ST. PETERSBURG — Jeff Hearn will never watch a TV cooking show the same way again. • He's hyper-aware of how Tyler Florence grills a steak while looking into the camera and explaining the importance of marbling. He notices the juxtaposition and ratio of closeups to long shots, and how a slightly old tomato looks even worse on screen. And he notes that TV chefs never sweat or shine, and remain supremely confident as they prattle on about kosher salt and fresh herbs. • Hearn scrutinizes all this now that he has his own cooking show. No, it's not on the Food Network, and, sure, you might be asleep when Eat Cheap, Drink Rich comes on at midnight Saturdays on WTTA-Ch. 38, but that doesn't matter much to Hearn. What does make a difference is whether the tomato stack salad is going to maintain its vertical poise for the cameras or the chicken looks deliciously photogenic when it comes out of the oven. Even more, he's concerned that the show's guests and crew are having a good time.
The road to the TV show was short for Hearn, and it's a bit of a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney-let's-have-a-show-in-my-dad's-barn tale. Or maybe more like Field of Dreams: If we film it, someone will watch. So far, that's happening, even at the midnight hour. The first show in March drew about 4,000 viewers. By show No. 3, that number had jumped to 10,000. People he has never met are recognizing Hearn around town. No reports of paparazzi stalkers. Yet.
By day, Hearn is a senior vice president at Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg and his wife and co-host, Donna, is the admissions coordinator for the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School. They have three grown children and a home in northeast St. Petersburg with a kitchen plenty big to hold a camera crew and several guest cooks. The Hearns like to travel, eat good food and entertain.
Still, he dreamed about writing a cookbook with the premise that sophisticated food needn't be expensive when prepared at home and that the money saved could be spent on good wine. Each chapter would be the blueprint for a dinner party for eight, with the guests, most often couples, bringing an assigned ingredient or two and taking part in the cooking.
He started an Eat Cheap, Drink Rich supper club, and one night somebody brought a videocamera. A TV show was born and they didn't need a barn, just a crew. It certainly helped that Hearn just happened to go to the same church as Dave Collins, a man with more than 30 years of experience in the TV news game. Executive producer, check.
There are a lot of roadblocks to producing a homegrown TV show. Plenty of things could have prevented Eat Cheap, Drink Rich, chiefly a lack of guts, and had Hearn & Co. thought too much about the obstacles, nothing would have ever happened.
"But we're just doing it," Collins says.
And along the way, Hearn, who already knew how to cook and entertain, learned how to powder his nose.
On a recent taping night, Hearn and Collins, plus director and postproduction guru Chris Rokosz, go over the particulars of the show in the back yard, the swimming pool babbling behind them. The Hearns' dogs, Baxter and Wilie, amble in and out of the house. In the living room are three couples who don't know each other. It's about 5:30 p.m. and the first bottle of wine has been uncorked. By the time the crew is packing up the cameras, it will be 10:30 p.m.
Episode No. 5, airing May 1 and repeating May 8, is called "Crazy 'bout Curry," and Hearn has scoured the Internet and his favorite magazines for recipes.
"What I am looking for is an appetizer that's ready in 30 minutes," he explains. "Salad between 6 and 7; the entree is ready at 7 p.m. and dessert at 8 p.m. At 9 p.m., the dinner is over."
That's in a perfect world, and no matter how engineered a TV show is, a perfect world stretches another hour and a half.
The guests are led into the kitchen and three cameras film the show intro. The room blazes with floodlights, and a portable photo studio perches on the family room coffee table. There's a website (eatcheapdrinkrich.com) and also a Facebook fan page. Photos of each dish are needed for the Web and the cookbook-in-progress.
"We want the audience to see you having a good time," Rokosz says. He has a theater background and uses his show skills to warm up the "cast." "Speak in complete sentences. Don't look at the camera unless you are directly addressed. Scatter purposefully after you get your cooking assignment."
Oh, and "we like embarrassing stuff."
Donna Hearn lets out a laugh that's accompanied by her trademark snort. Now everyone giggles and the ice is shattered.
Liberal powdering of faces, men and women, precedes a few attempts to get the intro right, then the cooking begins. From this point, it's pure reality. The cameras only stop for tape and battery changes. The meal is cooked in real time and eaten that way, too.
It all seems quite simple until crew member Carrie Rokosz explains that it takes 40-plus hours to edit the night's taping into a 21-minute, 30-second show. Each episode costs about $3,000 to produce, which has been raised from family, friends and sponsors, such as Famous Tate Appliance and Bedding Centers.
Carrie Rokosz bangs the clapper, saying "Take Five . . . ish," and everything goes smoothly until the doorbell rings, setting off a chorus of barking dogs. Or until someone drops food and says, "Ooops." That, Donna Hearn explains, is the dogs' cue for floor nibbles. In they charge, and a cameraman trains the lens downward.
Tentative cooks grow comfortable and it isn't long before the cameras and eight-member crew meld into the background. By the time the guests migrate to the table for the entree, the crew is completely forgotten. It's just another Friday night dinner party, complete with raucous conversation and belly laughs more common among lifelong friends. That is exactly the result Hearn hopes for from each episode.
Well, that and maybe a call from the Food Network.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.