Kevin Belton is too modest to claim that his latest project could raise the bar for New Orleans cooking shows. But for his “New Orleans Cooking with Kevin Belton” with public television station WYES-TV, set designers literally did have to raise the kitchen counter.
That’s because Belton stands about six-foot-nine, with a massive frame that bespeaks his youthful days in football and today just makes you really glad that when he comes at you it’s with an easy smile instead of a tackling stance. To make the show’s kitchen more proportional to its star, the appliances and counters were elevated about a foot higher than usual. When others from the crew approach the counter, the chopping board might come up to their chest or shoulders.
Yes, Belton is big. But his stature as a chef is poised to grow larger still, and potentially give viewers across America a different lens on New Orleans cuisine.
Known locally as a chef and instructor at the New Orleans School of Cooking and for his regular appearances on WWL-TV’s Morning Show, Belton is the next face-of-the-franchise for a culinary series from New Orleans with national reach.
“New Orleans Cooking with Kevin Belton,” now under production by WYES-TV, is the latest in a long line of cooking shows from the local public television station, dating back to the 1970s when Cajun chef Justin Wilson brought his famous “I gar-on-tee” catch phrase to the nation. Chef Paul Prudhomme starred in five of his own series with WYES, starting in 1995, and more recently the station produced “Chef John Besh’s New Orleans” in 2011 and “Chef John Besh’s Family Table” in 2013.
Belton is the first black chef to host a WYES cooking series, and producers say his family background and his own upbringing shine a light on one iteration of New Orleans’ Creole culinary identity.
“The fascination with New Orleans right now is huge, and Kevin has such energy, such a warm personality and such talent, we feel public television audiences will connect with that,” said Terri Landry, producer and director of the new series and many others dating back to the early 1980s.
With this latest show, she said, “we can tell people they’re going to learn real New Orleans cooking, not about what you might learn professionally, but what people in this city are raised on, because this is what Kevin was raised with.”
Cook local, teach national
WYES plans to begin airing “New Orleans Cooking with Kevin Belton” locally early next year. Producers are also pitching the show for national distribution through American Public Television and Create TV, which carries lifestyle programs from public television stations across the country.
Beth Arroyo Utterback, executive vice president and chief operating officer of WYES, said the station’s cooking shows usually get an eager reception from other stations around the country, typically airing across 75 percent of the public television market when first released. If picked up by the Create Channel, she said, a series can reach 98 percent of the market. Stations often air the shows multiple times year after year.
“Thus, over time, the series can be seen by millions of viewers,” she said.
Belton’s series will comprise 26 episodes covering the diverse realm of New Orleans cooking, from French Creole classics to soul food to Irish, Italian and German influences on the city’s cuisine. It’s a line-up of dishes that stretches from spaghetti Bordelaise to beef rouladen, and one Belton approaches after an unconventional path to the role of cooking show host.
Though he spent a few recent years running an expansion location of the Creole soul restaurant Li’l Dizzy’s Café in the CBD with his friend Wayne Baquet, restaurants have been only a small part of his story.
Path to the plate
Now 55, Belton was raised in New Orleans in the Uptown area. His mother’s family has roots on the French-Caribbean island of Martinique and his French-speaking father’s family hails from outside of Thibodaux. He jokes that his interest in cooking started in the cradle.
“Mama stopped nursing me, she said you’re on your own now,” he said with a straight face before delving into laughter.
Belton played football for Louisiana State University for a stint in the late 1970s before transferring to Xavier University.
He gave pro football a try, too, though injuries at training camp with the San Diego Chargers ended his sports career before it could take wing.
Back in New Orleans, he worked around the tourism business and in 1991 took a job as store manager at the New Orleans School of Cooking, which offers daily cooking courses in the French Quarter.
When he later made the leap from retail to chef instructor, he’d never had any formal culinary training.
Instead, he found inspiration in his family’s own fixation with the kitchen and dinner table, he gleaned lessons from chefs he knew around the city and he found gratification in showing others what really makes the region’s famous cuisine shine.
“People outside New Orleans and Louisiana assume our cooking is about throwing in as much pepper in there as possible, but I like showing them that it’s about building in flavors,” he said. “I like pulling that curtain back and letting people see the process that gets them to that flavor.”
Belton got his first start in food TV with WYES back in the 1990s, preparing viewers’ own home recipes on-air during station fundraisers.
In 1999, he embarked on a much bigger media project, co-hosting the BBC series “Big Kevin, Little Kevin” with the British chef Kevin Woodford, which aired overseas.
He has appeared on numerous other cooking shows since, usually tapped as an ambassador of New Orleans flavor.
Big on personality
As modern food shows have grown more sleek and scripted, the approach taken by Landry and her production team at WYES is steadfastly instructional.
“We don’t spend a lot of time on glitz or competitions. Our audience wants to see people who know how to cook and who they can learn from,” said Landry.
That makes picking the right chef to lead the series all the more important, she explained.
“It’s a special talent to be able to do this,” she said. “You can be competent in the kitchen but not make that connection where a viewer feels like they’re right there in your kitchen. I remember walking around with Paul (Prudhomme) and people would just come up and hug him. They felt like they knew him. Kevin has that, too.”
In fact, Belton has already been making an impression on those who have visited the set as his new show comes together.
For the first time with a production of this sort, WYES opened its studio up to groups of students from local high schools and culinary programs for a behind the scenes look at a cooking show.
“I think he’s showing us the way for sure, and that there’s a lot that goes into it,” said Arnold Jackson, a first year student in the culinary arts program at Delgado Community College.
A New Orleans native whose family relocated to Dallas after Hurricane Katrina, Jackson was lured back by a desire to cook and connect with his hometown’s culinary heritage. Sitting in on the WYES set, he said, helped put that goal into perspective.
“Watching (Belton), you know he’s been there,” Jackson said. “He knows what it’s about.”