Friday, June 4, 2010

Janet Johnston, host of the Food Network show Spice & Easy

I've often wondered what TV personalites are like when they're off camera. I got my chance to peek into that world when I met Janet Johnston, the host of the Food Network show Spice & Easy and one of the owners of Savory Spice Shop.

On camera, I thought Janet's personality was a nice mix of food passion and quirkiness that made her easy to watch. When she was explaining the spices, she was serious, but she often tossed in oddball comments that were too spontaneous and natural to be scripted.

I couldn't wait to meet her, and I wasn't disappointed when we met at the Boulder location of Savory Spice Shop. In person, Janet was as funny, quirky, and serious - sometimes all in the same sentence - as she was on TV.

Janet said that she came into cooking later in life, through her husband, Mike. "I caught the food bug from him" she said. But that it is now a passion for both of them. "We're spice geeks, foodies...and we love the shop."

When the couple lived in Chicago, Mike had worked for a spice store. They decided that they wanted open their own store, and settled on Denver as the ideal location. The first Savory Spice Shop opened in Denver in 2004, a second store opened in Littleton, Colorado in 2006, and the Boulder store opened in 2008, where Dan Hayward (at left, with Janet) is a partner in the business.

The Food Network first took interest in the Johnstons and their store when the Neeleys were doing the Road Tasted show and were planning a visit to Denver. For that episode, Janet and Mike prepared a little cooking demonstration using some of the store's spice blends.

"They came in and we had a blast," Janet said. Members of the production company, Follow Productions, took an interest in Janet. "They asked of I'd ever been on TV before," Janet said. But when they told her, "We'll be in touch," she didn't expect anything would happen.

But it wasn't long before the Johnstons where in a conference call with Gordon Elliot. The Johnstons were invited to be on an episode of Paula's Best Dishes, and afterwards the crew shot some interviews with the couple. Unfortunately, the production company decided that they didn't want another cooking couple. "They were looking for a female host for daytime TV," Janet said.

While the Johnstons were a little disappointed they couldn't work together on camera, they decided to forge ahead with Janet in front of the camera and Mike doing his part behind the scenes. "We think people are ready to hear about spices," Janet explained, and this show was a way to get the information to a wider audience.

The next step was a meeting with Bob Tuschman, who Janet described as "a really, really nice guy." The network filmed a ten-minute screen test, and later filmed a pilot for the series.

One hurdle when creating recipes for the show was "to make spice mixes easily accessible." Savory Spice Shop sells a huge variety of spice blends, some containing a dozen spices, but the show required that the recipes use individual spices or mixes that the audience could buy anywhere. And the list of ingredients had to be short enough that they wouldn't be intimidating. While it was a challenge, Janet said it was also "kind of fun" to recreate the essence of the mixes with fewer ingredients.

The first show of the series took a week to shoot, and Janet thought it was all going to be pretty simple, with lots of time to re-do the mistakes and re-shoot things to get them right. Then she learned that the next five episodes would be shot in one week.

Much of the shooting was done at the Johnston's home, where "they take over the whole main floor of the house," and even rearranged things in the kitchen. Mike and Janet camped upstairs for the week, but despite the inconvenience, Janet said, "The Follow Productions crew were the nicest people."

The first three days of shooting took place in Janet's kitchen, and the next two days were in the Denver store where the opening and closing scenes were shot, along with all the little snippets where Janet describes a particular spice. The work was exhausting, "Thirteen hour days, easily. You're constantly 'on,'" Janet said. But "the experience was amazing."

The hardest part for Janet during the filming was showing her reaction to the food. She said that she didn't want to be over-the-top with her reactions, and decided that she would simply taste the food and react to what she was tasting as naturally as she could. So far, she's happy with the way the shows - and her food reactions - have turned out.

Now that filming is done, the other hard part is dealing with reactions from the public. She said that she tends not to read comments about the show, but Mike does, and they discuss what has been said and look for things they could improve upon.

Some of it is out of their hands, though. Janet said that for some recipes she would love to do a whole show on grinding and blending the individual spices and making just one complicated dish, but the format of her show required her to make a main dish, beverage, and dessert. With only 20 minutes of airtime for each episode, it meant that she couldn't take the time to show everything that she wanted to, but at least it was a first step towards her goal of introducing more spices to more people.

Janet figured that she'd accomplished at least part of her goal when she got a call from her mother (who isn't that interested in cooking), who said that she watched the show and although she didn't actually try to make any of the dishes, she thought to herself, "I could do that." It didn't matter that she didn't actually try the dishes - she was confident that if she wanted to, she could make those meals.

As far as seeing herself on TV, Janet admitted that there were moments when she'd cringe a bit when she saw something she'd done - or said - on camera. And it still catches her offguard when she unexpectedly hears her own voice on TV. She said that the TV is usually tuned to the Food Network while she's busy doing other things and she'll hear a laugh that she thinks sounds like her mother or her sister, and then she realizes that the Food Network is running a promo for her show.

Janet isn't sure whether there will be another season of Spice & Easy, but she is hoping for one. "Having the show has been kind of a godsend for me," she said. Before she and Mike started working on the recipes for the show, they were becoming so focused on the business end of their store that "we started to get away from food." Working on the show helped shift that focus. "It's got Mike and I back into the kitchen."

And if there are no more shows? "It was a really fun ride."

Janet said that while some people's ultimate goal is to have a show on Food Network, that was just a sideline for her. "I'm a spice merchant," she said. But more than just selling spices, she wants to sell people on the idea of using new and different spices, and she sees her spice blends as a way to for people to learn how to use multiple spices in a dish in a less intimidating way. "If we get a chance to ease people in to using spices, I'll feel my job had been done," she said.

While I tend to prefer using single spices when I'm cooking, Janet's explanation of what goes into the store's spice blends started to sway my opinion. "We'll go through 10...11 iterations of a blend before we nail it," she said. The blends can be used as a shortcut to complete product like some of the dips and marinades, or they can be the base flavor that the cook can build on.

But I'm a "show me" kind of gal, so I grabbed a recipe from the spice shop, got the blends I needed, and headed to the kitchen to give one a try. Stop back tomorrow for the results.

This also appeared on Serious Eats.


Anonymous said...

I really like this show and I think Janet seems very natural. I like her personality and the concept of the show. I hope there is more. The show is a fresh idea. I have so many spices in my kitchen cabinet and its great to be able to use them more often. The recepies are also easy enough to do and its great for entertaining friends. I'd definitely like to see more.

Anonymous said...

Loved the show and really hope they bring it back to the Food Network. There is nothing else quite like it, and we all have a lot to learn about spices. SHe makes it delightful and like the title...easy....bring back Janet!

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