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Raising the curtain on “Raising Helen”

Here’s another JimHillMedia.com exclusive: A sneak peek at the new Gary Marshall comedy that Touchstone Pictures will be releasing later this year. More importantly, Jim Hill gives JHM readers an up-close look at how a Hollywood test screening actually works.

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It’s supposedly one of Hollywood’s most closely guarded secrets: the test screening. That covert process whereby — months before a major motion picture is due to hit theaters — the still-unfinished film is quietly screened for a specially recruited audience.

Given the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that typically surrounds a test screening (I.E. all the screening of prospective audience members that goes on prior to the actual screening), it’s really rare that a reporter ever gets to take part in the process. Let alone report on the event.

But last Tuesday night, yours truly took part in a really-for-real test screening. One that was held right on the Disney Studio lot. For a new Touchstone Pictures release, no less. And I lived to tell the tale. So what follows is my rather detailed report on this somewhat bizarre event.

This story actually starts Sunday before last, when Nancy and I — while on a break from “VES 2003: A Festival of Visual Effects” — were out exploring the Hollywood Farmers market. While strolling past the fresh produce & baked goods, the handmade arts and crafts, we chanced upon a man with a clipboard recruiting people for free movie screening.

Now longtime JHM readers will recall how I’m an absolute sucker when it comes to people who are carrying a clipboard. So I strode right up to this guy and asked what he was selling. He explained that he was recruiting audience members for a test screening on Tuesday night.

“What’s the film about?” I asked. With that, Bob (that’s what the guy’s name was, I think) shoved a green flyer in my hand. It read:

MOVIE VIEW invites you to a Private Screening
Raising Helen

You and a guest are invited to see RAISING HELEN, a new movie coming from a major studio. Helen Harris lives the exciting life of a young and carefree bachelorette in Manhattan. However, that life changes forever when Helen’s sister and brother-in-law pass away and their three children are left to her care. Now, through humor and heartbreak, Helen and this fragile new family must adjust to their new life together. And in the midst of her struggle to maintain a social life and love life while learning to be a single mom, Helen discovers that before she can raise a teenage daughter, an 11 year old son and a 5 year old daughter, she must first grow up herself. The cast includes Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack, Hector Elizando, and the Breslin kids – Spencer and Abby Breslin. RAISING HELEN is directed by Gary Marshall, who also directed THE PRINCESS DIARIES, RUNAWAY BRIDE and PRETTY WOMAN.

The screening — as it turns out — was to be held right on the Disney Studio lot. To be specific, inside the Main Theatre, just a couple of feet away from the corner of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive.

Now — given that I am a lifelong Gary Marshall fan (I’ve been systemically checking out Gary’s newest movies ever since I first caught his “Young Doctors in Love” back in the summer of 1982) and that I’ve always wanted to see what the inside of the Main Theatre on the Disney lot (this is where a lot of the final mix work is done for Disney’s major releases) looked like — this screening sounds like something that I really want to do. So I asked Bob how Nancy & I could go about securing tickets to Tuesday’s “Raising Helen” screening.

Bob quickly walked us through the process: In order to get tickets to that Tuesday’s test screening, we’d have to RSVP. Which meant that we had to call the toll-free number that was listed on the flyer and give our names to the “Movie View” representative. That way, when we drove up to the guard shack on the Disney lot early Tuesday evening, our names would actually be on the reservation list. Which would allow the Mouse House guard to just wave us through.

So — later that same day — Nancy and I actually called the Movie View reservation line. Which was an adventure onto itself.

Why For? Well, first of all, the Movie View phone rep wanted to know where we’d been recruited. More importantly, what the number was in the upper right hand corner of our “Raising Helen” leaflet. (41. Just so you know.)

Next came a flurry of questions:

How old are you?
Where are you from?
What ethnic group do you belong to?

All of which were designed to determine whether Nancy and I were the desired demographic for this particular screening. (According to the language used on the “Raising Helen” screening leaflet: “You and your guest should be between the ages of 15 to 54. No one under the age of 15 or infants will be permitted in the theater.”) Evidently, Nancy and I came through the initial screening process with flying colors. For we were told to report to the Disney lot Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. sharp, a full hour before the “Raising Helen” screening was supposed to begin.

Then — given that Bob had gifted us a few extra “Raising Helen” leaflets (so that we could bring a few friends along with us to the test screening) — we invited JHM columnist Chuck Oberleitner, as well as Jay (this friend of mine who works in theme park design) to come along with us on this adventure.

In the day or so before the actual test screening, I carefully re-read my “Raising Helen” leaflet as I tried to get some sense of what to expect from this experience. I was somewhat amused to read the line that said “No one will be admitted who appears to be intoxicated, under the influence of drugs, or is dirty, unkempt, improperly dressed or who may interfere with the screening enjoyment of others in the audience.” Which — if this is the case at all test screenings — must have made it really difficult for Nick Nolte to attend any sneak previews at “The Hulk.” (Kidding. Just kidding.)

But there was another line on the leaflet that really did give me pause:

“No one from the entertainment industry or media will be admitted.”

Sh*t. Given that my website is actually called “JimHillMedia.com” and — more importantly — given that I regularly write about the entertainment industry, I guess that means that I can’t really attend this test screening on the Disney lot.

But still … well, Nancy now had her heart set on attending the “Raising Helen” screening. And me personally, I’d always wanted to see what the inside of the Main Theatre on the Disney lot looked like. Plus this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how the NRG (I.E. the National Research Group, the Los Angeles-based outfit that typically runs the test screenings for all the major studios) actually operates.

So I made a little deal with myself. If the crew at Movie View and/or NRG discovered — as part of their pre-test-screening screening process — that I wrote about the Walt Disney Company for the internet, I would quietly and politely bow out. Leave the screening. Even drive off the lot, if I had to.

And — given that I had actually given that Movie View rep my real name and address — I had to assume that they’d eventually find me out. And — given that the “Raising Helen” leaflet featured language like “Since this is a recruited audience, if you and your guest do not meet the audience criteria for this screening, you and your guest will not be admitted” — I felt that chances were very strong that I’d be turned away as soon as I arrived on the lot.

Well, imagine my surprise early Tuesday evening as I rolled up to the Buena Vista Avenue entrance to Walt Disney Studios and identified myself as Jim Hill. The guard checked his clipboard and — sure enough — Nancy, Jay and I are on the official reservations list for that night’s test screening of “Raising Helen.” He then handed us some bright red wristbands (which we were supposed to put on before we exited our car), then directed us into the visitor’s parking lot.

So Nancy, Jay and I put on our bright red wristbands. Then — after exiting the car — we wandered the lot for a bit. Checking out the Disney Studio Store (you should see the oversized versions of the Crush and Bruce plush that they have up for sale here). Reading the historic plaque on the Hyperion bungalows (these were the only buildings that Walt took with him when he relocated his animation studio from the old Hyperion Avenue operation to their new Burbank digs). Stopping to use the restrooms just outside the Disney Studio commissary … before we finally decided to get in line with all the other would-be audience members who were camped out along Mickey Avenue.

It was at this point that the NRG staffers finally began in-processing Nancy, myself and Jay. Checking our names off the official reservation list, collecting our bright green “Raising Helen” screening leaflets, and then issuing us all a light blue admissions ticket for that night’s screening. Each of which was numbered (mine was 0092) and stamped “PRIORITY.”

Eventually, Chuck also joined us in line. And — as we stood there in the sun, waiting to be admitted to the “Raising Helen” screening — the four of us tried not to give ourselves away as media dweebs. Which — given that 90% of our conversation centered on the Walt Disney Company, its theme parks and/or the internet — proved to be pretty damned difficult.

CHUCK: Did you have a chance to catch my story on the site today? The one about the “Pirates” premiere event at Disneyland this past weekend?

JAY: What was that like?

NANCY: (As a suspicious looking NRG staffer clutching a clipboard walks close by us) Shhhh! Will you two be quiet? You’re going to ruin this for all of us.

Awkward pause. Then ….

JIM: Soooo … How about them Red Sox? Do you think this might be the year?

Despite a series of close calls involving both National Research Group personnel as well as Disney Studio security, Nancy, Chuck, Jay and I WERE eventually allowed to enter the Main Theatre on the lot. But not before the four of us (as well as all of the other would-be members of the audience) were forced to walk through a metal detector.

Why a metal detector? Not for the reasons that you might expect. Not for security reasons or because Disney or NRG staffers were worried that someone would bring weapons on the lot. But rather, because the Mouse and the National Research Group wanted to make sure that no one was trying to sneak a video camera into the test screening on this still-unreleased Touchstone Pictures production.

To quote from the back on my “Raising Helen” leaflet:

“This screening will be monitored for unauthorized recording. By attending, you agree not to bring any audio or video recording device into the theater and consent to a physical search of your belongings and person. Any attempted use of recording devices will result in immediate removal from the theater, forfeiture of the device, and may subject you to criminal and civil liability.”

So the purses of every woman entering the Main Theatre were thoroughly searched. And each and every person with a ticket to the “Raising Helen” test screening had to step through a metal detector before they were allowed to enter the auditorium.

That may sound a bit extreme, I know. But — to be truthful — that’s nothing compared to what people reportedly had to go through before they were allowed to attend an advance screening of “The Matrix Reloaded” earlier this year on the Warner lot. A friend who attended this particular showing talked about how audience members were forced to go through three separate security points — walking through three separate metal detectors — before they were finally allowed to take their seats for this early screening of the “Matrix” sequel. So — taking this into consideration — I guess Nancy, Chuck, Jay and myself should consider ourselves fortunate that we only had to endure a single trip through the metal detector before we were allowed to enter the auditorium.

The Main Theatre on the Disney Studio lot — as you might expect — was fairly plush. An auditorium filled with big comfortable seats, it looked like the place could hold 500-600 people, easy. Halfway down along the raked auditorium floor was a low walled-off area filled with sound mixing boards and equipment. As I mentioned earlier, this is where a lot of the final balancing work is done on major Disney releases.

Chuck, Nancy, Jay and I moved around the hall a bit before we finally found seats that we all liked. Which were dead center in the third row of the hall. Which — as it turns out — was a pretty lucky place to be seated. (More on that later.)

Anyway … 7:30 p.m. finally rolls around. And a NRG rep (Andy, I believe his name was) steps up to the front of the hall and welcomes us all. He first thanks us for agreeing to take part in this test screening. He then went on to say that the print of “Raising Helen” that we were about to see wasn’t actually a finished version of the film. That the movie’s title sequence wasn’t complete yet. That we’d probably be seeing a few scenes featuring green screen (which meant that the special effects shot needed to complete that sequence hadn’t been finished yet).

But — baring these few quibbles — the Gary Marshall movie that we were about to see was fairly complete. Andy then went on to say that — after “Raising Helen” had finished screening — that he’d like all of us to remain in our seats. Beyond that, we were just supposed to sit back and enjoy ourselves.

His introductory remarks complete, Andy signaled to the projection booth. The house lights dimmed and then … “Raising Helen” hit the screen.

So what did I think of the movie? To be honest, I liked “Raising Helen.” Quite a bit. Me personally, I think that this is another good solid people-pleasing picture from Gary Marshall. One that skillfully mixes humor and heart with great performances by Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack and Helen Mirren. So if you’re in need a feel-good movie this fall, then — by all means — go check out “Raising Helen.”

Mind you, I was the only member of our little quartet who seemed to really enjoy “Raising Helen.” Nancy said that she liked the film, but had problems with the predictability of the plot. Jay had some concerns with Joan Cusack’s character, who — while funny — seems to be a different person every time she re-enters the story.

And Chuck … well, Chuck seemed to dislike everything about “Raising Helen.” The lack of heat between the two leads, the hackneyed aspects of the story … you name it; Chuck didn’t like it.

Anywho … once the house lights came up, the NRG staffers flew through the auditorium — handing out survey forms. Each of these double-sided questionnaires — which came with its very own little green pencil attached — was crammed with queries about “Raising Helen.” Essay questions like:

Would you tell your friends about this movie? Not just whether you liked it or not, but how would you describe it to them?
(Please be as complete as possible.)
What scene or scenes are the most emotional for you?
What scene or scenes are the funniest for you?
What do you like most about the Kate Hudson character, Helen Harris?
What do you like most about the character, Jenny (Helen’s sister, played by Joan Cusack_?
Was there a song or music you particularly liked in the movie?

These were accompanied by a series of multiple choice questions, where we were asked:

What was your reaction to the movie overall?

Excellent ………. ( ) 1
Very Good ……. ( ) 2
Good …………… ( ) 3
Fair ………………( ) 4
Poor ……………..( ) 5

We were also asked to rate the performances as well as the various elements of “Raising Helen,” indicating that we thought that Kate Hudson’s work as Helen was “Excellent,” “Very Good,” “Good,” “Fair” or “Poor.” We were asked to make similar value judgments on the setting of the film, the picture’s pace, not to mention the humor, romance and — most importantly — the ending of “Raising Helen.”

On the other side of this survey form, we were asked questions like “Were there characters [other than those listed already on the questionnaire] that you liked?” and “What, if anything, did you find confusing about the movie that was not cleared up by the end?” In both of these instances, we were asked to “PLEASE BE AS SPECIFIC AS POSSIBLE.”

This part of the survey was followed by a section where we were asked to check off various words and phrases that best described the movie. Among our 30 choices were “Too sappy / mushy,” “Nothing new / done before,” “Leaves you feeling good,” “Good for the whole family” and “Not romantic enough.”

After this came a section that tried to harvest hard data about the people who were actually taking this survey. This part was loaded with queries about the survey taker’s gender, educational level, marital status as well as questions about how often that person had attended the movies in the past two months.

It was the questions about age in this particular section of the “Raising Helen” survey that really intrigued me. Here, the survey taker had no less than 13 different age groups to choose from. Everything from “Under 12” to “60 & over.” Never mind that the initial “Raising Helen” leaflet specifically barred anyone who was under 15 or over 54 from attending this screening. If folks from either of these extremes in age were in the audience that night, the National Research Group wanted to know about it.

Speaking of the National Research Group … it was just about this time that the NRG crew began moving through the auditorium, scooping up our surveys. As they picked up the questionnaires, they’d quiz individual members of the audience — asking them what they thought of the movie. “Did you think that it was good? Very good? Excellent?” After a few minutes, I began to notice that those folks who had said “Very Good” or “Excellent” were the ones who were being culled out of the crowd and herded down to the first three rows of the auditorium.

That’s when I realized: These are the people who the NRG reps were selecting to be part of their after-screening focus group. The people whose opinions on the film would REALLY count.

Just at that moment, a National Research Group staffer stepped up to me and — as she was taking my form — asked what I thought of “Raising Helen.” I told this woman the truth. That I found this Gary Marshall movie to be highly enjoyable. Particularly Joan Cusask’s performance. And that I’d have no trouble recommending “Raising Helen” to my friends.

It was then that Chuck chimed in: “Are you crazy, Jim? This movie was awful. Incredibly predictable. And Kate Hudson’s performance was just … blah!”

The NRG rep — who had been smiling right up until Oberleitner interrupted — now narrowed her gaze at the both of us.

“Really?” she said to Chuck. “You disliked the movie that much?” Then — gesturing toward me — the woman continued “You two came to the screening together?”

JIM: (immediately interrupting) No! Chuck came in his own car. I actually came to this screening with Nancy (pointing to my ever-patient significant other). Who also liked this film quite a bit.

CHUCK: (To NRG rep) Nevertheless, I personally found “Raising Helen” to be very predictable.

JIM: (Voice sotto – To Chuck) Ix-nay on the “edictable-pray.” I’m trying to get into the inal-fay ocus-fay oup-gray.

Thankfully, Chuck understood pig latin while the NRG rep apparently didn’t. So Oberleitner piped down. And — eventually — after much consultation among the National Research Group staffers (“I got two 2s here. Do we still need some 4s?” “No, we’re fine for 4s. But what we really need is a couple of 3s.”), the post-screening focus group of 20 audience members was selected.

Luckily, Nancy and I both made the final cut. So — as the rest of the audience was dismissed and herded out of the auditorium — the chosen few were herded into the first three rows.

To be blunt here: Based on my own personal observations, I’m pretty sure that the entire “Raising Helen” post-screening focus group was made up of audience members who were seated in the front half of the auditorium. To be specific, the folks who were chosen all seemed to have come from seats close to the aisles or down by the screen. People who were that much easier for the National Research Group reps to get at, to talk with.

More to the point, the NRG people (at least according to what I saw) only seemed interested in recruiting audience members who had already indicated on their surveys that they thought “Raising Helen” was “Excellent,” “Very Good” or “Good.” Anyone like Chuck — who was very vocal about how this film was only “Fair” — was deliberately disregarded. Or so it seemed to me.

Anyway … the 20 of us were grouped in the first three rows of the Main Theatre. Then Andy — the NRG rep who had spoken to the audience prior to the start of the “Raising Helen” test screening — came down to the front of the hall again. He was carrying two small cassette recorders. Which — after testing to make sure that they were actually both recording — he placed the devices on either side of the post-screening focus group.

After that … well … I had always thought that a post-screening focus group would be something like MTV’s “The Real World.” You know, “When people stop being polite and start acting real?” Well — in this case, at least — the opposite was true. Andy from NRG didn’t really seem interested in gathering the post-screening focus group’s real opinions so much as he was interested in delivering a concise, upbeat report to his company’s client. Which — in this case — was the Walt Disney Company.

So using an extremely loud voice as well as a somewhat commanding presence, Andy rode roughshod over the “Raising Helen” post-screening focus group. Putting the recruited audience members through our paces like a bunch of trained poodles.

“Who liked this film? Really, really liked this film?” the NRG rep would ask. He’d then get a quick count of the number of hands that had been raised, say the number aloud (so that the recorders could hear him), then quickly moving on to the next question. “What were your favorite parts of the movie? Who were you favorite characters? Did you like the music?” Again only pausing a second or two to gauge our reaction before plunging into the next question.

The end result (I’m afraid) is that Andy, the NRG staffer, created a recording that would give Disney Studio executives the wrong impression. Mainly that nearly everyone in the post-screening focus group thought that “Raising Helen” was a very good movie.

By that I mean: If Gary Marshall were looking for good solid info about how he might fine tune his film … I’m afraid Gary didn’t get it. Based on what I saw, the National Research Group staffers who were running last week’s “Raising Helen” test screening were more interested in getting home early that night than they were in putting together a realistic accounting of what the audience actually thought of Marshall’s movie.

After ten minutes or so of this, Andy scooped up and shut off the two tape recorders. He thanked us again for our time and opinions, then said “Good night.” So Nancy and I got up, exited the Main Theatre and joined Chuck and Jay outside. Where we discussed our up-close view of how Tinsel Town actually operates.

Me personally? This whole experience kind of left me with kind of a bad taste in my mouth. I mean, is this is really the way that the majority of Hollywood’s motion pictures are test screened nowadays? If so … well, no wonder so many movies suck. After all, how can directors or producers be expected to fix their films when NRG hands them information like this?

Look, maybe all test screenings aren’t run like this. Or maybe I just caught this bunch of National Research Group staffers on a really bad night.

And it’s not like Nancy, Chuck, Jay and I actually had a bad time. I mean, we really enjoyed getting on the Disney lot. Not to mention getting the chance to look behind-the-scenes at how a real motion picture studio actually operates.

But after watching up close how NRG supposedly works … you know who I really feel bad for? Gary Marshall. Here’s a guy who’s just trying to make a half-way decent movie for the Walt Disney Company. But he’s getting this somewhat bogus info from National Research Group about what a test audience supposedly thought of his “Raising Helen.” Again, based on what I personally saw last Tuesday night, the test results that Gary was handed from that particular post-screening focus group just had to be skewed. It had to be.

Anywho … just to review here: I think that “Raising Helen” looks like it will be a really fun film. Be sure to check out this Touchstone Pictures release when it hits theaters sometime later this fall.

On the other hand … if you really love movies and ever get the chance to take part in a test screening … I’m suggesting that maybe you should take a pass of being part of that process. Watching those National Research Group staffers work up close — particularly as they seemed to be massaging the results of that “Raising Helen” test screening right in front of our focus group — was just depressing beyond words.

Which is really NOT how you’re supposed to feel as you exit a feel-good comedy.

Your thoughts?

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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