Reality Show

On TV, Jack Hourigan acts as if she knows little about cooking -- and for a while, that was true.


What Jack Knows

Here’s a short list of food facts Jack Hourigan has picked up on the Food Network’s “How To Boil Water.”Kosher salt: “People don’t use it,” she says, “partly because of the name — if they’re not Jewish, they think: Why do I need kosher salt? But I learned that if you’re making a dish where it has time to soak into the food, rather than just sprinkling it on top at the last minute, it tastes much better.”Oil: “Vegetable oil has a higher smoke point, so you can cook with it, whereas olive oil, which is more fragrant and more flavorful — and more expensive — is better for enhancing some dishes. Before, I just thought that oil was oil. And I had never heard of a ‘smoke point,’ either. Olive oil takes a higher heat to get it ready to sauté in. And I didn’t know to look for the shimmer on oil, just before it gets to the smoke point.” Cooking temperatures: “Before the show, I heated everything on maximum and cooked the crap out of it. Are you allowed to say ‘crap?’ But now I know about slow cooking and moderate cooking and how to broil and about frying something and waiting for the smoke point before you put the food in the oil.” Cutting: “Tyler showed me his special way of cutting an onion. Planks, sticks, then cubes,” she recites. He cuts horizontal slices, leaving one end intact; then vertical slices in one direction; then vertical slices again, with the onion turned 180 degrees. “And,” she continues, “keeping the tip of your knife down when you’re cutting, so it’s on the cutting board to stabilize it.”

On Thanksgiving, we can all talk turkey by calling the Butterball Hotline. But Jack Hourigan can take her questions about the big bird — and all things culinary — to Tyler Florence, one of America’s top chefs and author of “Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen,” any day of the year.

Hourigan, who has lived in Northeast Ohio for the past eight years, co-hosts the Food Network’s “How To Boil Water” with Florence. Millions of people tune in three times a week to find out what Jack doesn’t know.

On the show, now in its third season, the soft-spoken actress with a warm, natural, down-to-earth personality serves as a stand-in for viewers and appears to be eternally enrolled in Cooking 101. Florence shows her how to make nice, relatively uncomplicated meals that are a little fancier than the dishes most of us cook every day. She watches, helps and demonstrates her ignorance as he prepares things such as roasted leg of lamb, risotto with wild mushrooms and scallops, and molten chocolate espresso cake.

“On the Food Network,” says Hourigan, “there are a lot of advanced shows; this is the one for beginners. So, basically, I take the role of the newbie. I often have to repeat myself from show to show — Why are you using that kind of salt? What’s this? What’s that? — I have to ask the same questions, because there’s always going to be someone who hasn’t seen the show before. People write in and think I’m absolutely the biggest ditz on the face of the Earth.”

Yet one-on-one, it’s obvious Hourigan is bright, quick-witted and serious about her work, all essential ingredients for her job as TV’s most incompetent cook. She’s also supposed to be funny and entertaining. That comes easily. When Hourigan, who studied theater at McGill University in Montreal, moved here from Toronto, she trained with Second City Cleveland. She wrote and performed for the company for 18 months. Around the time Second City closed, Hourigan began her Food Network gig.

The food part is not quite as natural. She is the youngest of nine kids. Her mother’s cooking was, she says, “utilitarian at best,” featuring “vats of things like lasagna or big pots of chili.”

As a result, Hourigan’s preshow cooking style was pretty basic. “I would go through phases when I would experiment, but I’d usually fail and get discouraged.” So her status as a rookie in the kitchen wasn’t all acting. Now that she’s taped about 80 shows, is it becoming difficult to continue playing the novice? “I’m still not a gourmet chef, by any means,” she says, insisting she learns something new on every show.

With her TV kitchen experiences, Hourigan has upgraded the tools in her real kitchen, adding such items as a microplane, which she uses in place of a regular grater, and tongs, which you can use for mixing, stirring, turning, tossing salads and serving food.

“And Tyler uses only fresh herbs,” she says. “It makes the biggest difference. I used to use my dried, in-the-pantry, been-there-since-1974 stuff.”

Now she grates her own fresh nutmeg into sweet potatoes. “Things like that will make holiday cooking more interesting and updated,” Hourigan says. She’s also learned to love cilantro, mint and rosemary. “There’s this one rosemary chicken that we made on the show that I love.”

Oh, and lemon. “Tyler’s a lemon-aholic,” she says. “He loves the zest, he loves to sprinkle lemon juice on everything. He puts lemon juice behind his ears when he goes on a date. Not really — but he is very full of zest.”

There are a few things Hourigan owns up to making very well. One of them is shrimp cocktail, a favorite for holiday entertaining since childhood. She learned how to improve on her mother’s basic version during her first season on “How To Boil Water,” from chef Frederic van Coppernolle.

“He taught me to boil the shrimp in a broth with herbs and carrots and onions,” she says. Hourigan serves it with a good homemade sauce, using real horseradish that, she proudly announces, she grates herself.

She’s also gotten some on-air lessons in turkey preparation. One especially good recipe from last season uses just the turkey breast. She says that in addition to cooking quickly and making slicing simple, it can come in handy for smaller gatherings.

There is one thing she knew how to make before the show. “Buttertarts; they’re Canadian. They’re like pecan tarts, but not so pecan-y. Is ‘pecan-y’ a word? They’re more buttery. These melt in your mouth. I inherited the recipe from my brother-in-law’s dad. They are my all-time favorite thing to make around the holidays.”

Cooking smarts may not be second nature for Jack Hourigan, but cooking and cracking jokes in front of the camera is. As a child she loved watching the “Galloping Gourmet.” Hosted by Graham Kerr, who was as much a comedian as he was a cook, it was one of the first successful national TV cooking shows. “When I was little, my sister and I would wash dishes and pretend that we were on a TV cooking show,” she says. “I’d interview her, and we’d talk about, oh, washing dishes, and what we had for dinner. Everybody thought I was insane, but … ”

Look at her now. She’s become a celebrity. And she got there by asking silly questions. You know, the ones you and I might ask. The irony is that in real life, people think of her as an expert of sorts. And as her recipes reveal, that’s exactly what she is.

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