“The thing about cooking is it’s so interesting to watch. I don’t know why, but if you go to somebody’s house and they’re making something, they usually say interesting things while they’re cooking.”
“Chopped,” “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Brian Boitano’s Italian Adventure,” “Cupcake Wars” and “Nigella Bites” …
Obviously Christopher Walken is not the only one who enjoys watching people cook. This week’s Portrait, Peter Lee, is hoping there’s room for one more among the vast number of food-themed shows. Four of his videos, titled “Let’s Celebrate,” are currently available on Let’s Celebrate TV’s YouTube channel.
Here, he talks about he got his chopping chops and what prompted him to share his skills.
PGN: What inspired you to launch “Let’s Celebrate”?
PL: We entertain constantly. We’re forever having dinner parties and barbecues and gatherings at our house. We really love entertaining and being entertained, but our friends always tell us, “We want to have you over too but we could never do it as well as you do.” So I thought, it’s not that hard, it’s something I could teach everyone. I pass on some of the recipes that my mother and grandmother have handed down to me, as well as new recipes that I’ve created and developed myself.
PGN: When you say “we,” who are you referring to?
PL: My husband Phil and me.
PGN: Nice. How long have you been together?
PL: We’ve been together for 18 years.
PGN: How did you meet? Do you both work in hospitality?
PL: I do digital media and my husband is the IT manager for a civil-engineering firm. We met many years ago on gay.com.
PGN: Does that even exist anymore?
PL: I don’t know, I don’t think so. That was in 2000. Back in the chatroom days.
PGN: Kind of like Twitter now, but not as mean. From whom did you learn your cooking skills?
PL: Mostly my mother. She was brilliant. When she was first married, her mother gave her the family recipes handed down through the years. She typed them all onto index cards. She taught me how to cook, and my grandmother taught me how to entertain.
PGN: Give me a little taste of each of their personalities.
PL: They were very different people. My grandmother was very cosmopolitan, very high-energy. She worked for Eleanor Roosevelt when they were forming the United Nations, at the very beginning. She was involved in all sorts of things. My mother was also high-energy, just in a different way. She was very strong-willed. It was always, This is how it’s done — her way.
PGN: Describe your home life.
PL: I have three brothers and a sister, all older. We grew up in a big house with a big yard in South Jersey, where I still live today. We sat down as a family for dinner every night, all five kids and the parents. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, you didn’t have microwaved meals; there was no calling out for pizza; no one could afford that. Sunday-night dinners were a really big deal. That’s something that I still do — Sundaynight dinners are still special for us.
PGN: If you were to ask your mother to come over and fix something special, what would you ask her to cook?
PL: That’s a tough one. This is going to sound silly but she used to make this thing that she called “open-faced hamburgers.” It was a way to stretch a dollar. She grew up in the Depression when they first married, they were on a serviceman’s salary. One of her skills was how to make delicious meals on a dime. She would take white bread and some seasoned ground beef and cook it under the broiler. It was one of those simple, stupid things that I still think, “Oh, I would love it if Mom could make a tray of those right now.”
PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up and what did you study?
PL: I went to culinary school very briefly, but I decided that even though I loved to cook and entertain, the life of a chef just wasn’t for me. So I worked in the library industry for 20 years as a book editor. Now I manage a quality-assurance team for a digital-marketing firm.
PGN: When did you come out?
PL: I always knew who I was even when I didn’t have words for it. I remember one time Barbara Gittings was on “The Phil Donahue Show.” It was right after the American Psychiatric Association had taken homosexuality off its list of mental disorders. There were a number of gay people on the show and I thought, “Oh! That’s me!” I was figuring what it all meant to me when I was outed my senior year in high school. At the time it was very traumatic, being 17 and having to deal with all the drama that ensued.
PGN: How did it happen?
PL: One of my friends was saying, “How come you never date anyone?” and I confessed to her that I was gay and that I had a crush on this boy. That was a mistake. She told people, and soon it got around the school. I got through it. The funny thing is, she and I reconnected 30 years later on Facebook. She sent me a private message with a long, heartfelt apology, saying, “I cannot believe I did that to you. I’ve raised my kids never to do something like that, and I’ve been carrying the guilt for 30 years.” Of course I told her I was well over it, but it was very sweet of her.
PGN: A full-circle moment. How was the family about it?
PL: My sister and brothers figured it out and told my parents before I ever said anything, and they were fine. My mother’s youngest brother was also gay. In fact, he was one of the first people to die of AIDS in New York City back when they didn’t have a name for it and were still referring to it as a gay cancer.
PGN: When did you first start planning the cooking show?
PL: About three years ago. We did a few tests shows and when I was doing the intros, I noticed that I kept saying, “Come on in and let’s celebrate!” We realized that should be the name of the show. It was more in tune with how we live our lives.
PGN: Describe a typical episode.
PL: We try to keep each episode short, around 10-15 minutes and no more than 20 minutes. Each episode features one recipe, which makes it easy to look up because it’ll be right there in the title. I go through the recipe and you can watch as I cook it and tell some stories along the way.
PGN: Give an example of one of the stories.
PL: My mother was Scottish and the first cooking episode we did was for Scottish shortbread. I told the story of how she could knock out shortbreads in no time mixing the batter with a spoon in one hand, martini in the other, and a Pall Mall gold cigarette dangling from her lips. She was amazing.
PGN: I love that visual! And your hubby Phil is one of the producers?
PL: Phil is cameraman, producer, director, you name it. Our son does graphic design for us and a good friend wrote the theme song.
PGN: Your son?
PL: Yes, Phil had three kids when we got together. Our son was only 10 so I was there to raise him. His two daughters were a little older, so they think of me more as a stepdad. After 18 years we now have four grandchildren.
PGN: Any hobbies outside the kitchen?
PL: I used to sing in an a- cappella group called Cobalt Blue. Phil and I do a lot of camping. We have a big mobile camper that we take out once a month and a perm site at Hillside campground.
PGN: Would you ever sleep in a haunted house?
PL: I grew up in one. We’d hear people randomly walking down the stairs, all sorts of things. One day I was home alone and the house started messing with me. The smoke alarm kept going off when there was no smoke and continued to do it even after I took the batteries out. Then the doorbell would ring, even when I was standing at the door and could see there was no one at the door … things like that.
PGN: Best cooking show other than yours?
PL: “The Barefoot Contessa,” I just love her.
PGN: What are the plans for the future?
PL: My main goal is to inspire people. We move so fast now that one of my messages is that we need to slow down. Take the time out to gather around the table, pull out the good china when it’s not Christmas. Pull it out on a Tuesday. Gather with friends and family and talk. Put the cell phones away and really connect with each other over a meal.