Graham Kerr was born in London to hotel manager parents. His first cooking lesson came at age six with a chef who tried to teach him to make puff pastry. It was a failure, and by no means a portent of what was to come, but it did teach Kerr that he didn’t have “pastry hands”.
Following his National Service, where he was an Army catering adviser, he was restaurant and then general manager of Royal Ascot Hotel. At age 23 he had a staff of 100, functions every night and, at one stage, worked for three months without a day off. Looking for an alternative, he applied for the job of running RNZAF catering and arrived in New Zealand in 1958.
His break into television came in 1960 with On Your Doorstep. Filming of exercises with an Air Force physical education instructor had to be called off after he sprained his ankle. Instead, a uniformed Flight Lieutenant Kerr demonstrated how to make an omelette in what is reputed to be only the second outside broadcast undertaken by the NZBC.
Radio work followed and, encouraged by pioneer broadcaster Shirley Maddock, television wasn’t far behind. His first series - six 15 minute episodes called Eggs with Kerr - debuted on New Zealand television in September 1961. Another six episode series followed in April 1962. Called Entertaining with Kerr, it focused on fish and ran every second Monday night (alternating with an astronomy programme). The programmes displayed a sophistication that had rarely been seen in New Zealand cuisine.
Kerr’s first series had aired at 8pm but the second was on at 9pm – a reflection, perhaps, that his approach was more adult than family viewing. The Galloping Gourmet identity that he was developing advocated heavy use of butter and cream, wine was liberally splashed about – and no mention of chicken breast or leg of lamb was allowed to pass without an appropriate double entendre. But as he shows in this episode of The Graham Kerr Show, he also had wit, a natural flair for what he was doing — and an urbane English charm at a time when New Zealanders were very happy to defer to the right sort of overseas experts.
In a way now well established for celebrity chefs, he became an industry in his own right. He started writing a regular column in the Listener and there were equipment endorsements and cook books based on his TV shows. His first book bore the dedication “To Parsley – and my wife” and his sense of humour was never far away. He took a particular delight in naming his recipes and the word “Karewai” featured in several of them. Far from being authentic Maori, it was a play on “Kerr-way”.
A further TV series featured a different theme and guest in each episode. The show included poet Denis Glover, a housewife (for ‘Cooking on a Budget’) and his wife Treena (for ‘A Night out at Home’). However, in the early days of NZ television, much of the glamour stayed firmly in front of the cameras. Kerr would later recall that “we got to wash our own pots and pans in the men’s loo”.
By 1965 Kerr was making programmes in Australia, and tempting fate by telling the NZ Herald that “too often foreigners come to New Zealand, do well and then leave to accept better positions overseas. That is not for me. I will be staying here.” He was now, however, getting too big for New Zealand. Following his stint in Australia he based himself in Canada where he made 440 episodes of The Galloping Gourmet between 1969 and 1971.
Even bigger changes were in store for Kerr and his wife. A serious car crash in 1971 led them to re-evaluate their lives and their priorities – and they converted to Christianity in 1974. For several years his programmes featured a piece of scripture and a devotional song (often edited out by broadcasters). By 1975 he was telling the Listener that he had “got fed up with the guzzling of wine and the sexual innuendo” and that the “Galloping Gourmet had been an excessive human being”.
The more religious aspects of his shows were subsequently toned down and a new calling emerged. Kerr had already been moving towards healthier cooking. This process accelerated in 1986 when Treena had a heart attack - and he became a passionate advocate for low fat cooking.
Graham Kerr can now claim to have made more than 1,800 programs in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Asia, Africa, United Kingdom and Europe, and his tagline is “Committed to Good Health, Good Taste, & Contributing to the Common Good” – a far cry from a Flight Lieutenant making an omelette and the subsequent antics of the Galloping Gourmet.
‘Crusader in the Cause of Good Food’ (Interview) - NZ Listener, 1 Sept 1961, Page 3
Mary Varnham, ‘A New Season for the Galloping Gourmet’ (Interview) - NZ Listener, 27 Dec 1975, Page 12
David Burton, New Zealand Food and Cookery (Auckland: David Bateman, 2009)
David Veart, First Catch Your Weka: A Story of New Zealand Cooking (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008)