Politicos go in front of the cameras to cook — and dish

For fans of politics, there’s a pinch of CNN. For foodies, there’s a dash of Cooking Channel. For devotees of both, there’s a Florida-grown blend that outfits some of the state’s most prominent politicians in aprons and arms them with knives or whisks.

“Live with Lori: Political Food for Thought,” has featured the president of the Florida Senate, the speaker of the Florida House, two likely candidates for governor in 2018, and U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, one of the state’s most conservative Republicans.

On Wednesday morning, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, gets her turn at cooking and conversation.

Wasserman Schultz and host Lori Halbert make mustard sauce for Florida stone crabs and key lime pie, while they talk about immigration reform and funding cancer research, plus the congresswoman’s family and how women in politics juggle their responsibilities.

Viewers won’t see Wasserman Schultz or other guests grilled the way they might on “Meet the Press.” That’s by design, said executive producer Jason Steele. “We never do anything adversarial,” he said.

And the cooking, while sometimes creative, isn’t haute cuisine.

“The cooking is almost incidental. You’re cooking while talking and kibitzing about politics and policy,” Wasserman Schultz said. The veteran of Sunday morning political talk shows said “Live with Lori” is “a more relaxed atmosphere and one that is non-confrontational, and for once is not the two opposing views beating each other up in front of cameras.”

State Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Democrat from Palm Beach County, joined Halbert last season to make marinated shrimp, a melon ceviche and cheese and walnut spread.

“It’s a chance to see stuffy politicians in a little bit more relaxed setting,” Clemens said. “If they’re thinking about what ingredients they’re mixing, then maybe they’re not concentrating on cliches and campaign rhetoric.”

Halbert said too much of what people think they know about politicians is a warped perspective perpetuated by reality shows. “This show is really about the guest,” she said. “The food is a component of it. But it’s really about getting the guest to relax and be human.”

The host is a former town council member in Indialantic in Brevard County. In 2010, she lost a contentious Republican primary contest for state House of Representatives, and came away from the experience unhappy about the lack of civility in current-day politics. She thinks the system has devolved to the point where it’s “dehumanized politicians.”

And the show grew out of what happens in Halbert’s own kitchen.

“What I have found with my group of friends is when we have dinner parties everybody ends up in the kitchen. I just give somebody here’s a cutting board [and say] here’s an onion. I start giving directions. Eventually the talk turns to politics while everybody’s in the kitchen cooking. And it’s friendly,” she said.

At a Fourth of July party the summer after her primary loss, someone suggested a cooking show. It took months to figure out how to turn the idea into reality, and just before Thanksgiving, she filmed two pilot episodes.

It took until October 2012 to get them on the air. For the first season, she had to invest her own money to complete the shows. It was difficult to get guests. People “didn’t get the concept.”

“Live with Lori” pays the production costs and buys the air time, then sells advertising and sponsorships. Now at the end of a fourth, 13-episode season, Halbert said the show is “slightly” profitable.

Halbert said they’re on Sun Sports, a Fox Sports affiliate, because it’s available statewide and is much easier than trying to get a show on the air in each of the state’s television markets.

Steele and Halbert are Republicans, and after people saw the actual product on the air, it became easier to get Democratic guests. The show isn’t partisan, and Halbert said the type that appears across the bottom of the screen doesn’t even identify the guest’s political affiliation.

“From our conversation, you would not have been able to tell that she had a partisan point of view. I was totally comfortable,” Wasserman Schultz said.

A lot of conversation and cooking is packed into the half hour, sometimes creating unusual juxtapositions, such as when Wasserman Schultz was juicing key limes for the pie and the conversation turned to legislation aimed at helping rape survivors who give birth as a result and find themselves having to deal with rapist-fathers asserting their parental rights. Halbert responded to Wasserman Schultz’ comments on immigration reform by proclaiming it a “good answer. What we’ve got here is we’ve got our beautiful graham cracker crust that has been baked at 375 for eight minutes.”

State Sen. Joe Abruzzo, a Palm Beach County Democrat, said the concept works because many people can relate to it. “Most families’ political discussions happen around the kitchen or around the dinner table. So it is fitting that there is a political show that is about cooking.”

The menu for Abruzzo’s episode was margarita chicken with roasted corn salsa. For Jeff Atwater, the state chief financial officer from North Palm Beach, it was a pork roast.

None of her guests has had any disasters, though Halbert said she’s had a few. She burned a butternut squash risotto. And she cut her finger while cutting challah to make French toast with Florida Senate President Don Gaetz.

Most of the time Halbert chooses the recipes because, she said, she’s found it’s easier to get guests to open up if they’re not also concentrating on teaching their recipes. Wasserman Schultz had a request, though. When she learned the taping would be at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, the congresswoman said she wanted to learn how to make the iconic restaurant’s signature key lime pie.

Tapings are sometimes held in Halbert’s kitchen and sometimes at Keiser University kitchens or other remote locations. Her goal is something bigger: a national show from Washington, D..C.

aman@tribune.com, 954-356-4550

Watching ‘Live with Lori’

On TV: Airs 7:30 a.m. Wednesday on the Sun Sports channel on cable and satellite TV.

Online: At 8 a.m. Wednesday, the show will be available for viewing at LivewithLori.com.

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