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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

A Healthy Conversion: Graham Kerr is eschewing fat for faith, hedonism for health

Graham Kerr spent the first half of his life becoming the most famous cook in the world: a television entertainer who at the height of his 1960s fame as "The Galloping Gourmet" was seen by 200 million people in 38 countries, sold 14 million cookbooks and circled the world 28 times.

Kerr has spent the second half of his life galloping away from that image, that food, that money, that lifestyle.

Once the life of the party, he now wants to save your life.

Kerr has become a Christian convert, an apostle of healthy eating and an apologetic parent. He's migrated from an 11,000-square-foot mansion with pool on Chesapeake Bay to a 1,300-square-foot home built snug as a ship, overlooking the Skagit Valley he is working to save.

In short, he walks the talk, baring his soul to provide an example of the possibilities of reform, redemption and change.

Yet, there's still enough showman in him to know that preaching makes bad TV. At 69, and having reinvented his cuisine to eschew fat, cholesterol, cream, alcohol and eggs, he faces the greatest challenge of his life: making health as fun as hedonism.

As always, it is Kerr's wife, Treena, who is central to his new direction. One cannot understand Graham without trying to understand the pair's tumultuous, passionate and doggedly loyal relationship. He cheated on her, she went crazy on him, and yet — having first fallen for each other when he was 11 and she was 10, and having been married nearly half a century — they are indivisible halves of a remarkable whole.

"Mom and Dad are joined at the hip," says daughter Tessa. "At one time, there was very little room for anyone else in that relationship."

Treena gave up her dreams of acting for marriage, but later poured out her ambitions by producing his show and coaching his performance. It was at her insistence that he became funny, her Christian conversion that prompted his own, her stroke and heart attack that spurred him to reinvent his recipes, her ill health that has pushed him into semi-retirement to care for her.

The supporting role has not come easily to a woman whose instinct is to be the star. Her book of poetry is called, "Substance in Shadow."

"When they came to me in Australia and asked me to make 650 television shows as 'The Galloping Gourmet,' I said, 'I can't do it,' " Graham recalls.

"And I said, 'Yes you can,' " Treena finishes.

A few years of heady success later, Graham did calculations and announced that, on paper at least, "We're millionaires!"

"Don't forget your script conference at 9," she replied.

Suzanne Butler of Mount Vernon, who works as Kerr's cooking assistant, has watched their relationship with awe. "In my life, I've known men who love difficult women," she says. Her boss is one of them. "Treena is hard work, and Graham rises to it."

The Kerrs qualify as locals by now, having lived in Tacoma, Kirkland, Camano Island, Anacortes (on a sailboat for two years while the present house was built) and now Mount Vernon. But he's a Londoner by birth, a Scot by ancestry, a New Zealander as television pioneer, an Aussie in early fame, a Canadian when he taped "The Galloping Gourmet" and a former resident of Maryland, Colorado, California, Hawaii and Oregon. Even though his hearing is beginning to fail, he's retained his ear for the varied English of his many stopping points and fires off the accents with flair.

Counting her tumultuous childhood, Treena has lived in 59 homes in her 68 years. As a couple, the pair have shared at least 30 homes plus boats, hotels, airplanes and a motor home in which they were almost killed. They have borne the peculiar rootlessness of fame, belonging not to a place but to a self-created image. By resolution, they are trying to slow down. By show-biz instinct, they still want to save the world.

• • •

IN RETROSPECT, their intense partnership is natural. Graham was an only child whose father was an actor by hobby and a London hotelier by profession, too distant and self-occupied to be a regular dad: Graham was raised in his father's kitchens, adopted as a mascot by the chefs. He was cooking and sampling wine by age 10, and learned entertaining skills through tableside flambé creations as a teen. A high-school dropout at age 14, he was brilliant, ambitious and lonely. "I can't remember having a private home of any kind," he says.

Treena's childhood was even less ordinary. She was the daughter of an artist with an ancestry of gypsies and fortunes that rose and fell by commission: She'd be in private school one year and public the next, stability as elusive as happiness. Pretty, dramatic, opinionated and driven, she was, in his words, "a luminary." Still smitten from childhood, he renewed their acquaintance when serving in the British army.

On a walk across a pasture he carried her over a muddy cattle crossing and sunk in a bog of manure. "I was down on one knee anyway and decided to ask her to marry me." They were both 21 when they tied the knot, and had their first child, Tessa, exactly a year later.

The two were afire with ambition. Graham's culinary skill in revamping Britain's wretched military food, and Treena's charm with his commanding officers, had resulted in his becoming the youngest captain in the army. He then left to try the hotel business, first losing an early Kent lodging because of a tourist slump, then joining his parents at the Royal Ascot near the famed English race course. His goal was to become a manager, welcoming the upper-crust in coat and striped pants.

It was a difficult way to start a marriage, and the pressures of family and job mounted. It climaxed when Treena told off the hotel owner, burst out of the entrance in a nightgown while six months pregnant with son Andrew and fainted in the headlights of a Rolls Royce.

It was time for a change. Graham joined the New Zealand Air Force to reform its culinary division.

What followed next was the kind of luck that comes from being prepared to take advantage of opportunity — or the kind of fate that comes from God, as the Kerrs might prefer to put it now.

It was 1960 and television was just arriving in New Zealand. The Auckland station was desperate for programming. To commemorate Battle of Britain Day, the New Zealand Air Force ordered Flight Lt. Kerr to make an omelet on television. Handsome, 6-foot-3, a former champion of the saber and épée, Graham somehow made flipping an omelet interesting. The local newspaper called it "perhaps the best live studio show to date." Kerr notes wryly that it was the station's second day on the air.

"Eggs with Kerr" became a regular. By 1965, having left the air force, he had been wooed to Australia. Suddenly he was a celebrity, catnip to women and increasingly on the move. He and an Australian wine-critic friend sold a publisher on the idea of flying around the world to sample cuisines, calling the book, "The Galloping Gourmet."

Failure had flamed into fame. But affairs, absences and pressures meant his marriage almost came apart.

The trophy wife would be the typical next step in this scenario, Graham leaving his childhood sweetheart behind. It didn't happen for reasons only the two of them truly understand, but certainly one factor was that Graham needed Treena — her ambition was driving his — and another was that while he lived the 1960s with "hedonism-in-a-hurry" panache, he was underneath it all the decent, earnestly nice guy he remains today. Their reconciliation was half emotional and half cold-headed professionalism, and when he got the chance to tape 650 "Galloping Gourmet" shows in Ottawa, Treena became the producer.

It was an exhilarating, exhausting opportunity that almost killed them. They worked every day, typically leaving for the studio at midmorning and not returning home until 11 p.m., seldom seeing what were now three children. They'd quarrel about production details in the car on the way home. They were an estranged couple locked together 24 hours a day.

And it worked. Marvelously.

"Personally, I consider cooking a tremendous bore," Treena says. "I think people learn by humor." So Graham was funny, on command. He entered by leaping a chair with a glass of wine in hand. He cooked in a suit of armor, or pantless with swim flippers, quipping with sexual innuendo. She'd hide ingredients to get him charmingly flummoxed on the air or pull stunts like sticking her bra in a hollow rolling pin where he usually stashed stuck recipes.

The show's organizers were horrified at the idea of a wife as the producer, but the pair insisted. "I told them if it fails, it's my fault, and if it succeeds, don't forget that was my fault, too," Treena recalls.

It succeeded in an era when there were only three or four TV channels and the idea of coupling cooking expertise with charm was revolutionary. Julia Child had one method of dotty entertainment, but it was Graham who was the first chef superstar. He was in Time, Newsweek, Life. They began to build a syndication empire.

Yet, he felt curiously disconnected. Celebrity, he said, "felt like standing on a pile of manure." He had the sense of his real self at the foot of a ladder looking up at his famous self many rungs above and wondering why he was up there.

• • •

FATE STRUCK AGAIN in 1971. The Kerrs were asleep in a motor home making a "Galloping Gourmet" tour of the United States when a vegetable truck plowed into them on a California highway. Graham was nearly paralyzed. Treena lost half a lung.

The accident, they say now, saved them from themselves. With years of unseen shows already in the can and money pouring in, Graham begged off more taping. On a doctor's advice he bought a sailboat in England and took the family aboard for what would be two years and 32,000 miles of recuperative sailing: the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the East Coast of the United States. It was joy for him — and misery for Treena.

"I complained to one of the crewmen about how saltwater seemed to keep splashing onto the logbook," Kerr remembers. "He informed me those were tears from my wife."

Hooked on painkillers from the accident, afraid of the sea and cramped from living aboard, Treena looked longingly at a shoreside mansion for sale when they temporarily went aground in shallow Chesapeake Bay. On a dare, Graham rowed ashore and bought it for her.

"When we got off the boat, she was a pickled mess," her son, Andrew, recalls.

Even nine acres and a mansion on the Chesapeake didn't plug the hole in their hearts. She was addicted. There were harrowing scenes of thrown pots and knives. Daughter Tessa, kept in boarding school, drew a diagram of how to wire their car to blow up, had an abortion and tried to kill herself three times. A doctor recommended that Treena be committed.

"What was it like when we were rich?" Tessa recalls. "It was horrible. I felt that TV had destroyed our family. (She won't watch it today, and doesn't like to cook.) Mom always wanted me to be a friend. I wanted a mom."

A housekeeper named Ruthie responded to Treena's curiosity and offered to take her to an evening meeting of her gospel church. It was Dec. 17, 1974. Tessa, home from school for Christmas, came along reluctantly, fed up with her mother's experimentation with gurus and "isms." She watched in embarrassment as her mother collapsed in ecstasy on the ground, babbling in tongues.

"Then I went to lean over to pick her up and it was like she was surrounded by a force field. It jolted me. I fell back on the pew and ran out of the church."

Treena was baptized in a pool of freezing water and came out glowing. That night she threw away her pills and slept soundly for the first time. Conversion to Jesus had changed her life.

Graham came home bewildered. The light had returned to Treena's eyes, he recalls. He was studying Eastern religions and initially didn't respond to his wife's conversion with more than cautious encouragement, but went to Las Vegas for a cooking show and felt utterly disconnected. Shortly afterward he found himself on his knees in an Ottawa hotel room, asking for a personal relationship with Christ. Hours went by without reply; then there was a flood of relaxation, clarity and vision.

• • •

"THE RADICAL CHANGE took us kids by surprise, but it was a very welcome surprise," recalls Andrew, who now works in a Christian ministry. "Up to then, Mom and Dad were always about themselves. We were there, but career was more important than anything else."

"Like everything else they did, they jumped into the deep end," Tessa says of her parents' conversion. But she, too, was converted within a year.

The Kerrs decided to give up most of what they'd worked so hard to attain. Gone was the boat. The house. Royalty agreements to "The Galloping Gourmet" worth approximately $4.75 million. Gone, too, was the tension, the notoriety, the long hours and the financial fussing. Awkwardly, they tried to become a true family.

"I never felt like I was a victim," Andrew now says. "They were doing the best they could. They had no role models from their own parents."

But they were still driven, this time by religion. Daughter Kareena, 12 years younger than Tessa, still found herself often living with other families as her parents experimented with ministry and lifestyle retreats in Colorado, Palm Springs, Hawaii, Oregon and Tacoma. Graham became an ordained Presbyterian minister. Money and time were donated toward missionary and aid work in Central America. They became allied with a Christian group called Youth With A Mission. As a where-is-he-now? celebrity, however, "The Galloping Gourmet" Kerr was a syndicated memory.

AFTER NINE YEARS, it was clear their lifestyle experiments weren't reforming the world. More ominously, they were not even saving themselves. At age 53, Treena suffered a stroke. Five months later came a heart attack; then diabetes.

The Galloping Gourmet decided he had been inadvertently poisoning his wife — and his audience — with food that was too rich. The guilt, the altruism, the sense of mission and the need for approval all clicked in once more. If Graham Kerr was not the world's most successful Christian leader, he darn well knew television. He began launching new programs and cookbooks focused on healthy eating. His goal since has been twofold: Find recipes of healthy food that taste as good as the naughty stuff, and promote intelligent consumer choices in restaurants and grocery stores.

While Graham and those who know him deny the rumor he is a recovering alcoholic — all that Galloping Gourmet wine slurping was mostly fake, he says — he rarely drinks anymore. Moderation is the couple's byword. Their new home is built as compactly as a boat: 71 feet long like their old sailboat.

In 1991, Graham hired Andrew from Eastside Foursquare Church in Bellevue to become his full-time assistant, a seven-year relationship that helped heal the wounds of a distant childhood. It also led Andy to respect what his mother had accomplished before. "I don't think anyone else could have managed Dad, because I tried, for seven years. For some reason, she could get him to do the things nobody else could. I don't think anybody else would have put up with Mom, either."

It might sound like Graham is as prickly in private as he is smooth in public, but the reverse is true. Graham tries hard for approval from everyone he works with. He's a genial host, a cook with a modest kitchen who insists guests come potluck so he won't be "on stage," a man who rarely meets anyone he doesn't like. He wants to do good. "His standards are very, very high," says John Fisher, academic director of the school of culinary arts at the Art Institute of Seattle. Fisher has been enlisted in Kerr's crusade against unhealthy cooking and calls him "an articulate perfectionist."

Jay Parik, executive producer for Kerr's "The Gathering Place," his new PBS show on healthy cooking (3:30 p.m. Saturdays on KCTS), says Kerr is a nice guy — "the antithesis of most of the television people we meet. He's sincere, he's a believer and the food tastes good."

But Graham also has the zeal of the converted and a suspicion of too much fat and carbohydrates. Parik remembers going out to lunch with Graham. "I was ravenous. The waitress brought a basket of bread. And Graham, turning up his nose, sent it away!" Michael Lienau, a Camano Island independent producer who worked with Kerr on a staggering 500 spots (each 90 seconds) for the National Cancer Institute, said the gourmet is not just the ultimate professional, but also a friend. Lienau has four children and adopted five orphans all at once; the Kerrs showed up with presents for everybody last Christmas.

Kerr is kind and generous, assistant Butler says. But he'll also be ready for a media event that requires leaving at 3 a.m. "As soon as the cameras come on, he's on. He's a pro."

Oh, yeah. He's a good cook, too. His squash soup? Delicious.

Still, television is a cruel mistress. Graham's youthful popularity can never be recaptured. And while he is an excellent communicator, using a mix of analogies and parables to get his points across, how do you yuk it up about cancer and heart disease? Is his dream of dual restaurant menus, one healthy and one regular, realistic? Can he get grocery chains to push local produce, to save the farms of the Skagit Valley? Or is preaching reform the very kind of thing that can get you crucified?

Stay tuned. Kerr is speaking and campaigning. And don't count out a couple who made an empire from "Eggs with Kerr." It's taken him two decades to find good-for-you substitutes that taste great. He might figure out a way to make it fun, too.

Or the next great television chef might do it for him. As his son says, "He and Julia opened up the door to cooking on TV. People have been running through it ever since."

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter.

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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