The Story of the Hippy Gourmet TV Show

By Louis R. Cumberbatch and James Ehrlich

A quiet little culinary revolution is happening in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

Transplanted New Yorker Bruce Brennan, who has cooked for royalty, heads of state and celebrities across the country, decided to make his kitchen into a TV set a few years back and share his blend of vegan cooking and conscious living with the world. He and friend James Ehrlich began producing “The Hippy Gourmet” in a beautifully renovated Victorian home, just doors away from the fabled corner of Haight and Ashbury streets.

Way more than just “munchie” food for the wandering jam-band crowd, the show is a smorgasbord of culinary adventures, travel, music, and information on inventive solutions to global problems. Brennan’s can-do, get-things-done attitude retools the hippie ethic toward community awareness and doing good for the planet.

“We're doing what we think media should be doing. We aim to use this television show as a tool for creating global tranquility and togetherness,” says Ehrlich, who is the producer, main cameraperson and editor for the show.

For those accustomed to the drive-thru lunch or gobbling down a sandwich in the middle of work, the Hippy Gourmet is your antidote. “Nobody digests in this country. Food has become a distraction from our busy lives,” says Brennan, whose large garden just outside the door of his dining room provides a number of the fresh vegetables used in his recipes.

A great big bear of a man in loud tie-dye shirts and a beret, Brennan takes viewers step-by-step through his mouth-watering recipes, patiently describing his techniques and the tastes and smells being created. He cooks up group-sized servings (buying in bulk is emphasized) so that viewers following along at home will have more than enough for just one meal. The fresh-off-the-stove fare is then served to a usual gathering of willing friends for the show-finishing “yummy shot.”

"These recipes fueled the hippie movement in the '60s, and are as current as ever in keeping families well-nourished for the challenges of a busy life," says Brennan.

The show started on Bay Area public access TV in 2001 and quickly spread to around 54 public access stations nationwide. "When we first started on one station in San Francisco a number of years ago our show was wedged between 'Bikers for Christ' and 'Black Power,'" says Ehrlich. “We were getting some pretty hilarious emails from Evangelical Harley riders and ex-Black Panthers who just loved our show!”

From modest beginnings a loyal following was being created, and now the series boasts over six million household viewers and growing. “The main thing is we're building up viewer by viewer. Every week somebody new catches our show. The show is not just for hippies and their families, we reach across all walks of life and to every part of the world, so it’s really not hard to see that there are like-minded people everywhere who enjoy what we’re doing,” says Ehrlich.

When it looked liked the Hippy Gourmet was ready to make the leap from community access to broadcast TV, an Emmy winning consultant was brought in to help shape the look and tone of the production. The editing was further refined, and additional animation gave the opening and transitions a slicker appeal.

146 PBS stations nationally now carry the weekly show and the guys offer over 35 episodes on the Web through a relationship with Google video. A link right at the top of Hippy website takes people directly to the on-line shows.

Organic, fair trade, and sustainably grown ingredients constitute the recipes. An emphasis is on the vegan lifestyle, with occasional fish dishes. Bruce defines his style, loosely, as French Fusion, but the recipes are drawn from many sources, including his free-form hippy youth and from his years as a restaurant chef and caterer. His credits even include feeding the Mission of Ghana for a whole weekend at the U.N. back in New York.

One of Bruce’s early influences was Euell Gibbons, the world famous author and naturalist. After reading Gibbons’ “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” Bruce developed a penchant for foraging in unusual places, sometimes simply stopping by the side of the road and trudging off into the brush. He’s always on the lookout for unusual food sources like quinoa and Romanescu broccoli, which he says people aren’t accustomed to but are nutritious and often inexpensive.

"Jerusalem artichokes, for example, are edible tubers that look like a potato. I grow them in my backyard garden," says Brennan. “As I hitchhiked back and forth across the country in the old days, they were a perfect food source. I used to dig 'em up by the side of the road."

"I see them as solving a lot of problems in the world," Brennan added. "They're good for erosion control on the levees--Arnold (Swarzenegger) should know about them."

Bruce’s sister, Pam acquired the spacious home in the mid-70s and ran it as a bed and breakfast, the Herb’n’Inn, for a number of years before the show started. A collection of ‘60s memorabilia, including rare and unpublished photos of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead adorns the front room of the house, now dubbed the ‘Psychedelic Museum.’ The address is also a stop on “The Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour” which meanders through the Haight, and visitors and acquaintances can often be found milling about, chatting, and admiring the artwork if not sampling leftovers from one of the shooting sequences.

The show also goes on the road to exotic locales such as the Amazon rain forests, Tuscany in Italy, and the Hawaiian Islands for regional delicacies. “We are fortunate enough to visit communities that see eating (in a slow food style) as a highlight of the day,” says Brennan. “Many Italians, for example, spend 3 hours savoring lunch: sipping wine, talking, and enjoying a respite from their tasks.”

Viewers can get a glimpse of the preparation such things as Moussaka from Greece, Borscht from the Ukraine, and organic Yucca and Plantains from Brazil. Background on the history and culture of the locales is provided, and viewers are introduced to the chefs who staff the kitchens as well as local personalities.

Ehrlich says when they feature a guest chef they like to "start from the beginning with the interview, putting him or her at ease, and spend time to discover the original inspiration behind someone becoming a chef. Was it the smell of garlic at home, did they lick the spoon when their mother was making a chocolate cake, or maybe did they grow up in a restaurant environment? This often draws the person out and imbues the segment with more warmth and personality."

Brennan and Ehrlich also cultivate relationships with nonprofit organizations that they feel are having a positive impact on the planet. Solar energy, hybrid vehicles, aquaculture, the organic and fair trade movements, and endangered or mistreated animals are just some of the themes featured. In one episode Bruce cooks up vegetarian pizzas in an oven that heats up entirely on the sun’s energy, on the grounds of the Solar Living Institute in Hopland, California.

“These non-profit feature segments are near and dear to my heart,” says Ehrlich. “They start out as a kind of visual sherbet in a way, allowing us a way to cut between recipes, but what they really do for the viewer is connect them to worthy causes around the world.”

In conversation Brennan is a true counter-culture thinker. He tends to free associate and go off on tangents about his adventures and influences. He’s happy to show people curious found-object art pieces he’s working on, such as a windmill made of wire, nitrous caps and discarded AOL CDs. He comes across as the idealist of the pair, balanced out by the practical, no-nonsense Ehrlich, who is entrusted to meet production deadlines and keep his host on task while shooting.

“Bruce likes to feed people a six-foot hero sandwich (of his ideas) sometimes, and I’m left with the task of making him cut that hero into bite-sized pieces,” says Ehrlich.

Brennan has been developing a concerned and aware conscience since the days he was cutting class to protest the Vietnam War. His activist spirit was nurtured by his mother who organized busses to take willing students, including Bruce, to the marches on Washington. Numerous friends were dodging the draft, and Bruce did everything in his power at the time to support them in their effort to get across the border to Canada.

"I was going with the flow of the times but was pretty scared out of my mind," says Bruce, "mostly about my friends going to war."

The courage to speak out as a teenager against a "sadistic" war got him removed from public school. He ended up out west at Pacific High School in the South Bay hills, where instructors were introducing geodesic domes as construction projects.

Invented by R. Buckminster Fuller, the geodesic dome was developed into some of the largest domes and stadiums in the world. It also became the most popular building plan for hippies around the world. Fuller, or “Bucky” as he was known in the 60s, became a hero to the hippy movement, and to Brennan. While he was in his 20s Brennan built a Fuller-inspired dome in Nova Scotia, and was part of a group that lived there for eight years in the 1970s.

Brennan has also envisioned, through his years of cooking and catering, that special little restaurant where he could do his own thing– “for me it had to combine outdoor patio dining, art, music, and food,” says Brennan. “I saw this little side-of-the road café/truck stop sort of thing- like in ‘Baghdad café.’ “Just think of this mirage of sorts coming out of the glimmering distance, in some obscure, bizarre place, perhaps on the outskirts of Phoenix or L.A., or Las Vegas maybe.”

That entrepreneurial spirit has been channeled, for the meantime, into a popular PBS cooking show, and Bruce isn’t complaining. The show is part of the Saturday afternoon cooking lineup that viewers have tuned into for years. The Hippy Gourmet feels honored to be alongside some of the stellar lights of TV cooking like Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, and Graham Kerr, all who influenced him.

A “Hippy Gourmet Guide Cookbook” is being worked up which will condense Brennan’s philosophies into an easily referenced guide. “It’s a cookbook that starts at the big bang and leads up to lunch,” says Ehrlich.

Ehrlich confesses that the best part of producing the Hippy Gourmet is when they reach the conservative, right-wing types. “When we are contacted by people who used to think anything “hippy” was radical and unkempt, but then are blown away by our message of peace through positive change and good quality foods, it just makes what we’re doing all the more important.”

“Most of all,” Ehrlich continues, “…we receive e-mail from around the world from families and friends who are coming together again, sharing in the special bond that links people together through nice meals that have been prepared as a group effort…this is what inspires us to keep filming new shows every week!”

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