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Christine Cushing is Cinderella. I'll tell you how I know this. Two years ago Cushing was making her living as a freelance food stylist, chef, caterer and cooking teacher. It was a good and varied career: one that she enjoyed more than she had the constraints of working in a restaurant kitchen. How could things get any better?
Then they did. On her birthday in May of 1998, Cushing was working a food show for a major small appliance company. Wearing a headset with a microphone, she was cheerfully hawking food processors and bantering with the crowd. Pretty much business as usual in the life of the young foodie entrepreneur.
After her spiel, she was approached by someone who announced himself as a television producer. He suggested she come in the following Monday to audition for a show he was working on. A cooking show that still lacked a host.
Though excited and certainly game, Cushing had never thought about working in front of a camera. "I'd never done a television audition before and I didn't read the small print." While waiting for her audition, she did. It said that, "I wasn't supposed to wear jeans. And I was in jeans and a T-shirt."
Undaunted -- because she was there, right? And never mind that the other two hopefuls were coifed and professional looking -- "I just said: Whatever. I'm just going to do my thing. It was like a small, five minute thing and I said it and it just seemed natural."
It must have been natural. Before her coach could turn back into a pumpkin, Cushing had been hired as the host of the new Life Network cooking show, Dish It Out. "They told me afterwards that when they watched all the auditions, as soon as I got up they said: That's the one."
The recipe Cushing prepared for that audition is included in her new book, Dish It Out: Simple Recipes That Inspire. "I toiled for days," Cushing says of that pre-audition period. "Trying to impress them and blow them away. I thought, just take a really basic thing like a pizza and make it simple, yet interesting. And it all fit into five minutes and at the end I thought: This is really good. And they were really impressed by this stupid little pizza."
Cushing is one of those rare individuals who seems to have been born for the kitchen, with the added bonus of a personality that seems born for the mike. Rarely without a smile, Cushing is gamin and quick with one-liners. She also knows her way around food preparation very well.
"The very first thing I ever asked for was an oven. So if that's not a sign, I don't know what is." It grew, perhaps, to be a frightening sign; at least from her parent's perspective. Imagine the consternation when their 14-year-old daughter would race home from school in order to spend all night in the kitchen perfecting her lemon meringue pie.
At that age, it had become obvious to the fledgling chef that, "I was going to be a bad baker. Pastry was not working. You know, food you can kind of play around with, but baking? When you're bad, you're bad. So I took it upon myself to change that."
The change was wrought with what for Cushing is typical perseverance. "I'd come home from high school and say: OK, I'm going to be making lemon meringue pie tonight. My parents would be freaking because I'd be up until all hours of the night and then I'd be exhausted because I had to get up for school the next day. I'd be up until like two o'clock in the morning, the kitchen would be a mess and I'd do it for days on end."
By the time she was 18, it probably seemed to outsiders like the die was cast, but she had overcome that baking restriction. "I ended up starting this little business where I made cakes for Greek restaurants." It was, Cushing says, a crazy period. Driving cakes to restaurants, getting her school homework done and generally trying to keep up with the double life she was living at the time.
While at university, Cushing had a revelation. She had a split major: languages and computer science. "I came home one day and said: I hate this, I hate this, I so hate this." She told her parents, who were hugely disappointed, "they'd always expected me to be some kind of -- you know -- academic thing. But I knew in my heart that I loved to cook, so somehow I'd make it in that realm."
Ultimately, the path to making it took her to École de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris where she would graduate top in her class: and likely to no surprise on the part of her patient parents.
Cushing endured the sexism rampant in professional European kitchens while she was an apprentice. "The problem that men have -- and this has always been my argument -- is that they misconstrue dexterity -- like the ability to chop really quickly and carry big items and haul 50 gallon soup pots -- they translate that into being the best chef." Cushing feels that that particular distinction falls to the cook who can best combine things in an original -- yet culinarily pleasing -- way.
"I've become a naturalist, a purist in the food sense. I did all the classical French training and you quenelle it and you roll it and you wrap it and you sun dry it for eight hours and then you come back 14 days later [laughs]. It's a great thing. But can you -- in a half an hour or an hour -- make a really great-tasting plate of food? Some people can't do it."
The classical training has led Cushing to a simpler path. "There comes a point where less is more." Something that is obvious in her book. Long on elegant meals that are simply prepared, Cushing started planning the book just one year into the show. Now planning a second book, Cushing says she enjoyed the challenge of putting the book version of Dish It Out together, though it wasn't an easy task.
"Developing the recipes was a lot of work. The book has about 65 recipes from the show and the rest of the 90 or so are my own. I wanted to give people added value. I didn't want it to just be the recipes from the show. I wanted it to be recipes from the show, plus a hundred others, plus tips, plus all my basic stuff."
Cushing's personality has translated well from the screen to page. She is as bright and bold on paper as she is on the screen and in person, something she credits to the team who produce the show's Web site. "In the last year I've tried the whole column thing on the site. The writers at the Web site liked my style and have tried to encourage it. I like to write the way I am. I don't like to be formal."
With book one out in the world and book two on the drawing board, Cushing, who lives in Toronto with her husband Ted, is looking forward to making her already-popular television show even better. "I really want it to evolve. I really want to blow it a bit more open." | June 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.