PIERRE FRANEY HAS been cooking in America for more than 50 years, but that doesn't make him a know-it-all. In fact, he's learned a lot, he says, over the last six months and across the 50,000 miles he's logged seeing -- and tasting -- just what is cooking in America.
Franey, 70, has eaten grilled steaks with Nevada cowpokes, shared quail with California vintners, palled around a Disney World kitchen with Chef Mickey and watched a Baltimore chef prepare soft-shell crabs in a Maryland tomato sauce. He's found out-of-the-way restaurants, enthusiastic young chefs and an attitude that gives Franey "great confidence in what's happening in America foodwise."
"I'm going around to see what's going on," says Franey, who has spent most of his culinary life in New York.
His food finds and adventures will be woven into his next series of cooking shows, "Pierre Franey's Cooking in America," coming early next year.
The series, being co-produced by Maryland Public Television, mixes Franey's kitchen prowess with a through-Pierre's-eyes look at America's food supply -- how pigs are raised in Iowa, how strawberries are grown in California, how Cheddar cheese is produced in Wisconsin, how crabs shed their shells in the Chesapeake Bay.
About half of the series is being filmed on the road and the other half in the Owings Mills studios. Each episode focuses on one food or cuisine, with Franey's recipes augmenting the scenes of America.
"You'll see where food's coming from," says Charlie Pinsky, producer and director of the series. "Pierre is great with people. Wherever we go, Pierre gets involved," adds Pinsky, who produced Franey's highly successful first series, Cuisine Rapide, also with MPT.
"Involved" means picking cherries in Idaho, following bees into a California orange grove and riding with some Nevada "buckaroos," who still herd cattle on horseback.
Talking during a filming break recently, Franey seemed to take particular pride in his stint with the cowboys. "I did exactly what they did. I got my horse; I got my saddle; I slept in a tent," says the gentle Frenchman, who honed his cooking expertise in New York City's prestigious Le Pavillon, after coming to this country to cook in the French pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1939.
Looking, in his own estimation, like Roy Rogers, Franey followed a bull, 15 cows "and their little ones" through the middle of nowhere.
And when day was done, grilled steak wasn't enough. He made Strawberries Romanoff and a bearnaise sauce in a movable kitchen that accompanies the cowhands. "They loved that bearnaise sauce on the steak," Franey says. "'You can have a job here any time, Pierre' they told me."
Franey and Pinsky have woven young chefs and local restaurants into their series, too. "We did not want to go to super-fancy restaurants," says Pinsky. Instead, on local recommendations, they found such places as the Hub City Diner in LaFayette, La., Cafe Spudnik in Moscow, Idaho, and the Strawtown Inn in Pella, Iowa.
Baltimore's Pierpoint Restaurant in Fells Point is featured in a segment on soft-shell crabs. Chef Nancy Longo met Franey at a chefs' festival in Louisiana last spring. He said he'd look her up, and he did.
Longo prepared soft-shells in a sauce made from Maryland-grown green and red tomatoes, and served them with a Silver Queen corn salad, she says. Franey did not cook in the Pierpoint kitchen; instead, he asked questions and talked with Longo as she worked.
"It was a wonderful opportunity. He is very charming and easy to get along with; he does not make you feel uncomfortable," says Longo.
"Pierre's in his godfather role" when he works with young chefs, says Pinsky.
The show on soft-shells looks at the whole process, beginning with the crab and the waterman. In Crisfield, Franey talked with waterman Albert "Bobo" Merritt, who was bringing his days' catch to the John T. Handy Co., which buys and processes soft-shell crabs and ships them all over the world.
"I'm fascinated by the soft-shell," says Franey, telling how he watched for 15 minutes as a crab shed its shell.
"I learn a lot by going around. There are so many things going on."
"We're seeing America like you wouldn't believe," says Richard Flaste, a former New York Times reporter who is writing the book that will accompany the Public Broadcasting Service series. "I'm writing our experiences" and combining them with Franey's recipes and those from the guest chefs.
The book, "Pierre Franey's Cooking in America," is more journal than cookbook, says Flaste, who has collaborated with Franey on other books. It will be published when the series goes on the air.
Franey shuns the notion that cooking is going out of style, the victim of convenience foods and drive-thru meals. "We see a lot of people here who want to know more about wine, about food. Food is really improving here. It's going to get better.
"Food has got to be lighter. . . Presentation is important.