As a man who wants to wean America from TV dinners and fast food, Burt Wolf has found the perfect medium: fast information on the tube. "In 90 seconds," he says of his new What's Cookin' show, "no one can get bored." The series got into syndication just last month and is now seen five days a week in 20 million households in 26 cities.
In the gourmet world, Burt, 41, was already well known as one of the indefatigable editors of The Cooks' Catalogue, a much-consulted 570-page tome which lays out the uses and delights of over 4,000 pieces of kitchen equipment. "With 2,000 cookbooks a year we don't need more recipes," says Burt. "What we need is some basic goddamned information about what happens in cooking." Wolf has a near evangelical zeal for demystifying and simplifying haute cuisine, and he is a self-confessed "maniac about a high-fiber, no candy, no sugar diet." He's also antisodium ("Salt is an addiction almost like alcohol"). A proselytizer and irresistible hustler, he finds time, too, for a weekly column on food equipment syndicated by the Washington Post and to supervise "Cooks' Kitchen Shops" in department stores across the country.
Between his sermons about the sins of sugar and the rewards of whole grains, his TV series is loaded with instant info, from how to season a pot ("Wipe the inside with vegetable oil, add another tablespoon and heat on a stove for 20 minutes") and buy mushrooms ("bigger doesn't necessarily mean better") to cleaning copper ("use a mix of white vinegar, a little salt and flour").
Pots and pans have been part of Burt Wolf's landscape ever since he unpacked can openers and melon bailers in his grandmother's housewares store in the Bronx after school. "But I thought a grown-up responsible person doesn't become a cook," says Burt, who instead got a B.A. in English from New York University, then quit law school to become the writer-publisher of a series of self-help books. In 1968 he sold out his publishing house to Swiss-based financier Bernie Cornfeld's IOS (and had to sue to collect his $500,000).
Transplanting his family first to Switzerland then to France, Wolf began hanging around the kitchens of French chefs like Michel Guérard and Paul Bocuse. The upshot was the Cooks' Catalogue, a project which cost him seven years and his marriage.
These days Burt lives on Central Park West with the producer of his TV show, Emily Aronson, and two of his three sons. They constantly entertain celeb gourmets who have learned to put up with Burt's preaching about diet just as have the TV stations and sponsors that carry his show. "I don't see myself as antibusiness," says Wolf. "People who get cancer and die make lousy consumers."
He's 20 times quicker than the 'Galloping Gourmet'