postproduction, he is keeping the bigger picture in view. He is focused on an active search for underwriter and advertising support, tilling his particular patch of garden to get his healthy message to a vast American television audience. Here's hoping he succeeds in helping us rediscover our gastronomic culture and good health. end story

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