It started with a phone call. CNN national news correspondent and long-time friend, Jim Spellman, was coming to D.C. to shoot for his new HLN segment, Eat Like a Local, and wanted some advice on which restaurants best represented the soul of Washington-area dining. So Jim called me. We spoke at length on the D.C. food scene—which chefs were hot, which were not—and how analogous the food scene of today (characterized by the hipsterization of eating) had become to the D.C. punk rock scene that Jim and I came out of in the late 1980s. That Jim and I cut our teeth, so to speak, in the angry and blood-spattered mosh pits of Minor Threat concerts, and that the preponderance today’s city-dwelling twentysomethings can now hold forth on ebi kanj or espetada or fiduas, while being all but illiterate in the once-essential and purely-Darwinian skill of reading the signifiers and codes of the punk-rock aesthetic—that encountering a clean-headed white boy shod in Doc Martins laced in white meant, for example, an exponentially increased likelihood that your day would end in a fist fight—surely this meant something for area gastronomy, but what? And what, for that matter, would the average HLN viewer want to see Jim eat anyway? Should he visit my favorite taqueria for sesos or chapulines to show how the influx of third-world cooks has profoundly altered Washington’s culinary landscape, or should he stick to more the more familiar foodstuffs of long-venerated Washington institutions, where eating fried whiting or a Maryland blue crab on camera would better delight the demographic of viewers that HLN was targeting with content and advertising?
We spoke for an hour, and having unearthed more questions than answers, decided to continue our conversation when he arrived from Denver later in the week. I left our conversation happy that I hade been of help to Jim, but happy, too, that I had, in some small, but meaningful way, finally begun to repay Jim the debt I owed him for changing my life. Melodramatic and suspiciously convenient for the arc of this brief narrative? Yes. But true. Jim Spellman changed my life.
Google Jim Spellman and you’ll quickly discover he is one of the most storied, most interesting people your own good fortune would ever have you meet. What Google will first reveal about Jim, is that he is a highly accomplished reporter of hard news, dispatched by CNN to cover hurricanes, tornados, and missing babies, for network all stars Anderson Cooper, Wolfe Blitzer, and Nancy Grace. Jim’s journalism has won awards and it’s all over YouTube; go see for yourself. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll learn that Jim was a founding member of, and drummer for, the band Velocity Girl, who, in the 1990s, were signed to the Sub Pop label (that’s Nirvana’s label, dude), and whose record sales charted into the hundreds of thousands. That’s right: before he was a national reporter, Jim Spellman was a rock star. He made records and music videos. He played arenas and festivals. He dated then-A-list movie starlets (I’m not naming names, yo, but if you’re over 30, you’ve seen lots her work), and he lived in the mode of Moon and Bonham, and traveled the world doing it.
So did I. Kind of. I played bass for The Atomics (dial us up on Amazon or Spotify; we’re there). We played rockabilly, and we played it well, really well, but as rockabilly is, even on its best day, a deeply-marginal and highly codified musical subgenre, we were signed to Nervous Records, a London-based label, and spent our time playing to significantly smaller—though always violently enthusiastic—crowds across Britain.
Jim and I lived in the same world, but in wholly different orbits, and, as musicians we never once met. This was highly unlikely. Look above and left, and you’ll see a flyer of live shows from Washington’s legendary punk rock club, d.c. space [sic] for November of 1990. Note, please, that Velocity Girl played d.c. space Friday the 9th, while my band, the Atomics, took the very same stage just two weeks later on Saturday the 24th (notice, too, that Courtney Love, ever the embodiment of lady-like nicety, even back then, especially back then, was there on Tuesday the 20th).
It wasn’t until I had quit my job as an academic book editor for a New York-based publisher, and taken refuge—temporary, I thought—on that mighty and turbulent pirate ship known the food business, that I met Jim, and worked with him at a local caterer, the local caterer as it turned out, learning that the highly-nuanced, profoundly rarified, high-wire act of serving the pleasure of the world’s political elite—a service dance of which Jim was expert—required nearly the exact same skill set as performing in a rock ‘n roll band. I was good at it. But Jim was truly great. His ability to charm some of the most powerful and famous people of the western world was as preternatural as it was effortless. A stage is a stage, he knew, and the high that comes from playing in front of a thousand screaming fans is exactly the same kind of high that comes from serving the President of the United States, or Bono, for that matter. Working with Jim gave me a taste of the good stuff—the pure, unadulterated buzz-giving adrenaline that performing really well for strangers in the kitchens and dining rooms of the world’s movers and shakers imparts. He was the Virgil to my Dante, and I would follow him anywhere, and for a while, I did.
But Jim was restless with other ambitions; he had other plans, which took him away from the food business and out to Colorado, where he went to work for CNN, charming the television camera now, and millions of viewers, with the simple act of being Jim Spellman. The cameras, the viewers—they never had a chance. Resistance to Jim’s charms was futile. He was that good.
We communicated through social media, in the intervening years, about motorcycles and vintage guitars—shared obsessions—but it wasn’t until Jim rolled into Washington, with his Eat Like a Local crew in tow, that I saw him for what had to be the first time in a decade. The years of non-service-industry clean living had done him well. Always a really, really good looking guy, Jim was now shockingly handsome, grey about the temples, and glasses for the eyes, but better looking with age in the way that George Clooney grows strangely more beautiful, if older, with each passing year. Jim might have been Velocity Girl’s drummer, the man on skins behind the kit, but now Jim was clearly CNN’s front man with the microphone, and untold numbers of viewers and devotees loved him for it.
We met the night before the shoot in the bar of Jim’s hotel. He drank soda water. I drank beer. We revisited our conversation about Washington’s food scene, and Jim decided—to my surprise and even greater delight—that I would eat on camera with him, playing the foil of dark prince, the industry insider, the local “expert” with a bag full of snark to Jim’s blue-eyed golden incarnation of journeyman eater and world traveler. We would meet the following morning at the Eastern Market and see what the new day would bring us, and what we might, in turn, bring to the world of food television.
Prior to my HLN appearance, I had hitherto been on television exactly once in my food career. The crew of ABC Television’s Nightline followed my coworkers and me around for three, filming our preparations—inglorious as they were—for the 2005 Presidential Inauguration of George W. Bush. What appeared of me was some B-roll footage of me performing the more banal tasks of my job—answering a telephone, as I recall, and pushing a Crescore into the Corcoran Gallery of Art—so bound for glory at the Food Network I was most certainly not. But the experience of hanging out with the Nightline crew gave me some idea of what it was to make television of that kind, and how it was very much a world of hurry-up-and-wait for a strike of lightening in a pretty blue sky.
Even still, I was unprepared for what the run-and-gun, shoot-from-the-hip reporting style of Jim and his CNN team. They rolled up at eight the morning in a black Suburban, like some wayward Seal Team 6, with cameras for guns, and the same implacable sense of mission and zeal for conquest, now loosed on a sleepy-headed Washington, which, like me, was still trying to wake up. With Jim was his cameraman and his producer, both based at CNN Headquarters in Atlanta. The salutations and introductions were perfunctory and brief, with the crew was already sensing trouble with the location: it was empty. Shooting the Eastern Market was my idea. And this was most assuredly my fuck-up. I have never once visited when the old girl wasn’t overrun with admirers, but I also had never been to the market at eight o’clock on a Thursday morning. Lesson one: extolling the charms of an unpeopled building while declaring it a Washington institution does not make gripping, don’t-touch-that-dial television. This I learned. My bad. And owned it I did. So into the Suburban we went, rolling through southeast Washington, seeking inspiration, looking for other, better-populated places to shoot. But once off location, once in the comfortable confines of that all-American SUV, the crew relaxed, and the vibe in the Suburban, I can tell you, was pure Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction-era Tarintino, as Jim, ever-hilarious, always-erudite, riffed on Chuck Brown, on Mambo Sauce, and on what bad or otherwise very-punk-rock things had happened to him or to Rollins-era scenesters back in the day, and in the very buildings now passing just outside our windows. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson had nothing on Jim. I laughed until I cried. This from agents of the most trusted name in news.
We soon bagged the idea of shooting breakfast, and ate our own—just egg sandwiches for Jim and me; omelets and hash for our CNN brethren—in a plain and unremarkable Washington diner you’ve likely driven past a thousand times. We suffered our food in the way only men intent killing time—an entire morning’s worth, in our case—can, slowly, torturously so, as if by remand to that special culinary ring of Dante’s purgatory reversed for those media and food professionals who have fucked up a shoot, and who require time to meditate on the many ways—including a bland, Tabasco-can’t-save-it egg sandwich—their morning has gone terribly wrong. Not only was their egg on my face for botching the Eastern Market shoot, I now had to eat the motherfucker between two pieces of dry, white toast. Just desserts, indeed.
Salvation from our culinary limbo came in the form of the long-venerated, everyone-in-DC-has-eaten-there, Ben’s Chili Bowl, whom our CNN producer had scheduled our arrival, and who received us as if we were blood relatives newly arrived in town for the family reunion. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, Ben’s Chili Bowl is a Washington eatery serving chilidogs and half-smokes since 1958. But Ben’s is more than a restaurant, it’s an institution, not just for the sheer popularity of their food, but what Ben’s has meant to the African-American community of DC, and the larger community of District eaters—white and black—since it was spared the riots of 1968. Ben’s Chili Bowl has been featured on every food or lifestyle program there is, and I expected our presence would be little noticed, or anything but coolly received. How wrong I was. Look up “gracious” in your college Webster’s and there is most assuredly a photograph of Mrs. Virginia Ali, wife late-founder Ben Ali, and the sweetest proprietress in all of Washington. She welcomed Jim like a long lost son, telling him the stories she’s surely told food reporters a thousand times already, and still with all the sparkle-eyed wonder of someone spinning a yarn for the very first time. Now this was pure television gold. This is what the CNN crew had come halfway across the country for. Mrs. Ali was a fucking pro. The cameraman finished shooting Mrs. Ali, then moved on to shot the B-roll (the “scenery” footage atop which voice-overs are often laid) of how Ben’s chili is made, how the half-smokes are prepared, and with that soon done, it was time for Jim and me to eat—and talk about—and Ben’s half-smoke and chili on camera. Easier said than done. I realize that eating food is something we all do several times a day, every day of our lives, but to eat on camera, to suddenly be mindful of eating as an act, while offering a commentary that is equal parts witty and insightful—that is no small trick, friends. Not only is eating neatly at issue, but so are such profoundly fundamental precepts to conversation as such as speaking and hearing, for you, the eater, are wearing a microphone, which means whatever culinary insights you’re capable of offering are so done in a speaking voice that is actually far softer than what is required to project over the ambient noise of the restaurant, so hearing yourself speak is hard, but hearing your chili-chinned on-camera comrade’s response is almost as difficult as resisting that all-too-great temptation of looking into the camera in the hope that your last snark-infested cut-up had made the camera man belly laugh. If there were mistakes to be made while eating on camera, I made them. Again and again and again.
I didn’t have to wait long for my shot at redemption, however. For our second—and final—shoot of the day, Jim and his CNN team chose Room 11, a then-newly-minted eatery in the quickly-gentrifying Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, where, just eighteen months before, local guttersnipe once prowled for smack and Bolivian marching powder, and where, now, bearded hipsters in white belts and slouch hats (to better conceal insipid baldness) flocked for highly-respectable charcuterie and a glass of this-does-not-suck wine. We arrived largely unannounced to find a deeply dark and incredibly narrow corner building restaurant packed, floorboards to rafters, with a palpably happy eating public made of equal parts just-over-from-the-Hill foodies, and the obligatory local hipsters-in-rut (be the object of their affections the girl beside them, or the cheese plates before them, was never quite clear to me). This was not auspicious for making good television. For if Eastern Market represented a kind of Malickean (that’s Terrence, yo) study in the wan morning light of empty rooms and negative space, Room 11 proffered an Apocalypse Now-era Coppola-esque exercise in shooting across shadow and through the lowest of lights. So our stalwart CNN camera man fixed low-glare lights over the bar and shot his B-roll of happy eaters eating, while I drank a beer, then two, playing a brooding (if far more hirsute) Brando to that heart of hipster darkness until it was time, once again, to eat.
To add a measure of visual tension to the shoot (amid that sea of bad light), we agreed the food would appear together in a “reveal,” wherein Jim and I would register our real—not staged—surprise at what culinary delights awaited us. Playing ringmaster to the on-camera reveal, was Dan Searing, part-owner/operator (as I understand it) of Room 11, and Jim’s friend way back in the salad days of vibrant D.C.’s punk (or post-punk) rock music scene. With cameras now rolling, Dan laid three of Room 11’s finest offerings on the bar before us, and with them, descriptions of what the chef had prepared for us to eat. So Jim and I raised our forks and dug in. And between mouthfuls of this-does-not-entirely-suck cuisine, we talked. We revisited our then-week’s-long conversation about how a new generation of restaurateurs and eaters were embracing ingredients (re: offal) that would have been an otherwise unthinkable fixture on menus just two or three years before.
What I remember about eating on camera at Room 11 was a shared meal with a dear old friend, a meal full of reminiscence and portent about where the brave new world of gastronomy had been, and where it was headed. But what comes across in the final edit (which is even shorter than a Wall-of-Sound-era Supreme’s number) is a badly lit blowhard (me, as if cast for a Yo! MTV Raps video), looking like shit (just over an illness, and carrying the weight of a decade in the business—the toil of the job, the all-too-keen pleasures of the food industry “third shift”—in the hefty bags beneath my eyes) talking, sans snark, in professorial non sequitur (re: editing) about the context of Room 11’s cuisine, all the while trying to surmount the now-familiar television travails of blindness and deafness, and chewing with your mouth closed.
The Room 11 spot aired on HLN during the first week of December, then again, and again in heavy rotation (ad nauseam, ad infinitum), in mid-January, over the course of the Presidential Inauguration. On YouTube and across my social media pages, the response to Jim’s screen presence was overwhelming positive (as in: he is so totally hot, and, I wonder if he’s married) while the reviews on my dubious culinary acumen was decidedly mixed. I was questioned for my use of the term street food (this, despite years of study on the subject and wide international culinary travel eating the shit—cock’s comb from a street vendor in Paris, for example—that poor people the world over eat), and for having the temerity for calling poor people—gulp—poor. This worried me. Not because I thought I had misspoken, or was in any way misinformed; I was worried that I had unwittingly fucked with someone’s baby, that I had messed with someone’s kid. To wit: for owner/operators, a restaurant isn’t simply a business, it’s the embodiment of years of hard work and sacrifice, the manifestation of their most sacred hopes and dreams for vocation, prosperity, and that all-too-heady concept of the future. Feedback on what I’d said in the Room 11 spot led me to believe that I had uttered isn’t she pretty in a language I didn’t fully understand, only to discover—much later—I had just insulted the looks and intelligence of a little boy. So I twice tried to reach out to Room 11’s Dan Searing in email, and twice received what I believe, in the parlance of our times, is hipster-speak for fuck you: silence. I can’t say as I blame Dan. To have a fellow culinarian (me) saunter into your establishment on his day off and wax philosophical on national television (re: off message) about the gastronomic “big picture” of young, white Americans embracing offal (food of the Third World), when all he (me) should have really been repeating (re: on message) were food-TV truisms like wow and bam and orgasm in my mouth, was tantamount to accidently keying Dan’s car. And that would make anybody mad.
Jim and crew lit out for Baltimore the next morning, bound for further television glory; I returned to the loving embrace of the food industry, that cruel and unforgiving mistress I love—despite her many flaws—so dearly. But as ungainly and ham-fisted as my television debut was, I have a very strong suspicion that I’m not done with TV, or better, TV is not yet done with me.
Watch this space.
You just might be surprised what shows up.
Your link to the Room 11 spot: Dining like a local in Washington – YouTube
The Ben’s Chili Bowl segment has yet to air. I’ll post it here when it does.
Click here to check out my other culinary quests: Manifesto
And above all: thanks for everything, Jim.