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“Oh ho, the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin …” again

As anticipation builds for next month’s airing of “The Music Man” on ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney,” Jim Hill asks: What happens when you remake a musical that (perhaps) doesn’t really need remaking?

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There’s a story that’s long been told about Sir Donald Wolfit, the last of the great English actor/managers. Wolfit is lying on his death bed when one of his young actors supposedly comes in and says “Sir Donald, after a life filled with so much fame and success, dying must be so hard.’

Sir Donald reportedly then turned to the actor and said “Dying is easy … comedy is hard.”

Well, if comedy is hard, then musical comedy must be damned near impossible. Given how few people actually do it well these days.

That’s why we’re lucky to have Craig Zadan and Neil Meron of Storyline Entertainment. Because these two guys are actually doing the impossible. They’re bringing quality musical comedy back to the movies and television.

You know the movie version of “Chicago” that’s out in theaters right now? The one’s that gotten all those great reviews as well as racking up 8 Golden Globe nominations? That’s Craig and Neal’s baby.

And that upcoming TV movie version of “The Music Man” that ABC’s so busily hyping? The one that stars Matthew Broderick, which will be airing February 16th on “The Wonderful World of Disney”? That too is a Storyline Entertainment production.

Pretty impressive, eh? That’s nothing. Zadan and Meron also have in the works TV movie versions of such Broadway classics as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Mame.” In addition, these guys are looking into taking the stage version of Disney’s 1996 feature length cartoon, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” that’s been running in Berlin these past few years and turning that into a live action musical for television as well.

Best of all — at least from the Mouse’s point of view — all of these projects are all expected to air on ABC. Which will (hopefully) translate into big ratings for the network. At least that’s what happened when Storyline Entertainment’s version of “Cinderella” debuted on “The Wonderful Wonder of Disney” in November 1997, followed by “Annie” in November 1999.

So how does one end up in the musical comedy resurrection business? Well, it helps if one actually has a love of musical theater. Zadan — as it turns out — is a big-time Broadway buff. Craig wrote one of the earlier definitive texts on the career of musical wunderkind Stephen Sondheim (“Sondheim & Co.,” Harper & Row) back in 1986.

But Zadan wasn’t strictly an academic. Someone who stood outside, just observing how shows were made. He was also a guy who liked to get his hands dirty. Which was how Zadan ended up producing the 1984 hit movie, “Footloose.”

Of course, Neil Meron was no slouch either. Before hooking up with Craig, Neil served as president of creative affairs for Keith Barish Productions, the film production company that produced “Big Trouble in Little China” and “Her Alibi” (as well as having a hand in the launch of the “Planet Hollywood” restaurant chain).

Given that Meron shared Zadan’s love of classic musical theater, it was only a matter of time before these two would form a production company of their very own — Storyline Entertainment — and begin shopping around the idea of resurrecting great old Broadway shows to the studios and the networks.

As it turns out, CBS was the first company to take a chance on the team. That network gave them the funding necessary to mount a brand new television version of Jule Stein and Stephen Sondheim’s classic, “Gypsy.” This landmark musical had been revived on Broadway several times since the first production (which starred Ethel Merman as the stage mother from hell, Mama Rose) premiered back in 1959. Unfortunately, “Gypsy”‘s reputation had been tainted somewhat by a rather lackluster movie version of the musical (which starred Rosalind Russell) which was released back in 1962.

Zadan and Meron sought to remove that onus by staging an all-new version of “Gypsy” for television in 1994. And they scored a real coup by persuading Bette Midler to do her first ever TV movie. Lucky for Craig and Neil, Midler was just simply sensational as Mama Rose. The project — which also starred Peter Riegert as Herbie and Cynthia Gibb as Louise — got rave reviews as well as winning several Emmies and Golden Globes.

The Walt Disney Company (of course) took notice of “Gypsy”‘s success and asked Storyline Entertainment if they might consider producing some musicals for television for the network they’d just acquired, ABC / Cap Cities. Co-incidentally, Zadan and Meron had a property that they felt would be just perfect for their first project for the Mouse House: a remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s made-for-TV musical, “Cinderella.”

Craig and Neil supposedly felt that R & H’s “Cinderella” had lost a lot of its fun and fizz when the 1957 black and white original (which starred Julie Andrews, by the way) was remade in 1965 as a full color television extravaganza (which starred Leslie Anne Warren). So their main goal was to re-imagine this project so that it would be entertaining for the MTV generation, while still attempting to recapture much of the magic and romance that the 1957 original had had.

To pull this off, Zadan and Meron really piled on the star power. Pop diva Whitney Houston (who was also co-executive producer of “Cinderella”) was hired to play the Fairy Godmother, while Houston herself chose pop vocalist and “Moesha” star Brandy to play the title role. Filling out the supporting cast was Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg as the Queen, “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander as her steward, and Broadway favorites Bernadette Peters (as the wicked step-mother) and Victor Garber (as the King).

Craig and Neil then surrounded their stars with bold new arrangements of R & H’s classic songs as well as superb production values. The end result was another critical sensation for Storyline Entertainment and a ratings smash for ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” during the crucial November 1997 sweeps period. Which is why Mouse House executives then turned to Zadan and Meron and asked: “Can we get another one of these every year from here on in?”

Sadly, quality musicals for television take quite a while to mount properly. So it wouldn’t be ’til November 1999 ’til Craig and Neil would have another resurrected / re-imagined Broadway classic ready to air on ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney.” But this project — “Annie” — managed to top everything that Storyline Entertainment had done to date.

Putting it simply, the TV movie version of “Annie” — based on the long running hit — really was a resurrection. An attempt to repair the reputation of a Broadway favorite that had been damaged by the miserable movie version of the show that Columbia Pictures had produced back in 1982.

Have any of you seen this film lately? It’s damned near unwatchable. Admittedly, this version of “Annie” has an absolutely stellar cast — Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan, Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks, Ann Reinking as Grace Farrell, and Tim Curry as Rooster — along with some pretty decent production values.

But, in the end, the studio just didn’t seem to trust the show’s source material. Which is why Columbia Pictures ordered screenwriter Carol Sobieski to totally rework Thomas Meehan’s book as well as insisting that the show’s composers write some new songs to the score. The end product — which was directed by screen legend John Huston — bares little resemble to the show that won the 1977 Tony Award for best musical.

Luckily, Zadan and Meron knew what a gem “Annie” actually was. Which is why — as they began to mount their new TV movie version of the property — they insisted that screenwriter Irene Mecchi (best known for her work on Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules”) avoid the cartoonish excesses of the Columbia Pictures’ version of this play (I.E. A drunken Miss Hannigan riding an elephant. Annie dangling from an open drawbridge, about to be rescued by Punjab, who’s hanging from an autogyro, etc. )

Instead, Craig and Neil asked Irene to realistically portray the grittier aspects of “Annie”‘s Depression era setting. But most of all Zadan and Meron wanted the screenwriter to concentrate on the real heart of the story. Which was how this gruff billionaire ended up losing his heart to a tough little orphan girl.

Craig and Neil also saw to it that Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s award winning score for “Annie” shined like it never had before by recruiting Disney vet Chris Montan to handle all of the TV movie’s music. (If you’ve ever hummed a tune from a Disney film that’s been made over the past 10 years, you can thank Chris. Why? Because Mr. Montan is the president of Walt Disney Music. And he personally oversees the creation of the scores for all of Disney’s animated features and theatrical productions.)

Then — borrowing a page from their “Cinderella” playbook — Zadan and Meron loaded “Annie” up with stars. They first hired Academy Award winner Kathy Bates to play Miss Hannigan, then recruited Broadway vets Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, Alan Cummings and Kristen Chenoweth to play Daddy Warbucks, Grace Farrell, Rooster and Lily St. Regis, respectively.

For the show’s crucial title role, Craig and Neil cast a talented newcomer, Alicia Morton. And — as a special treat for theater fans — they also hired Andrea McArdle, (the actress who had originally played the title role in “Annie” when the show first debuted on Broadway back in the late 1970s) to do a special cameo in the show. That’s Andrea — all grown up — playing the “Star-to-be” in the TV movie’s big “NYC” production number.

“Annie” debuted on “The Wonderful World of Disney” on November 7, 1999. This new TV movie version of the musical garnered so many great reviews and did so well in the ratings that ABC actually decided to rerun the special again less than a month later, as part of the network’s holiday line-up. The show then went on to win two Emmys (for best choreography and music direction).

Given that a lot of the reviews for “Annie” said things like “Gee, isn’t it a shame that no one makes musicals as entertaining as this for the big screen anymore?,” Harvey Weinstein over at Miramax (Disney’s art house arm) took notice. Why for? Well, Harvey had been struggling for years to try and produce a big screen version of Bob Fosse’s bitter Broadway smash, “Chicago.” Thinking that the staff of Storyline Entertainment might finally hold the key to solving his long-in-development dilemma, Weinstein recruited Zadan and Meron (as well as the director of the TV movie version of “Annie,” Broadway vet Rob Marshall) to shepherd “Chicago” to the silver screen.

Given all the effort involved in producing that motion picture (as well as setting up a slew of smaller but no less successful TV movies for ABC, including “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” “Brian’s Song,” and “The Beach Boys”), Craig and Neil’s dance card was pretty full for the past three years. But — in early 2002 — these two finally did find time to return to their first love. Which is creating all-new versions of Broadway classics to air on television.

So which somewhat tarnished musical did Zadan and Meron chose as their return vehicle to the tube? This decision actually shocked and puzzled some musical theater buffs: Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.”

So why would theater fans be shocked and/or surprised at Craig and Neil’s choice? Because up until now, these guys have specialized in remounting shows whose reputations had been somewhat sullied by lousy movie versions and/or lackluster remakes of earlier TV movies.

But “The Music Man” was a property that wasn’t really in need of Zadan and Meron’s resuscitation efforts. After all, Warner Brothers had produced a very successful movie version of the 1957 Broadway hit back in 1962, in which Robert Preston reprised his Tony Award-winning role as con man extraordinaire Professor Harold Hill and leading lady (and future Mrs. Partridge) Shirley Jones played the feisty River City librarian Marian Paroo.

And as recently as April 2000, Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” had been successfully revived on Broadway. With Craig Bierko now playing Professor Hill, this revival (which was staged by Susan Stroman, now best known as her Tony Award winning direction of the mega-hit, “The Producers”) got good reviews and played to packed houses for many months at the Neil Simon theater. Unfortunately, due to the ticket buying slump that hit Broadway in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, the latest professional production of “The Music Man” was forced to close on December 30, 2001. On the upside, a road company version of this very same revival has been touring the country since October 2001.

So, if “The Music Man” is still a very successful show, then why should Craig and Neil attempt to resurrect / re-imagine this particular musical? I mean, why fix what ain’t broken?

Well, the key to this new production is location. As in: The 1962 Warner Brothers version — which featured great character actors in supporting roles like Paul Ford, Hermione Gingold, Buddy Hackett and Mary Wickes as well as little Ron Howard (who was only 6-years old at the time) playing Winthrop — looks great. But it was clearly shot on a studio backlot and soundstages. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that the old movie version of “The Music Man” has a slightly canned feel.

Zadan and Meron’s goal was to try and get “The Music Man” out of that can. Freshen the property up a bit. But how exactly do you do that? By letting a little fresh air into the proceedings.

Toward this end, Craig and Neil tried to find an actual small American town that could double for River City, Iowa. That way, they really could open their TV movie up. Actually stage the show’s big production numbers like “(Ya Got) Trouble,” “76 Trombones,” and “Wells Fargo Wagon” out in the open on a real street. Which would (hopefully) lend an air of authenticity to the whole proceedings.

Sadly, there didn’t seem to be any small towns left in the U.S. that could actually double for 1912 Iowa. But up in Canada, as it turns out, there was a beaut of a place: Milbrook, Ontario. Located just to the east of Toronto, buildings and picturesque places all over this charming old mill town were pressed into service for this production. With the Millbrook Legion Hall becoming River City’s high school gym and the town’s Main Street becoming bedecked with red, white and blue blunting for the film’s Fourth-of-July sequence.

(Of course, another reason that Craig and Neil chose to shot their remake of “The Music Man” way up in Canada is that — thanks to the exchange rate as well as various tax breaks that the Canadian government provide for film and television producers — this allowed Disney and Storyline Entertainment to shave hundreds of thousands of dollars off the production costs of this particular TV movie. But — hey — you didn’t hear that from me. Anyway …)

Then there was the Robert Preston factor to consider. For 45 years now, Preston’s performance as the fast talking con man that serves at the center of this show has been considered so definitive that most performers who end up playing Professor Harold Hill find themselves doing a Preston impression. Even Craig Bierko — the theater vet who just played the Professor in the recent Broadway revival — found himself robbing Robert.

Since Storyline Entertainment’s credo seems to be “Respect your source material, but don’t be afraid to reinvent,” Zadan and Meron wondered how they’d go about creating a new take on this quintessential con man. A Harold Hill for the new millennium, if you will.

With this in mind, they then approached Matthew Broderick (who – at the time – was just wrapping up his highly acclaimed comic turn in “The Producers”) about taking on the role. The way that Craig and Neil saw it: given that Matthew had already portrayed two great con men (I.E. the title character in John Hughes’ 1986 teen comedy, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” as well as J. Pierpont Finch in the 1994 Broadway revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”), Harold Hill shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

What Zadan and Meron didn’t realize was that — within the past three years — Broderick had already been approached to play the title role in “The Music Man.” The folks who had mounted the recent Broadway revival of the Meredith Willson musical had had Matthew at the top of their wish list (along with Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin and Scott Bakula) as a possible Harold Hill.

However, since he was already committed to “The Producers,” Broderick wasn’t really in a position back then to play the Professor. Which is why he reluctantly had to take a pass on the project. (As did Martin, Hanks, Baldwin and Bakula. Which is actually how Craig Bierko ended up playing the title role in the Broadway revival of “The Music Man.” Anyway …)

But now — here it was, three years later — and Craig and Neil were offering Matthew another shot at Harold Hill. So Broderick grabbed it. Even though he was more than a little intimidated with the notion of filling Robert Preston’s shoes.

To hear Broderick explain it (in an excerpt from an interview that he did with “Entertainment Tonight” while filming “The Music Man”): “I love Robert Preston so much. So that (was) one of the challenges of this (production). To get that out of my head. Because (Preston’s take on Professor Harold Hill) is one of my favorite performances of all time.”

So how did Matthew go about making this part his own? Broderick explained that he used Robert Preston’s take on the character as a leaping off point … then Matthew took Harold Hill in a whole different direction.

Those familiar with Storyline Entertainment’s TV movie version of “The Music Man” suggest that Broderick really plays up his boyish charm in this part. His Harold Hill isn’t as aggressively charming as Preston’s was. But rather, Matthew’s con man is almost coy. Sweet. Deceptively meek and sincere at times. Which is how this weasel wheedles his way into the hearts of the citizens of River City.

All of them except — of course — Marian the librarian. And — for a while there — Zadan and Meron thought that they’d scored a real publicity coup for their new TV movie production of “The Music Man” by landing both Broderick as well as his real life wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, to play Harold Hill and his love interest, Marian Paroo.

Sadly, this coup didn’t come through. After hemming and hawing for a few weeks, Parker eventually passed on the project. Why for? Well, at the time, Sarah said that the reason that she decided not play Marian was because the part called for a soprano while Parker only sang alto. However — given that shortly after she rejected the role — Sarah announced that she was pregnant … perhaps there were more factors involved here.

Anyway … since they weren’t able to snag Sarah to play Marian, Craig and Neil went with their second choice to play the librarian: Kristen Chenoweth (who’d given such a memorable performance as Lily St. Regis in the TV movie of “Annie”). Rounding out the cast was that old Storyline Entertainment stalwart Victor Garber (who plays Mayor Shinn), “Saturday Night Live”‘s Molly Shannon (who portrays the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie McKenie Shinn) and Broadway vets David Aaron Baker and Debra Monk as Marcellus Washburn and the widow Paroo, respectively.

And since “Annie”‘s director Rob Marshall wasn’t available (at the time, he was tied up helming the movie version of “Chicago”), Zadan and Meron chose Jeff Becker (who’d previously directed “The Beach Boys” mini-series for Storyline Entertainment) to direct “The Music Man.” But they did get one member of the Marshall clan — Kathleen, Rob’s sister (who’s a highly respected Broadway choreographer in her own right) — to handle the choreography for this new TV movie.

So — as you can see — there’s a lot of talent (both above and below the title) involved with ABC’s “The Music Man.” Now the big question: will this Storyline Entertainment production be good enough to make us forget that much beloved movie version of this show that Morton DaCosta directed back in 1962?

Well … if someone at ABC wants to slip me a preview copy of this TV movie prior to its February 16th airing on “The Wonderful World of Disney,” I’ll let you know.

Otherwise, I guess we’re all in the dark ’til next month. Wondering if it’s actually possible for Storyline Entertainment to put together two great new productions of classic Broadway musicals (“Chicago” and “The Music Man”) in a single year’s time.

Normally, I’m not a betting man. But — given Craig and Neil’s track record to date — I’m betting that we’re all in for a treat come February 16th.

So save me a seat on the couch, okay?

MEREDITH WILLSON’S THE MUSIC MAN — Two-time Tony Award-winner Matthew Broderick, Tony Award-winner Kristin Chenoweth, Emmy and Tony Award-nominee Victor Garber, Emmy and Tony Award-winner Debra Monk, Emmy-nominee Molly Shannon and Broadway and film star David Aaron Baker headline a stellar cast in the blockbuster presentation of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” a special three-hour made-for television movie airing on “The Wonderful World of Disney,” SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 16 (7:00-10:00 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/RAFY)

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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