St. Paul chef impresses Food Networkby Greta Cunningham, Minnesota Public Radio
Producers from cable television's Food Network are hoping a St. Paul man and his hearty meat-and-potatoes recipes are going to be a hit with its viewers. A television crew recently taped a segment with John Michael Lerma to learn more about the meals he made with his grandmother that kept farmhands well fed.
St. Paul, Minn. — It's all happening very fast for John Michael Lerma. A crew from the Food Network has just pulled up to his little white house in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. Kelly Ryan, a Food Network producer, flew in from San Francisco to tape a segment about Lerma's pies.
As the crew gets the lights and cameras in place, Lerma is a bubbly host. He tries to coax the crew to dig into the batch of caramel rolls he's whipped up using his grandmother's recipe.
Lerma's cookbook, "Garden County," is based on the recipes he learned from his grandmother. Lerma's grandparents owned a grain farm in North Dakota's Red River Valley. As a child he spent summers helping on the farm.
Lerma didn't like to work in the fields -- instead he helped his grandmother as she prepared breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for all the hired hands working in the fields. Most of the food came from his grandmother's two-acre garden. Lerma says his grandmother was a wonderful teacher.
"I never did anything wrong. It just wasn't the 'correct way' to do it, and this was 'the better way,'" said Lerma. "There was never any of this 'Well, you've done that wrong!' So that invited me more into asking questions. I think the only thing wrong was I liked to eat the raw sugar cookie dough."
Lerma's grandmother taught him to cook, can vegetables, and bake pies. One of her specialties was a Vidalia onion pie that she made every Thanksgiving. His grandmother would get a big box of Vidalia onions sent to her from Georgia. She would set aside two pounds of the sweet onions, wrap them in newspaper and store them in the basement to preserve them through the fall.
Lerma credits this pie with capturing the attention of the Food Network. He baked a Vidalia onion pie during The Great American Pie Festival in Celebration, Florida. The Food Network was covering the event and was intrigued by a pie made from onions.
"But it's really sweet. I can't really liken it to anything. People try this and they think, tart onion -- eew!" Lerma said. "It's all onion. But it really does become really sweet, and then you have the nice flaky crust."
Unfortunately for Lerma, the pie festival judges couldn't decide if his Vidalia onion pie recipe was really a dessert. Consequently he did not get high scores in the competition.
But he's had success in other food contests. He's won several Minnesota State Fair ribbons for his relishes, pickles and jams.
Lerma's cookbook contains those recipes as well as dishes such as Red River Potato Salad, Grandma's Ham Biscuits, and Apple Butter.
He makes no apologies for his simple cooking, and marvels at a food discovery he made during a recent trip to Italy.
"I think the Midwest is very close to Italian cooking. It starts in the garden, or what's available during the different seasons of the year. And revolves around meeting people and eating with people, and taking the time and the gathering," said Lerma. "I think back to the time being on the farm. Even during the holidays it was fun, because the hired hands who were living there would come and sit at the picnic tables with us. So they became our family."
Producer Kelly Ryan says she and the Food Network were impressed by Lerma's showmanship during The Great American Pie Festival, and are expecting a bright future for Lerma.
"And it is 'Local boy done great,' because he really, in the competition, he was one of those that attracted a lot of people. And people were just surrounding him when he was baking his pies. We saw that and thought, 'Wait, this guy is going to be good!'"
John Michael Lerma says he's already working on his second cookbook, and is talking to editors at National Geographic to write a book on Italian cooking. His segment on the Food Network is set to air in November.