Having Seen the Lite, Graham Kerr Now Preaches a Low-Cal Gospel

updated 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Twenty years ago, Graham Kerr flambéed with flamboyance. As television's insouciantly saucy Galloping Gourmet, the rangy, British-born chef bounced about his kitchen, tippling the cooking sherry, flirting with the camera and indulging in risqué banter ("a small circumcision" was how he described the trimming of mushroom stems). As an aproned matinee idol, Kerr recalls, he'd start each show with the mantra "You're the greatest there is." Now, returning to TV after a dozen years of Christian outreach work with his wife and producer, Treena, he humbly orders himself, "Go serve 'em."

Service still comes with a toothy smile, but without what Kerr calls the old attitude of "Look at me—aren't I funny, pouring brandy over everything!" (The brandy, in fact, has been replaced by nonalcoholic wine.) A boyish 56, Kerr still bounces, racing onto the gray-and-white kitchen set of his month-old syndicated show—called simply Graham Kerr—to prepare today's dish, a low-fat bread pudding. The caloric count is measly, the mission lofty: cooking familiar foods with more nutritious ingredients. "Never has so much in society hung on health," the former cream-sauce maniac tells the Seattle studio audience afterward. Welcome to The Cantering Gourmet.

Kerr developed his lighter-cooking techniques in the early 1970s when he, Treena and their children—Tessa, now 34, Andy, 30, and Kareena, 22—sailed the world aboard Treena, a 71-foot yacht. Eating simpler foods, they discovered, was less likely to cause mal de mer. Back on land, says Treena, 56, the converted Graham "was a pain in the neck. One day I was making a bologna sandwich for the children, and he came out of the study and said, 'You can't use that.' I asked if I could use corned beef. He said no. I started yelling, 'There's nothing here to eat!' I waved the bologna in his face and then threw everything into the dustbin."

To hear the Kerrs tell it, they nearly ended up in the dustbin too. Graham's bubbling cooking career—he first made an omelet on TV as a New Zealand Air Force caterer in 1961 and brought his pot-rattling panache to this continent in 1969—kept him in the kitchen, well away from home. "We lived in the same house for a month without seeing each other," Andy remembers of growing up in Ottawa, where Gourmet was taped.

The family was brought together by disaster in 1971: A truck slammed into the Kerrs' trailer while they were driving near San Francisco. With Graham temporarily paralyzed on his left side and Treena requiring major surgery—including partial removal of a lung—the Gourmet had to go. The 24,000-mile cruise on the Treena was meant to be part of their therapy. For Graham's cuisine, at least, it did wonders. "And yet," he sighs, "we still weren't happy. We had no commitments"—until they impulsively bought a 10,000-square-foot mansion they spotted while sailing around Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.

But if the family had dropped anchor, Treena was sailing straight into a tempest. Because of pain from her accident, she had become addicted to Valium and other drugs. "Uppers, downers, sleeping pills," she says. "You name it." Adds Graham: "She hallucinated all the time—bridges collapsing, children decapitated."

Treena's life went from hellish downer to celestial upper when she accepted the advice of her maid, an aspiring missionary named Ruthie. "Mrs. Kerr," Ruthie suggested one day, "why don't you give your problems to God?" Treena did—although her immediate response to Ruthie was a snippy, "All right, if you're so clever, I'll leave it up to you." Within a week, she says, she was drug free. Graham made a similar handing-over not long afterward ("I had to be convinced inside"). But revelation led to exodus: Producers for Take Kerr, a 1975 cable series of cooking spots, didn't approve of his working religious references into the credits. "You know, 'Graham Kerr drives Ford. Graham Kerr flies Pan Am. Job 3:20,' " says Graham. The Kerrs quit TV "because we had to be silent about the thing that was most life-changing about us."

A man without a pantry, Graham sold the Maryland house, and he and Treena launched a foundation, Creative Lifestyle International, to promote charity and worldwide nutrition. The Tacoma-based organization still sponsors agricultural programs in the Amazon, but the Kerrs were frustrated by their inability to change the public's eating habits. "I was running at the same brick wall for 12 years," says Graham. "When you think you've made your mark, you realize it's just stained bricks." Friends urged a return to TV, and after Treena—who had boycotted Graham's low-fat cuisine to indulge her fondness for bacon and cheese—suffered a heart attack and stroke in 1986, the Kerrs had an impetus for the new show.

The Galloping Altruist is putting in long hours again creating recipes for the new show, taped near the Kerrs' condo in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. "By becoming public people again," he says, "we can spread our message." The way to mankind's heart, they hope, is through its stomach.

—Tom Gliatto, Joni H. Blackman in Seattle

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