Crean's World : Spiders in the salad! Towels aflame! This is cooking--on local cable of course.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Things catch fire. The chef blows his nose on camera. Sometimes the recipes come from a Bisquick box. Sometimes they go right into the trash. On one notorious show, the chef and his co-host cooked dog food and fed it to bibbed bowsers eating off fine china.

This is "At Home on the Range," a cooking show that in the past year has become an Orange County cable TV sensation, watched by college kids and society folk alike.

Unlike Manhattan--where local cable access has brought a revolution of weirdness and sleaze to the tube--few people in Orange County watch or produce programs for community viewing. But even amid a glut of programming, "At Home on the Range" would probably stand out with its garage-level professionalism, lovably curmudgeonly chef and its dry, often thoroughly unintentional humor.

The show is indeed shot in a Santa Ana Heights garage, though you could practically hangar a jet in it. It is a swimming pool or two removed from the main house, which, except for the Yankee flag flying out front, is a striking replica of Tara from "Gone with the Wind." It's all a part of Village Crean, an estate roughly the size of Kuwait.

And for all the down-home, Everyman-with-a-spatula appeal of chef John Crean, this is his place. Barbara Venezia, his frothy, bubbly co-host and show producer, became friends with the wealthy businessman when she interviewed him for her local business video magazine.

On camera, though, Crean seems--and says he sometimes genuinely is--irked to have her cluttering up the kitchen when he's seriously trying to cook.

Venezia says they're the Odd Couple of cooking. The two can't even agree on what the show's greatest disasters were.

"It was when we set the paper towels on fire," she says.

"No, it was the spider," Crean rebuts, referring to a salad he'd accidentally made with eight legs more than the recipe called for.

After some niggling over a bungled frittata attempt, they do agree on the worst food they've cooked.

"It had to be the onion rings," Venezia says. "We had a sponsor--we don't have him anymore--who had this terrible cookbook. One of the recipes was for breading onion rings and putting them in the oven instead of frying them. When we got them out the top was done, the bottom was burnt and they were stuck together, looking like a pancake with onions. They were so bad that as I was saying, 'If you'd like a copy of this recipe. . .' John goes over and slides them into the trash."

Crean and Venezia tape the show at 8 p.m. four times a month before a live audience of about 40, and it goes out over all 10 Orange County cable systems. (It can also be seen in Long Beach on Mondays at 9:30 p.m. on CVI Cable Ch. 3, and on Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. on Ch. 25 for Paragon Cable viewers in Los Alamitos, Rossmoor, Cypress and Midway City.) Reservations for the show are filled weeks in advance.

When the show premiered last June, it featured celebrity guests such as Stan Freberg, Mr. Blackwell and the man who gave the show its present name: "We were originally titled 'The Village Cooks' and Joey Bishop said we were more like the village idiots," Venezia recalls. "Then he said we needed a snappy name and came up with 'At Home on the Range.' "

Crean can barely abide Venezia in the kitchen, so the celebrity guests didn't last long. The show initially didn't have a studio audience, but so many friends started hanging out that they decided to open it to the public. "Also, we'd been getting calls from people who just didn't get it," Venezia says. "They didn't know they were supposed to laugh until we had an audience in here."

Crean still doesn't get it: "I watch the tapes from time to time and I really think the show is dumb. I cannot figure out what the hell people are laughing about, because I take the top off the ketchup bottle and they laugh. I don't know what could possibly be funny about that."

Maybe it's because most other TV chefs don't employ ketchup and a plenitude of canned goods in their cuisine. Crean does indeed get his recipes off Bisquick boxes and similarly unassuming sources, and one secret ingredient is big heaps of sugar. Most often, though, he modifies dishes by omitting ingredients, then admitting, "I just flat-ass forget to put them in."

He's capable of great one-liners and put-downs, but there also seems to be a fine comedic timing to his mistakes. When he pours a cup of water into a recipe, there's a precious second that passes as realization dims his nearly deadpan face and he says, "You know, that was supposed to be milk ." Then he goes right on cooking.

Born in North Dakota and raised in Compton, Crean says that he was a latchkey kid who had to do much of his own cooking: "I was great at making angel food cakes when I was 7 or 8 years old, because in my neighborhood there were a lot of chickens, and we had all the eggs we could eat, and angel food cake is nothing but eggs, sugar and a bit of flour."

He refined his talents during 18 months in the Merchant Marine during World War II, and later cooked on his own boat during trips to Mexico.

He also went through the bother of becoming rich. His Fleetwood Enterprises, the nation's top motor home manufacturer, last year reached nearly $2 billion in sales. In 1955, he and Donna, his wife of 45 years, donated 10% of their income to charity. Now it's up to 50%.

Crean started his company in 1950, he says, "mostly because I was just unemployable. I've always got to do things my way. . . . As a little kid, the idea of getting out and making a few bucks was just there. I always did that."

He also always cooked. The dog food he once prepared on the show was a recipe he first made when the Creans were on a liquid diet.

"I didn't really miss eating food nearly as much as I missed cooking it," he recalls. "So I decided I was going to cook for my dog and went down and bought a bunch of stuff and made some dog food. The recipe included vegetables, rice, beans, a bit of lean hamburger, and some wheat germ 'for the people in Irvine.' My dog was crazy about it. So one night I made it on the show and had my dog and a friend's dog there with napkins on, eating the dog food."

A cooking program, however, was the last thing on Crean's mind. But after Venezia first interviewed him, he says, "we just got to chatting about this and that. And she's a sneaky little broad. . . . The first thing you know, she had a date scheduled where she came with her cameraman and we were doing a show in my kitchen over in the house."

Though large by most standards, that kitchen proved too small for the show. "We were tripping over the cords, and the camera was in the soup. It was a mess," he says. A few weeks later, he had the kitchen stage built in the garage.

On this particular day, the pair is making chili in the garage, preparing for a chili cook-off they are entering. "We schmooze with all the judges, so we hope we got it wired," Crean says. Usually, he doesn't pick a recipe until the afternoon of the show, and Venezia often doesn't know what it is until the cameras are rolling.

That knowledge doesn't help her much, and part of their interplay comes from her culinary ignorance.

"I think the funniest thing about John and I is there is a very big generation gap between us," she says. "I'm 37; he's 68. People from his generation were very into cooking and taking care of themselves. Women in my generation went out to college and work and weren't concerned with that kind of thing. He says all the time that the only thing I make well is reservations.

"I once asked him why he didn't cut the fat off the bacon. On the last show I asked him, 'How come these eggs are brown?' and he said they came from brown chickens. I usually don't know if he's lying to me or not."

Aside from tolerating her questions, Crean relegates Venezia to performing only the simplest kitchen functions. It has led to something of a dubious fame for her. "I call on prospective advertisers now and it's, 'Oh, aren't you the one that stirs?' " she says.

Crean says he'd be far more comfortable cooking solo. "It's a fight because I'm trying to get the stuff cooked and I'm serious, and she is forever trying to screw me up. At least I feel that way. She's in the way. Even when she stirs she gets it all over the stove."

But, he adds, "She's really the spark plug of the show. She brings things out of me, where without her I'd just be cooking."

Except for a permanently mounted camera over one stove-top burner--which Crean routinely forgets to position his pans under--the show is a one-camera shoot. It is taped live without a script in about 40 minutes and cut to 21 minutes by Venezia. She edits out the dull spots, but whatever else happens stays in.

As they prepare the chili, Crean forgets the onions, blows his nose, gets a squirt of Chloraseptic from Venezia, comments on the bugs in the Newport Beach water system and offers a few words that are sure to boost their advertising revenues: "You know, we only get two kinds of sponsors, the ones that drop us and then the kind that don't pay."

The garage audience seems predisposed to howl at the least little aside from Crean or Venezia, and the show reminds of the wobbly early days of television, where anything could happen.

Crean says his wife laughs so hard that she can't sit in the studio audience. But he doesn't worry about what others who move in his sometimes-rarefied social circle may think of his cutting up on low-rent local TV.

"I couldn't care less," he says. "I've slummed worse places than this. I do what's fun and what I enjoy and if it bothers other people, that's tough."

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