For chef Joel Gamoran ’07 (CLAS), scrappiness is a state of mind. “Why does cooking always need to be so perfect?” he asks. “The best meals at home aren’t when you buy the expensive cut of meat. It’s the pasta with the leftover anchovy oil and some chili flakes. Not having the fancy ingredients – it forces you to get inspired.”
The charming, affable scrap-proselytizer has just parlayed his lifelong passion for imperfection into a cooking show, “Scraps,” which debuted on the FYI network in May.
I see flavor where the world sees waste. — Joel Gamoran
Each half-hour episode of “Scraps” follows Gamoran in his 1963 VW bus to prepare a meal with a local chef, using their favorite typically tossed kitchen scraps. As he says over the show’s opening credits, “I see flavor where the world sees waste.”
Take pickle juice, shrimp shells, and broccoli stems for example. Chicken thighs soak in that briny pickle juice before being fried, drizzled with honey, and showered with cilantro (just the stems, natch). Shrimp shells become a rich sauce for oysters that Gamoran has inexpertly and comedically chiseled from the South Carolina shoreline. Broccoli stems are shredded into a sweet and crunchy slaw.
But given that it’s such a zeitgeisty moment for sustainability and reducing food waste, the show was a surprisingly tough sell – even with co-executive producer (and huge Joel Gamoran fan) Katie Couric on board.
“Networks just didn’t think there was a place for food waste to be interesting to people,” Gamoran says, with nearly comical disbelief. “I was like, ‘But it’s super-hacky and understandable and completely digestible for people – and it will save them money.’” Eventually FYI bit.
“We got the order to make the show on February 1,” says Gamoran, “to deliver 10 episodes on May 21st. We had no guests, no cities, no plane tickets, nothing. We filmed the whole thing – 10 cities – in six weeks. We decided to embrace it, get scrappy, and really make it part of the show!” This meant cooking in the rain if it rained. It meant sticking with the original plan, even if an ingredient turned out to be a little bit yum-resistant.
“That spent grain!” Gamoran reminisces about some particularly stubborn waste gleaned from an Asheville brewery, which he turned into biscuits he describes as a “major fail at first.” Eventually though, they got it right.
“I stand for the bruised, the forgotten, and the back of the fridge!” is the tag line of the show, and it seems to be Gamoran’s ethos in general. When I ask him about his favorite aha moments, he says, “I had so many moments where I was like, ‘I can’t believe you can even do this!’ Like in episode two, when the guest tosses the scallion roots right into the dish. Now I’m obsessed with them.”
I bond with him over our shared love of celery leaves (“A free herb!” I say, and he says, “I know, right?”) and ask him about his favorite everyday scrap: “I don’t peel my garlic! I really think the outer paper is really special and it’s the unsung hero of the garlic.”
Gamoran himself is self-effacing, excited, quick to laugh. And he brings out the best in the chefs he works with – they can’t seem to help being infected by his vibrant good humor. Mostly, though, he just makes them laugh and laugh. It’s clear that they adore him. Everybody does.
Gamoran’s day job is National Chef for Sur La Table, the kitchenware retailer and cooking-class giant based in his hometown of Seattle. This seems more cushy than scrappy to me – in a good way – although Gamoran is quick to point out that it’s a job he invented himself and pitched to the company, which I have to admit is pretty scrappy after all.
It’s the same resourceful mentality he brought to UConn, after he was recruited as a tennis player. In short order, he realized first that he wanted to be a chef, and then that UConn didn’t offer a course of study that would help him do that. So he pulled together a hodgepodge of classes and made his own major. “I learned how to craft something out of nothing. And they supported it. I graduated with a degree in restaurant management and a minor in communications. It was my first win! The first time I got to get scrappy.”
Gamoran has moved his Sur La Table gig to Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and rides a little Vespa around.
“What’s next?” I ask. “What’s the dream?”
“I think when people cook, it really enhances their life,” he answers. “Cooking builds connection and draws us together and draws us to the table. I want to motivate and inspire people to cook. I want to be known as the guy that made the kitchen a little more accessible.”