Many of us remember Graham Kerr from his very popular and entertaining television series The Galloping Gourmet, which first aired in 1969 and was eventually enjoyed by a worldwide audience. Kerr grew up in a hotel kitchen, the son of hoteliers in southern England. His journey from there, to becoming a household name on television and a bestselling author, and his later conversion to Christianity, is a fascinating one. Kerr’s latest book, “Flash of Silver: The Leap That Changed My World”, is part memoir and part inspirational reflections on how to live a resilient life.
Kerr’s wife Treena, an actress, poet and television producer, died in September 2015, just days before their 60th anniversary. We recently caught up with Graham Kerr, now 83, at his home in Washington state.
First, here are a few audio highlights from our conversation, with music by Kai Engel: 3:39
Kolbe Times: Tell us a bit about your early life, and how your interest in cooking began.
Graham Kerr: I was born in London, England in 1934, and after the end of WWII, when I was eleven years old, my parents went into the hotel business. Their first assignment was hotel management at the Dorset Arms Hotel in East Grinstead, Sussex. I had no siblings, and we lived on site at the hotel. My life was very different than my friends, because their parents worked all day and were home with them in the evenings. I ate supper early with my parents, who would then work long into the evening, past the time I was in bed. You know, I don’t ever remember having a family Christmas of any kind. Christmas was of course such a busy time at the hotel. That’s just what our lives were like. I was left to my own devices a lot, so I often ended up in the hotel kitchen, helping out. Even though I was so young, for the next few years I copied what I saw the kitchen staff doing, and I became quite adept at kitchen skills. You know how Beethoven was known for playing the piano at a young age? Well, I “played” the stove. It was quite laughable, really, but it was also early training for me in classical French cuisine.
Kolbe Times: Did you enjoy school as a child?
Graham Kerr: My early schooling was a very unhappy experience, but when we moved to Sussex after the war, I started attending Michael Hall, and that was completely different. It was a Steiner Waldorf school, based on the educational philosophy of Rudolph Steiner. It was like this wonderful extended creative family. There were no exams and no marks, and we played lots of sports…but no one ever kept score! Competition was absolutely absent. You did everything with the purpose of trying to do it well – there was never a question of eventually triumphing over somebody else. You know, I don’t think there’s any competition in heaven, either. I’m sensing that exact same situation now in my life. I just don’t feel like I’m being measured in any way, and it’s lovely. I think there’s an important message there for our current culture.
Kolbe Times: And it was at Michael Hall, in 1945, that you met Treena, who of course later became your wife.
Graham Kerr: Yes, she was in one class below mine, and I was just entranced by her. I tell the story in my book how we were playing badminton together, and I took a wild swipe at the shuttlecock and it landed in a rhododendron bush. She and I went to look for it, and it was under that beautiful flowering bush that our hands touched for the first time. And do you know, I’m now surrounded by about a million rhododendron blooms as we speak. I can see them out my window right now. Anyways, back to my younger days – Treena’s family quite suddenly moved away, and I lost track of her for a while.
Kolbe Times: And what happened after you left Michael Hall?
Graham Kerr: I had decided to pursue hotel management studies at college, so I “crammed” for an exam that would get me out of school, and at the very young age of 15 entered a two-year Hotel Management course at Brighton College. The course was supposed to teach you everything you needed to know about becoming a good hotel director, and that included knowing all about what went on in the kitchen. So there was a great deal of culinary work included for the students. When my parents were offered a new job in a hotel in what is now called the “English Riviera” in Torquay, Devonshire, I transferred to the nearby South Devon College. And it was in Devonshire where I started to sail. I’ve now done 32,000 miles under sail in my life.
I continued after that to work in my parents’ hotel, in a number of different roles. I remember one time I made a beautiful Crépes Suzette for a young couple, right at their table. But as I got close to my 18th birthday, my father reminded me that, like everyone else my age, I would soon be called up for National Service with the Armed Forces. He also knew that with my culinary training I would be assigned to the Army Catering Corp., and his own experience with food in the army was awful. He thought working in an army kitchen was a fate worse than death, so he encouraged me to train as a mechanic. But the Army decided, in their wisdom, that I was a potential officer. Eventually, against my father’s best advice, I applied for a commission in the Army Catering Corp., thinking that by ‘a fate worse than death’ he surely meant being a cook and not an officer. And I really thought – and this was rather silly of me – that maybe I could try and make a difference in the quality and service of Army food.
Well, guess what? My first assignment was to the ‘pan wash’, which meant scrubbing and scraping enormous saucepans all day, a fate beyond anything worse than death! But after a while I was asked to help the cooks prepare for a party in the Officer’s Mess, and things started looking up. Before long I became an Officer in the Army Catering Corp., and I began to innovate with the Food Services. In fact, I introduced self-service in the British Army – a modified à la carte menu along with different main dishes. I’m happy to say that it was very well received, so in the end I did make a difference!
You know, from my very early experiences of serving at tableside, as when I lovingly made Crépes Suzette for that young couple, I realized that people have needs, and if I have the skills to serve them, then that’s what I should do. I think God loves to see us doing our best to be of service to others with the gifts that He’s given us.
Kolbe Times: And in the meantime, you reconnected with Treena.
Graham Kerr: Yes, very happily so. I saw a photo of her in the Daily Mirror newspaper. She had won a contest called “Miss Jersey Battle of the Flowers”. Her prize was an audition with a film company. Anyways, it was amazing! I couldn’t believe it when I saw that picture of her, and what’s even more amazing is that I wrote a letter to the Daily Mirror, asking if they could help me get in contact with her – and they passed my letter on to her. To make a long story short, we were married on Sept. 22, 1955 at a very old church called St. Mildred’s in Tenterden in Kent, where my parents had a hotel called The Woolpack Inn.
Kolbe Times: And in 1957 you left the British Army, and you and Treena started working at the hotel as well, handling the food side of things.
Graham Kerr: Yes, and by that time we had our first daughter. We lived at the hotel and we worked very hard. But then the Woolpack Inn had to be sold, and my parents were engaged to take over the running of the quite famous Royal Ascot Hotel. Treena and I came along to work there as well. It was a “package deal”. And later, when my parents were offered management of another prestigious small hotel, I was given the opportunity to take up management of the Royal Ascot.
I didn’t have to climb up the rungs of the ladder that people normally would – here I was, quite suddenly, the general manager of a hotel. People who land in that kind of situation almost always are very insecure, and so what happens is you make up what you know you don’t know by working harder. And it was while I was focused on working so hard and making a success of it that Treena, in the seventh month of her pregnancy, lost our second child. It was awful, and it was so hard on my darling Treena. We then walked out of that life to try and find a house or an apartment where we could shut the door at night and be a family. That’s what I wanted so much. It was something I’d always wanted, even as a child.
Kolbe Times: Then in 1958 an opportunity came which started a whole new chapter in your lives.
Graham Kerr: Yes, I was offered the position of Chief Catering Advisor for the Royal New Zealand Air Force. My life has been a constant journey of being tied down tightly, and then being released. You know, Scripture speaks in Isaiah about a bird set free from the hand of a fowler. So there’s that sort of sense of being contained, restricted, and then suddenly released – and that’s been a thread throughout my life. It also says in Isaiah 30: “In repentance and rest you shall be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it. You said, ‘No, we will ride off on swift horses.’ Therefore those that follow you will have swift horses.” It was saying to the nation of Israel at that time, “Look, be repentant for what you have done, and be restful about this – in other words, wait upon Me. Have confidence in Me.” I have never been able to do that. I have always been off on swift horses.
And I did just that when I took that position as Chief Catering Advisor with the New Zealand Air Force, and went ahead to New Zealand by myself. For six months Treena was on her own with our child in England. That was wrong.
Kolbe Times: When Treena eventually joined you in New Zealand, she got into acting in radio dramas there.
Graham Kerr: Yes, and she did so well. She had a love for acting, on the stage also, and before our marriage had done very well with the Jersey Repertory Company, but I was too insecure to allow that to continue in the early days of our marriage. I didn’t think I would be able to compete with the love of the audience, and Treena’s own love for the “roar of the crowd”. I misjudged her completely, but that insecurity had been buried in my heart for a very long time. When we have a persistent sense of a lack of trust in someone’s love – even someone who loves us dearly – we need to excavate that with the help of a professional and dig it out, because I don’t think it does anyone any good.
Kolbe Times: With Treena’s connections, you did a program on the radio in New Zealand, too.
Graham Kerr: Yes, it was called “A Cook’s Tour”, and it was awful. I swore when I left the studio after that first day of recording that I would never ever be in public media again. Isn’t that funny?
Kolbe Times: And that was the time when TV was just at its early beginnings in New Zealand, in the early 1960s, wasn’t it?
Graham Kerr: Yes. I was asked to be a guest on a very early TV talk show, on behalf of the Air Force. I didn’t want to do it, but the fellow who was supposed to go sprained his ankle. So I showed up, in uniform, and made an omelet. The episode got a very good review the next day, to my great surprise, and that led eventually to doing my own TV show. It was called, believe it or not, “Eggs with Flight Lieutenant Kerr”, and later the name was changed to “Entertaining with Kerr”. That’s when, after watching one particularly slow-moving episode, Treena called me the ‘most boring man in the world.’ I responded, with what turned out to be great wisdom, “Well, if you’re so clever, why don’t you produce the show?” And so she did. I only became a success because of the amazing acuity that she brought to that role of producer.
Kolbe Times: That’s when you also began writing cookbooks, too.
Graham Kerr: Yes, 1962 and 1963 were my first cookbooks: Entertaining with Kerr, and then The Graham Kerr Cookbook. I still love that book. I so much wanted to serve people, and encourage them to have dinner parties at home, and enjoy each other and celebrate. I felt that was really important.
Kolbe Times: And then you were asked to take your TV show to Australia.
Graham Kerr: Yes, and I was stunned when I got that phone call. You know, that was my second experience of being put up on the top of a ladder without climbing the rungs first. I was taken from little old New Zealand, with its farming communities, and hung out to dry in Sydney, a very cosmopolitan, international city. The show was immediately successful.
I have often said that if you’re climbing up a ladder, it’s best if your character climbs with you. In other words, you’d be able to look your character in the eye every day and ask, “What are my values? How far will I climb? Will my values have to be left behind, or can my values go with me?” I left my character at the bottom of the ladder – and I had to do things that I would never, ever have done otherwise. I did a commercial for Nestle, adding some of my own ingredients to one of their Maggi powder mixes, and pouring it over a steak as a sauce. I found it frightening to have to handle things like that and say good things about them, just in order to be on television – and that’s what you have to do. I didn’t want to make those compromises, but I did.
Kolbe Times: Treena ended up doing more radio drama roles in Australia, starring in “The Life of George Sand”, and then was in a TV series called “Hunter”.
Graham Kerr: Yes, she did extremely well in all those roles, too – and that added to my insecurity, I’m afraid. Outwardly we seemed successful, but things were hugely difficult between us, and at that time in our lives we didn’t have the tools we needed to repair our relationship. I tried to get her to love me again by doing what I did on TV really, really well. She told me that my show was an A+ program, and that was as close as I got to feeling loved – it was only a grade, and getting the good grades doesn’t really fill the need we have in our hearts. Throughout those days and even my Galloping Gourmet days, I was like that bird held tightly in the hands of a fowler in Isaiah, that we talked about earlier. All I could do was squawk. I squawked well, and I was successful.
Kolbe Times: But that show in Australia led to another phone call in 1968, when you were asked to come to Ottawa to make a pilot for a cooking show for an American television company called Fremantle International.
Graham Kerr: And you know, when we went to Ottawa, and heard that they wanted us to do 195 shows a year, we knew we couldn’t do it – it was physically impossible! And yet we did it. But it turned out, in our case, that we couldn’t do everything we were doing and parent our children well. With Treena as the producer of the show, we were both just too busy. Our children suffered for that. We had two children by that time, and our third was born in 1968.
Kolbe Times: But your show, which you called “The Galloping Gourmet”, was a huge success, very widely distributed, with a worldwide audience of over two hundred million. So many people have great memories of watching that show. There was always lots of butter and cream and wine – and lots of laughter.
Graham Kerr: Treena always said that if you want to teach people anything, you must first of all entertain them. So I set out to be entertaining! The fact that people have such warm memories of The Galloping Gourmet program is really delightful to me, and I’m grateful for that. So I certainly don’t want to trash what we did – I think it was ‘en route’ to where God was taking us.
We also filmed around the world, learning to cook specific cultural dishes and filming bits on location in restaurants in many different countries. We were definitely swift horses at that stage! And in 1971 we decided to do some filming on location around the United States, travelling in a Winnebago with a driver, pulling a film trailer. Then one night, on the road in California, a big truck plowed into the back of us. It was a very serious accident, and that, essentially, was the end of The Galloping Gourmet show. Looking back, I think God allowed that accident in order to save us from imploding on our own.
After we’d recovered from the accident, which took a while, we had a 71 foot yacht built, which I named TREENA. We spent two years at sea, and covered 24,000 miles. I discovered that sailing and rich foods were not very compatible, which led us to overhaul our ideas of healthy living and eating wholesome food in our lives. I came to understand that food needed to be nourishing as well as delightful, and I wanted so much when I got back on dry land to tell people about what we were learning! When you take food to the extent I was taking it on the Galloping Gourmet show, it ceases to be food and becomes a form of idolatry. I was often called “The High Priest of Hedonism” during my years on the show.
Kolbe Times: That must have been an incredible two years, sailing all over the world.
Graham Kerr: It really was. The joy of keeping my family safe in that extraordinary vessel is one of my greatest personal achievements. We ended up by sailing into Chesapeake Bay, in Maryland, on the east coast. We just loved the area, and we bought a lovely house – a mansion, really – for a very good price. It suited my personality down to the ground.
But I still had this desire to teach and share my new ideas about cooking. We started making four-minute shows called “Take Kerr”. I tried to pack each short episode with enthusiasm and information, and it worked well. The episodes were placed in magazine-style shows on many local stations, and it was eventually picked up by CNN. I also was given the opportunity to teach at Cornell University’s Hotel School and the Cornell School of Human Ecology, both in Ithaca, New York, and also at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York. I absolutely loved being with the students. I still do! I’m now on the board of a Christian Culinary Academy in Cannon Beach, Oregon. They do splendid work there, and they turn out really great young professionals.
And it was also in that house on Chesapeake Bay where we came to know the Lord. So it was an amazing place because of that.
Kolbe Times: Tell us about how that came about.
Graham Kerr: Treena had become addicted to painkillers after the accident in California, and was now medicated up to her eyebrows with many unwise medications. The story of how she was relieved of all that overnight was truly the biggest single miracle of our lives. A young Christian woman named Ruthie arrived on our doorstop one day, wanting work so she could save up money to go and serve her “brothers and sisters in Haiti”. We hired her, since Treena was having trouble coping with all the household chores, and I was away so much, making “Take Kerr” episodes and teaching. Well, Ruthie and Treena became very close, and one day Ruthie asked Treena if she had ever thought of being baptized. They went together to Ruthie’s little church in Bethlehem, Maryland, and that’s where Treena was set free. It sounds extraordinary, but she threw all her medications down the loo that very night, and the next day was completely free of her addictions.
We honestly all were blown away by the effect that this new life had on Treena – she climbed out of the abyss she was in and kept going uphill, and it led to myself and all three of our children eventually coming to know the Lord as well – rather like the conversion of Paul’s jailer and all his family in Scripture!
Kolbe Times: That’s such an amazing story. And I’m sure it led you down some new paths.
Graham Kerr: Oh yes. For one thing – about the Galloping Gourmet thing – eventually everything I worked for, I gave away. And we gave it away, I think, in a way that honours God. That was an opportunity and we took it.
Our son later joined a Christian organization called Youth With A Mission (YWAM), and we decided to get involved, too. I think it was the fact that we wanted so much to understand what God was wanting for us, and I was very concerned that, left on our own, we might go down some rabbit trails. We joined YWAM so we could know God, and make Him known.
We loved every moment of our time with YWAM. It was a very important part of our lives. It was our nine-year “missionary season”. But in 1987 Treena had a heart attack and a stroke, while we were at a YWAM Leadership Training School.
Kolbe Times: That must have been quite a scare.
Graham Kerr: Yes, indeed. And we had another health scare, when Treena had a second heart attack and triple bypass surgery in 2005. By that time we were living in the beautiful state of Washington, in a living space we designed ourselves. We named it ‘Nonsuch Cottage’, and it had an extraordinary view of the Skagit Valley. The design was based on what we had learned about storage space ideas while living on the sea in our 71 ft. TREENA, and it was about the same square footage. Treena loved that house, and we were very happy there…but I’m not happy there without her. So, it’s for sale now, as we speak.
I just moved into this new place, in community with about 360 other people. We’re surrounded by the beauty of nature. It’s so lovely here. I have my own small, private space, and it’s perfectly fine for me. I told the Lord that I really needed to be pruned. My tree is too big, and the fruit is too large and doesn’t taste as good as it should. So I told the Lord that if he could prune me and get some better fruit out of me, I would be very grateful.
I realized that God was leading me to do some small things well. And one place that has led me is to gardening. You know, I always used to say that I’ve never met a plant that I couldn’t kill. But I’ve come to understand that people need plants, and plants need people.
Kolbe Times: That’s really interesting. Since moving to Washington, you became involved, with others, in creating local church community gardens, and also designing your own greenhouse and garden space at Nonsuch Cottage.
Graham Kerr: Yes, and it’s all been delightful. I remember when I first planted some basil seeds in the greenhouse, and for six days, I kept “visiting” them. Nothing. Not a sprout. I started to despair – but then on the seventh day I opened the door and there they were! A lovely long line of tiny green leaves. I was so happy that I said aloud, “Good morning, everyone!” I immediately clapped my hand over my mouth, in embarrassment! But I think the whole gardening adventure has helped me see that we are all somehow connected.
I wrote a book about the same time, called Growing at the Speed of Life. It covered my first year in my garden, and in it I explored what it meant to slow down to match the way nature unfolds.
Kolbe Times: Tell us about your relationship with food now.
Graham Kerr: Well, you know, our experiences as a family living on the boat together for two years, and after Treena’s health issues, I desperately wanted to find a way to cook and eat in a more natural, less risky manner. And at first I went overboard in that direction, I admit! I’ll never forget one infamous day when Treena was making bologna sandwiches for a box lunch for our son Andy. Well, I sternly declared that she wasn’t going to put that in our son’s sandwiches…which elicited quite a response! She flung the entire package of bologna, one piece at a time, in my general direction – and using her impressive stage voice, screamed, “There is NOTHING left in this world to eat…nothing, nothing, nothing!”
But I believe we finally found a good balance that took into account our well-being and our enjoyment. “Taste, aroma, colour, texture” – those four words guided us and best described what we loved about the foods we ate.
Kolbe Times: What kind of things are you up to these days in your new community?
Graham Kerr: I’m still cooking and gardening, but now I cook for one. I don’t have Treena to look after anymore, but the ripple has widened. I want to see how I can serve others, here in this community and elsewhere. And I’m mulling around an idea for another book I’d like to write. I also see that so many of the people who have retired here in this community have sown God-given seeds in their lives, but they didn’t fall into fertile soil. So I have an idea that perhaps we could write these ideas down and look at them together. Perhaps as a group we could create a little “conservatory of creative lifestyles”. If the idea can become a fruit-bearing plant, then it might be something we can offer to the world. Even if the seeds don’t germinate in our time, maybe others can carry them forward to fruition. I’m quite excited about the idea.
I was reflecting the other day that I now live in the company of many doorkeepers. We are people who are all very close to putting our hands on the door and walking into eternity. I do not see the word “exit” anywhere – I see the word “entry”. I want so much to embrace life whilst it is still here, and also to imagine eternity, and to use the gift of imagination, which is a God gift. I’m in a place here where I can reflect on these things. The line that comes to mind that describes this lovely community is this: “In honour, preferring the other.”
Kolbe Times: That sounds very lovely. Thank you so much for sharing your stories and your wonderful reflections with us.
Graham Kerr: It’s been a great delight for me as well. Thank you for asking me!
Visit Graham Kerr’s website for all his latest news, projects and blog posts.
Graham’s Favourite Brunch
I tablespoon olive oil
4 spicy black bean burgers (Morningstar Farms, made for Costco, Chipotle Black Bean Burger is my personal favorite for this meal)
1 oz butter
1 ½ cups of Eggbeaters - Southwestern Style
4 large fresh eggs
4 slices low fat cheese singles
Garnish: parsley, finely chopped
Heat oil in skillet to medium
Add burgers and sauté both sides for about two minutes each; surface should be just crisped
Combine fresh eggs with Eggbeaters, stir well
Melt butter on medium high, add eggs and stir until just scrambled
Dish up the burger
Top with the scrambled eggs
Place cheese slice on top and dust with smoked paprika and parsley
Can be served with a lightly dressed salad of fresh seasonal greens.