NEW YORK - When ABC's "The Chew" premiered in September 2011, it begged the question: Was it biting off more than a show like this could chew? Here was a rollicking weekday feast devoted to "everything food" - not just cooking but home entertaining, dining out, healthy diets and a satisfying culinary lifestyle overall. And it came with a menu of five - count 'em, FIVE! - co-hosts. Too many cooks in that kitchen?
Well, maybe not. On Tuesday in its regular 1 p.m. EST time slot, "The Chew" marks its 500th edition with a special hour as its co-hosts savor their chat-and-chew success. "'The Chew' was never about food, it was about these five people," says executive producer Gordon Elliott before a recent taping at the show's Manhattan studio. Roughly 59 minutes later (to keep the energy flowing, each show is taped in front of a studio audience from start to finish, with no retakes or down time slowing the pace), the hosts - Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Carla Hall, Clinton Kelly and Daphne Oz - relocate to a nearby conference room, with a reporter in tow: "What makes the show work," says Symon (a star of Food Network's "Iron Chef America" and owner of six restaurants), "is that it literally feels like all of us are hanging out, cooking some food and telling stories. We're busting each other's chops, but we all know we've got each other's back." "And by now, it happens naturally," adds Batali (the co-owner of 17 restaurants nationally as well as a Food Network star and best-selling author). "We all know when it's each person's turn to talk, and we know we'll all get our turn." "We always tell each other before the show starts, 'Party in the kitchen,'" says Kelly (who was also a host of TLC's recently concluded "What Not to Wear"). "That's what we want: for people to come into our kitchen and have a good time."
"We have five distinctly different characters, versus a single-host show," notes Hall (a memorable past competitor on Bravo's "Top Chef" and the owner of an artisan cookie company). "That means we have five different ways of doing things. So we are saying to the viewer, 'If YOU have a sixth way, that's OK, too.' We empower the viewers to have their own perspectives."
"The ensemble setup gives us all an opportunity to do some learning on TV, as well as some teaching," says Batali.
Item: Hall adores a certain trick for peeling lemons she learned on the air from Symon. And Kelly confides, "I didn't like quinoa until Daphne (the "Chew" resident health-and-wellness guru) kept shoving it down my throat. I actually like quinoa now."
Each hour has a theme (not just broad ideas like how to fix the perfect turkey but also conceptual side dishes like "Picnic Essentials" or "Leftover Makeover") that the show's producers cook up.
Symon: "They give us themes, and then we give them our recipes."
Batali: "Along with our thoughts on each segment."
Hall: "We make each idea work, based on our experiences."
"But I've said no to a segment," Kelly points out. "It just wasn't in my wheelhouse, and I didn't want to pretend to do something that I wouldn't actually be doing at home."
"Manscaping?" cracks Batali.
When "The Chew" was first announced, naysayers warned its hosts they were making a mistake.
"A bunch of my friends were saying, 'This is career suicide,'" Batali recalls with a laugh, "and I was like, 'I think I could probably still make it as a cook.' Now we know unmistakably, indubitably, that we have the best jobs in food programming."
"A hundred percent!" Hall chimes in.
"Without a doubt," says Kelly. Plus they each have four new pals: "Away from the show, we really do hang out. You can look at our phones and see how much we text and email each other."
While the pace of "The Chew" has eased a bit from its hyperactive early days, each hour has plenty going on.
But as Batali has learned, "you can say a lot without too many words or having to rush if you're editing in your mind: What exactly is my message here?"
"My message," says Hall, "is that home cooking is the end-all and be-all, and it doesn't require chef's skills or chef's ingredients. Once you're comfortable with a basic dish and a basic technique, the potential variations are huge."
"What's the connection between 'What Not to Wear' and 'The Chew'?" poses Kelly. "There's a very strong common denominator: to be the best version of you, whether it's with the clothes you put on your body or the food you're putting in your body. To be conscious in every aspect of your life."
"I'm just saying, 'This is simple to make and your guests will love eating it,'" sums up Batali. "I think that's what we're all selling on 'The Chew' all the time: 'Yes, you can' and 'Why don't you?'"