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Getting just the right voices for “Hunchback”‘s Gargoyles proved to be a pretty gruesome go

Yep. We’re raiding the JHM archives again. This time around, it’s a story from April 2000 that details all the trouble Disney Feature Animation had when it was casting Victor, Hugo, and Laverne … or should I say Chaney, Laughton, and Quinn?

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How tough can it be to do the voicework for the comic relief in a Disney animated film?

I mean, what do you do? You show up at the studio, schmooze with the director, say a few jokes, take an hour for lunch, do a few more jokes, break for tea, do another couple of jokes, then — ooops — it’s time to go home. The hardest part of the job would seem to be that long walk out to the mailbox, where you have to pick up that oversized check.

At least that’s what people seem to think happens when actors are hired to do voices for Disney films. The reality of the job is considerably different — particularly when you’re working on a film that’s in trouble.

Think of poor Cyndi Lauper. All her life, this colorful pop star had wanted to be in an animated film for Disney. Whenever she went to one of the studio’s film openings or attended a Disneyland press event with her family, Lauper would badger company executives, repeatedly telling them “I want to do a cartoon with you guys.” The executives all assured Cyndi that they knew about her interest. They promised Lauper that — once the right project came along — she would be the first person that the Mouse would call.

Cyndi pestered the Mouse for years until in late 1993, that phone call she’d been waiting for finally came. Disney was just beginning development of a musical cartoon version of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The folks over at Feature Animation were wondering whether Lauper would be interesting in being a part of the project.

Would she? Lauper practically flew over to Burbank, so eager was she to find out what the Mouse had in store for her. On the drive over, Cyndi wondered: “They couldn’t be thinking of me for the voice of Esmerelda … could they?”

Ah … actually, no. Disney wanted Lauper to audition to be the voice of one of Quasimodo’s made-of-stone friends: Quinn, a gargoyle.

Cyndi was somewhat taken aback by this request. I mean, she knew that her voice and her looks were … somewhat unconventional. But to be considered the perfect person to portray an ugly stone statue didn’t seem like much of a compliment to Lauper.

But Cyndi — who still dreamed of achieved screen immortality as a character in a Disney animated film — shrugged off the perceived insult and threw herself into the audition process. She did a reading with Disney’s casting department, then met with the film’s directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. They liked the energy and humor Lauper brought to the part. A week later, Cyndi was hired.

Now keep in mind that Ms. Lauper was brought on board fairly early during “Hunchaback”‘s production. Tom Hulce, Demi Moore and Kevin Kline hadn’t even been hired at this point. At the time, Wise and Trousdale still weren’t quite sure how they were doing with the film. Given how serious the original Victor Hugo novel was, they knew that a new film version would need considerable comic relief — particularly if they wanted to make the project palatable to modern audiences. But what sort of jokes should they do to lighten this somber story? And where?

Wise and Trousdale felt that one of the keys to making “Hunchback” work as animation was to give Quasimodo some silly sidekicks. These characters would have to serve two purposes: 1) Give the Hunchback someone to talk with and confide in while he was locked away in his bell tower, and — more importantly — 2) Make Quasimodo seem more lovable. A person with loyal, funny sidekicks has got to be lovable, right?
Hoping to find the right ingredients, the “Hunchback” development team spent a few months tossing around sidekick ideas for the hunchback. One concept was to have Quasi befriended all of the birds that lived up in the rafters of the cathedral with him. Just like in Cinderella, his little feathered friends would have helped the hunchback through his day — doing little chores for him, cheering him up, cheering him on. You get the idea.

But — because this same bird friend idea had already been so thoroughly played out in Disney’s 1950 animated feature, “Cinderella” — Wise and Trousdale opted not to go forward with this story idea (though you can still see a hint of this character development in Quasi’s interaction with the fledgling pigeon at the beginning of the film).

Then the directors toyed with the idea of having Quasi actually be friends with the bells in the tower; this was something that Hugo himself had touched on in the original novel. He had the hunchback name many of the bells in the belfry — little Sophia, Jean Marie, Anne Marie, Louise Marie and Big Marie — as well as converse with the bells. So it didn’t seem like too much of a leap for the filmmakers to have the bells talking back to Quasi.

But — again — Wise and Trousdale weren’t all that anxious to repeat something that had already been in done in a Disney film. As the directors of “Beauty and the Beast,” these guys had already made a candelabra, a mantleclock, and a teapot talk. So turning a 10 ton bell into Quasi’s close intimate friend didn’t seem like that much of a challenge to them.

So that left the gargoyles — those strange stone statues that lined the parapets of Notre Dame. Wise and Trousdale liked the idea of giving Quasi some misfit gargoyles — statues so ugly that the stonemason didn’t dare put them out on display — to hang out with. The directors and their “Hunchback” development team knocked around a few ideas and came away with some unique names and personalities for these proposed gargoyle characters. They were:

Chaney: the big fat stupid one. Think of Pumbaa, only carved in stone.
Laughton: the haughty, stiff, proper one. A Felix Ungar frieze.
Quinn: the young, kind-hearted nurturing one. (This was the character Disney had hired Lauper to do the voice for.)

Okay … I know. You’re probably already saying to yourself: “But Jim. Those aren’t the names I remember from Disney’s animated ‘Hunchback’ movie. Weren’t the gargoyles called Victor, Hugo and Laverne?”

Yes they were … eventually.

But — when Disney’s “Hunchback” project started out — Kirk and Trousdale wanted to call the movie’s gargoyle characters Chaney, Laughton, and Quinn. Why? Well, if things had worked out the way Kirk and Gary had intended, these character’s names would have made a great in-joke as well as paid tribute to three great actors who already had strong ties to this story.

How so? Well, Lon Chaney starred in the first version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a silent movie Universal Studio produced in 1923. Charles Laughton appeared in the first sound version of “Hunchback,” a black and white film that RKO Studios produced in 1939. And Anthony Quinn made the first color film version of “Hunchback,” which Allied Artists released in 1957.

Chaney. Laughton. Quinn. Get it now?

Wise and Trousdale thought that — by using these names — they’d come up with a really clever way to pay tribute to these actors who had already done such a superb job portraying Victor Hugo’s tragic hero. Unfortunately, Disney’s legal department thought otherwise.

The Mouse’s lawyers were worried that Chaney and Laughton’s heirs might be offended by this gesture and decide to sue the studio. They were particularly concerned about Anthony Quinn — who is very much alive and had a reputation for suing folks at the drop of a hat — coming after the company with an army of attorneys.

So Disney’s lawyers told the “Hunchback” development team that there was no way that they’d be allowed to name their gargoyle characters after any actors — living or dead. But Kirk and Trousdale were really reluctant to give up on this gag / tribute. So, for a short time, the “Hunchback” gargoyle characters were called Lon, Charles and Anthony. Surely Disney’s legal department wouldn’t have a problem if the development team named the characters by using only the first names of the actors who’d played Quasimodo?

They could. They did. Disney’s legal department said “No” again. Which left the production team with three gargoyles to name.

The Victor and Hugo idea came very quickly. After all, the names paid tribute to the author of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” More to the point, he was a dead guy — so Hugo wasn’t around to try and sue Disney. The legal department LOVED this idea.

But what to call that third gargoyle? Wise and Trousdale pondered over this one for a while. As written, the character was a female as well as being a member of a trio. The name they came up with had to fit the character. More importantly, it had to be funny.

Finally, Kirk was the one who came up with the solution. He recalled the Andrew Sisters, a legendary musical trio from the 1940s — best known for their performance of the “Boogy Woogy Bugle Boy of Company B.”

And what were the sisters’ names? Patty, Maxine and Laverne. Laverne seemed like the funniest name of the three, so that’s how Cyndi Lauper’s character became known as Laverne.

Only now … it wasn’t so certain that Lauper’s character was going to stay Lauper’s character. Cyndi was doing wonderful work in her recording sessions. Good, clear, sharp professional stuff. The problem was that the script — as originally written — wasn’t working. The way Lauper was portraying the character of Laverne sounded like a contemporary of Quasimodo. Someone his own age, who understood his need to get out of the bell tower and explore that great, big world “Out There.”

The trouble was that Cyndi’s youthful voice sounded too youthful. Instead of coming across as a friend who was offering Quasi wise counsel, this earlier version of Laverne sounded like some young kid urging Quasimodo to bust out of the belfry and go party. Take a walk on the wild side. Which was not how Wise and Trousdale wanted Laverne to sound, because — in the original version of the script — this was the sort of stuff Hugo was telling Quasi.

As you might have guessed, Wise and Trousdale were having script trouble with their short fat gargoyle too. They had hired veteran sitcom performer Sam McMurray — best known for his work on “The Tracey Ullman Show” — to voice Hugo. And Sam was doing a great job with Hugo as the character was written then: sort of a stone version of John Belushi’s Bluto character from the 1978 comedy, “Animal House.” A big gross funny guy.

But perhaps too gross. As test versions of Disney’s “Hunchback” were assembled — using images off of the pre-production storyboards as well as audio from those early recording sessions — it became obvious that the gargoyle trio just wasn’t jelling. Charles Kimbrough’s work as Victor seemed right on the money. Kimbrough gave his gargoyle character the same prissy air he brought to his stuffy newscaster character, Jim Dial, on the CBS sitcom, “Murphy Brown.” This was exactly what Wise and Trousdale wanted. But there was something obviously wrong with Hugo and Laverne.

So the “Hunchback” development team reworked the script, then called Lauper and McMurray back to do some additional recording sessions. When the tapes from these sessions didn’t work out either, Kirk and Gary made another stab at fixing the script, then called Cyndi and Sam back in again to have another stab at the material.

When the tapes from these sessions fell flat as well, Wise and Trousdale had to face facts. The problem wasn’t the material. They’d just hired the wrong actors to perform their script.

It was now obvious that Lauper and McMurray needed to be replaced. While nobody likes to make phone calls like this, Gary and Kirk personally called Cyndi and Sam to let them know that they were off the project. Wise and Trousdale apologized profusely, explaining to Lauper and McMurray that they’d both done fine work. It was just that the characters of Laverne and Hugo — as originally written — weren’t working. Disney wanted to see if getting a fresh start on the characters, bringing in some new actors to portray these parts, might be able to get “Hunchback” back on track.

McMurray took this sad bit of news stoically, like the industry veteran that he is. But Lauper was heartbroken. She had pursued a part in a Disney animated film for nearly a decade. And Cyndi had been on board “Hunchback” almost from the project’s inception — long before Hulce, Moore, or Kline had been hired. Now she was out of the movie. Her dream job gone. Needless to say, Lauper took her dismissal very badly.

Wise and Trousdale felt awful about dashing Cyndi’s hopes for animation immortality. But they also had a film that was in production that was in serious trouble. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made. So they put the memory of Lauper’s tears behind them and tried to figure out how to fix Hugo and Laverne.

Based on the early test footage, it was fairly obvious that one of Wise and Trousdale’s biggest problems is that they’d just gone too far with Hugo. The fat obnoxious gargoyle was just coming across as too gross for audiences to warm up to. When recasting Hugo, Gary and Kirk needed to find someone who was gifted at playing annoying but amusing characters that still managed to hold audience’s sympathies. But who had talent enough to pull that amazing feat off?

Luckily, they didn’t have to look much further than the “Must See TV” line-up Thursday nights on NBC. There was Jason Alexander — playing his heart out as the neurotic but still somewhat loveable George Costanzo on “Seinfeld.” Here clearly was the man who could pull off Hugo, having already walked that thin line between amusing and annoying for five seasons of television.

When Alexander got the call to come out to Burbank and audition, he was thrilled. Just like Cyndi, Jason had been trying for years to land a part in a Disney animated film. Previously, he had tried out for the roles of Lefou and Cogsworth in “Beauty and the Beast” as well as Timon and Pumbaa in “The Lion King.” But the closest that Alexander had come to making his toon dreams come true was landing the role of the comic villain, Abis Mal, in the 1994 direct-to-video sequel to “Aladdin,” “The Return of Jafar.”

But here … finally … was his big break. So Jason zoomed over to Disney Feature Animation and wowed Wise and Trousdale with his audition. Alexander immediately got Hugo, figuring out — almost instinctively — how far he could take the character without making him too obnoxious. With Jason voicing this grubby little gargoyle, Hugo finally worked. Funny but feisty, Alexander’s gargoyle contrasted beautifully with Kimbrough’s tight, prissy portrayal of Victor. These two characters could now be counted on to produce huge laughs for the movie.

So now what do Gary and Kirk do with Laverne?

It should be noted here that — at this point in the production — Wise and Trousdale were under tremendous pressure to cut the third gargoyle out of the picture. Given how well Victor and Hugo were now working, Laverne suddenly seemed unnecessary. A third wheel, if you will. Dropping that character would have saved the film a lot of money, as well as freeing up a lot more screen time for the two other gargoyles to cavort.

But Gary and Kirk felt Laverne was crucial to the film. Hugo kept urging Quasi to take a chance, go for the gusto. Victor was the voice of prudence and caution. Wise and Trousdale knew that their lead character needed someone in the middle, someone with the common touch who’d tell Quasi just to listen to his heart.

So “Hunchback” Head of Story Will Finn took a stab at rethinking Laverne. Working with Trousdale, they re-imagined the female gargoyle not so much as a nurturing contemporary of Quasi but as a wise if somewhat crazy old grandmother. “The sort of woman who had a million cats and sat out on her front porch, cradling a shotgun” was how Gary liked to describe her.

This new version of Laverne looked to be just what Wise and Trousdale were looking for. Still funny, but obviously different enough from Victor and Hugo. Plus this rethink of the character — playing her as more of a favorite old aunt of Quasi — allowed Laverne to deliver that common sense advice that the lonely young hunchback so desperately needed to hear.

Having finally fixed this troubled character, Gary and Kirk were saddled with an even bigger problem: Who do they find to portray this cranky but kind-hearted old gargoyle?

It was just about this time that the sequel to Disney’s 1992 hit, “Sister Act” — “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” — was hitting theaters. And there in a supporting role as feisty old Sister Mary Lazarus was veteran character actress Mary Wickes.

If ever you could call someone an old show business trouper, it was Mary Wickes. Her career started ‘way back in the 1940s, when Wickes played second banana to Abbott and Costello in their 1941 Universal Studios comedy, “Hold that Ghost.” For the next five decades, Wickes never stopped working. She did TV with Lucille Ball, sketch comedy with Bob Hope, movie musicals with Bing Crosby, Broadway, commercials. You name it. Mary Wickes did it.

As soon as Disney Feature Animation’s casting office pointed out Wickes to Wise and Trousdale, they knew that this might finally be the person who could pull off Laverne. Wickes’ reedy mid-western voice along with her crack comic timing might just be the combination Gary and Kirk were looking for to make their third gargoyle work.

Wickes came in for her audition in early 1993. While basically a novice at feature animation, having a little voice work for TV animation in the early 1990s, Mary still nailed the part. Wickes brought to Laverne everything Wise and Trousdale had hoped she would: the humor, the heart, as well as a real sense of wisdom.

As soon as they heard Wickes’ audition tape, Gary and Kirk offered her the part. Being the old show business hand that she was, Mary was happy to just to be working. In spite of being well over 80 years old at the time, Wickes never let her age slow her down. Mary was on time to every session and gave 100% every time she was behind the mike.

Now with Alexander and Wickes on board, the gargoyle scenes in “Hunchback” finally started firing on all four cylinders. Here was the humor and the heart that Wise and Trousdale had been looking for all those months. Finally these early crucial scenes in the film — where Quasi revealed his longing to leave the bell tower and journey “Out There” into the world — began to play properly.

In fact, the Victor, Hugo and Laverne sequences began working so well that — late in production, as “Hunchback” hit a trouble spot — Wise and Trousdale turned to the gargoyles to help bail them out.

Okay. Remember the film? The trouble spot comes up well into the third act of the film. Frollo is burning down Paris in his desperate search for Esmerelda. Phoebus has been shot in the back with an arrow for defying an order from the crazed cleric. Esmerelda ends up rescuing the wounded soldier from a watery grave. Meanwhile, Quasi sit high in his belltower, wringing his hands as he rings his bells, wondering if he’ll ever see the beautiful gypsy girl alive again.

Sounds kind of depressing, doesn’t it?

If ever a film needed to be lightened up for a while, it was Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” at this particular point in the plot. So Wise and Trousdale turned their gaze back on their comic relief and thought: “Maybe it’s time to give these guys a song.”

So they asked composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwarz to come up with a comic number for the gargoyles to sing to Quasi, as they tried to buck up their pal’s spirits as well as distract him — at least for a moment — away from his concerns for Esmerelda’s safety. Schwarz then came up with the idea that — in Hugo, Victor and Laverne’s eyes — the hunchback was a pretty fine looking fellow.

Out of that notion came the showstopper, “A Guy Like You,” one of the wildest, funniest numbers ever to be presented in a Disney animated film. Not since Ward Kimball’s eye-popping work in the title tune from the studio’s 1944 “The Three Caballeros” has a musical number featured so many gags. That song did just what it was supposed to: diverted Quasi’s attention — as well as the audience’s — from all the troubles in the film for a few minutes.

This song made the movie all the more heart wrenching when Esmerelda showed up — just moments later — with the injured Phoebus in tow. As the gypsy girl revealed her love for the wounded soldier, our hearts immediately went out to Quasimodo. Just seconds earlier, his friends had been assuring the hunchback that Esmerelda had to love him. Now here was the truth, slapping him in the face. It was brutal but still masterful storytelling by Wise and Trousdale. You’d have to had a heart of stone to not have been moved by that scene.

Sadly, “A Guy Like You” would turn out to be the very last thing Mary Wickes worked on. In October 1995, just weeks after recording the song, Wickes passed away quietly in her sleep.

Wickes’ death saddened the “Hunchback” production team, but also left them with a bit of a problem. Prior to her untimely passing, Mary had recorded almost everything that Disney needed to finish the film. But there were still a few additional pick-up lines Wise and Trousdale needed recorded to finish up Laverne’s speaking part as well as a couple of lines from “A Guy Like You” that the directors wanted smoothed over. But — with Wickes gone — how were they ever going to get this additional dialogue recorded?

Since there was obviously no way to replace a talent like Mary Wickes, Disney began searching for a Mary Wickes sound-alike. Happily, the Mouse found one in former child star Jane Withers. Withers — best known these days for her work as Josephine the Plumber, the spokesperson for Comet Cleanser — is a gifted mimic. More to the point, she was a lifelong friend of Mary Wickes. So she could do a killer impression of Wickes’ reedy twang without even trying.

Withers was glad to help Disney out of its predicament, both for the opportunity to work as well as sort of pay tribute to her longtime friend. Jane came in quietly and quickly recorded the few little snippets of things Wise and Trousdale needed to finish up Laverne’s role in “Hunchback.” Withers was so good at doing Wickes that it’s damn near impossible to tell which actress did which part in the movie.

With that … the gargoyle portions of “Hunchback” were completed. The finished film was released in the summer of 1996. While not a huge hit like “The Lion King,” Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” got respectful reviews and did okay at the box office.

But one guy really fell in love with this movie: Disney chairman Michael Eisner. “Hunchback” is — hands down — Eisner’s favorite film among all the animated cartoons that Disney Studio has created in the 15 years he’s been running the company. Michael liked this movie so much that he asked Disney Theatrical Production to create a stage version of the show.

Under the direction of noted Broadway playwright / director James Lapine, a stage version of Disney’s “Hunchback” was produced last year. But not in New York. Instead, this live stage version of the movie musical had its world premiere in the summer of 1999 in Berlin. (Why Berlin? Because — of all the countries in all the world — the one place where Disney’s animated version of “Hunchback” was a true blockbuster at the box office was Germany. So — when it came time to roll out the live stage version of the show — Berlin seemed like the obvious place to go.)

The live stage version of Disney’s “Der Glockner Von Notre Dame” proved to be very popular with German audiences. It played to mostly sold out houses at the Musical Theater Berlin for three years before finally closing in June 2002.

And — even as you read this — Neal Meron and Craig Zadan of Storyline Entertainment are prepping a live action TV movie version of Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (which is expected to air on ABC during the 2003 – 2004 television season). And since Neal and Craig are reportedly right in the middle of casting their version of “Hunchback,” I was kind of hoping that they’d give Cyndi Lauper a chance to audition for the role of Laverne.

I mean, come on. Fair’s fair. Given all the heartbreak Lauper went through during the production of the animated version of “Hunchback,” it only stands to reason that Cyndi at least deserves a shot at playing a gargoyle in the TV movie version of “Hunchback.”

I mean, it isn’t starring in a Disney animated cartoon. But it’s close.

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse‘s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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