Cooking Channel’s series “Food: Fact or Fiction” is a briskly edited infotainment show with a kitchen sink approach – each episode whirls with talking heads, archival footage, animation, you name it – to debunk and give context to food myths and fling out snippets of history. After watching an installment, consider yourself prepped for any pub quiz prone to subjects like “Did women once dominate the beer brewing industry?” and “Did the Italians really invent pizza?”
You might also think slightly differently of host Michael McKean, at various times in his career the pomaded Lenny Kosnowski of “Laverne and Shirley,” pontificating rhythm guitarist David Ivor St. Hubbins of “This Is Spinal Tap” and currently Chuck McGill, the electricity-fearing lawyer on “Better Call Saul.”
Off-camera, McKean’s still the kind of wit you'd follow on Twitter (“How could we be out of tuna? Tuna is what you have when you’re out of everything else,” is a classic McKean food tweet). But on the series? McKean doesn’t go the way of the frantic pitching favored by most razzle-dazzlers who preside over shows of this ilk (see: sister channel, Food Network’s “Unwrapped 2.0”). He’s the intelligent, soft-spoken, pun-making adult in the room, turning down the noise in his kitchen TV set.
Now in its second season, “Food: Fact or Fiction” airs on the Cooking Channel (Mondays at 10 p.m.). For those unacquainted with the series, the entire first season is available for streaming on cookingchanneltv. com.
Recently McKean got on the phone to talk about how he ended up on a food series, what he’s learned about spicy cuisine, and reveal his “Better Call Saul” character's breakfast food of choice.
You’re an actor, writer, composer and musician. What appealed to you about adding “host” to your professional resume?
I read the prospectus and I knew that the production company, Revelations, was involved. That’s Morgan Freeman’s production company. And I said, “That sounds really legit. He is, after all, the president and God.”
How are topics chosen?
Is this is an interesting question. There’s a lot of “Who cares?” questions. Like, I don’t really care who invented Pixy Stix. But there are things that we all think we know that are incorrect. For example, we all know that carrots are good for our eyes. Well, they’re not really. This was just something that was cooked up by the British.
According to your show, it was to prevent the Germans from finding out they’d designed radar to track enemy airplanes during World War II, so the Brits pretended it was all in their pilots’ keen eyesight.
Yes, they said, “We make our night fighters eat a lot of carrots, so the RAF can see where [the Luftwaffe] are flying.” That’s just one example. There’s tons of common knowledge that isn’t correct, just things that you didn’t know.
I knew nothing about the Donut Brigade, for example.
You’re speaking of the doughnut-frying female workers sent to the front lines in France?
Yes. The doughnut lassies who during World War I would go right to the front lines and cook up doughnuts to keep the boys going. They really, really came to be part of American life. I also didn’t know that pretzels had religious significance at one time, that the [twists of baked dough] were symbolic of crossed arms.
As the host of a food show, is there now an expectation that you are a food adventurist?
Not necessarily. I’m not really a gourmet. I like to try new things. But I have friends who are kind of epicureans. One of them said to me, “You know what I tried the other night at a really fancy party? I had lark’s tongues.” And I said, “Who are you? Caligula?” That’s insane. He said, “They were really delicious.”
It sounds like your friend was either pulling your leg or referencing a famous King Crimson album. What’s on your no-eat list?
There’s lots of things that people think are wonderful that I despise. Like truffles. I’m not doing a truffle show any time soon. Same goes for shellfish. I’m not a big oyster eater. But I know people who will sit at a raw bar and eat oyster for two hours. I don’t pretend to be any kind of an expert. In fact, I think my Everyman status is what kind of gives the show a center. But I do like new flavors. I like spicy food.
Have you tried the 10++ Nashville hot chicken at Howlin’ Ray’s in Chinatown?
No, but we did a piece about the red hot chicken. Last season, we had the Chili Queens [of San Antonio]. We also talked about what to do when what you’ve eaten is too spicy. Do you drink water or eat a piece of bread? It turns out that a couple of sips of milk will do it. I wish I’d known that 10 years ago when I was in a Mexican restaurant in Oxnard and I ate a jalapeño pepper that stayed with me – literally – for five days.
Do you get to eat the camera-ready dishes?
We did a segment about bundt cake and they had these specimens of bundt cake, which were all so gorgeous you didn’t even want to cut into them. There was one that had an interesting, kind of modern art, kind of Frank Gehry shape to it while still essentially being a bundt cake. And I said, “Well, that’s just too pretty to eat. Is that a real thing? Or did you make it out of plaster?” And they said, “No, it’s real. We’re not going to cut into it, though. So would you like to take it home?” and I said, “Yeah!”
Talk about the bright, young food historians that your show has assembled.
Justin Jampol, for example, he’s our wartime historian. A lot of things that took place during the wars and specifically related to the wars, is Justin’s field of expertise. He’s curator of a wonderful museum in Los Angeles, The Wende Museum, which has [the largest collection of Cold War artifacts outside of Europe]. It’s an amazing thing he’s done there. He’s a really interesting guy. He really knows a lot and I think he likes being on camera. But pizza expert? What does that mean? Well, it’s a guy who can talk about pizza, knows something about the history, and really loves pizza.
Describe your perfect meal.
My wife makes an amazing chili. I love it when someone says, “Hey, let’s get a steak.” I don’t eat steak often, maybe once a month. But when I do, it really hits the spot. When you’re done with your steak and your mashed potatoes and your green beans, you really know you’ve had dinner.
Good New York diner food can really hit the spot. I also like fresh food, food that seems like it hasn’t been monkeyed with too much. I’m in New Mexico right now, where I shoot “Better Call Saul.” There’s this place here called Farm & Table that I like a lot. I’m going to try and take the missus there tonight; she’s got to head back to L.A.
Before we leave “Better Call Saul,” a question: What sort of food passes muster for your house-bound, and possibly mentally ill character, Chuck McGill?
[In flashback scenes] his wife is making risotto, so he used to know about good food. He wouldn’t order a pizza.
Because outsiders like the delivery boys might not get that he suffers instant pain in the presence of any and all electronic equipment?
Yes. But [what he eats] is a really good question that I don’t think has ever been addressed. I think I’m going to have to get back to you on that, but I think he eats a lot of granola.
Let’s get back to “Food: Fact or Fiction?” How is this season different from Season 1?
It’s 13 episodes; we did six last season. I think there’s a lot more history. There are a few more reenactments, but not the kind that take themselves seriously – it’s not like a crime show. I think there’s more silent movie comedy going on, along with the narration. We’ve become better storytellers. During the first season, we found our sea legs. Now it’s a crisper show.
It’s our aim to make it the fastest moving show on television, and it really does have that feel to it. When the show is over, we’ve learned a bunch of things – and we’re hungry. So I think we’re doing the work of the angels.