The Hearty Boys

By Cynthia Liu

talking with their mouths full

a conversation with the hearty boys

Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh are the popular Chicago caterers who sent a tape to the Food Network in 2005 and beat out 10,000 entrants on The Next Food Network Star. They now star in their own Food Network show, Party Line with The Hearty Boys.

As mentioned in the introduction of their book, Talk With Your Mouth Full, “neither of us went to culinary school or studied thehospitality
industry in college. We started out in New York as actors trying to pay our bills, which meant, quite simply, rolling up our sleeves and working in all aspects of the food business. We learned how to set up outdoor bars and buffets at the U.S. Open; at the French Embassy, we trained how to set an exquisite formal table...”

Partners in life as well as business, the couple met when they were acting in The Fantasticks in 1986.

Hearty BoysAt what point did you decide to abandon acting and make food a full-time career?

Dan: “In 1992, after being an actor for 10 years. Fate brought me to a fabulous boutique caterer who needed help and instilled in me a hunger to start my own food business. Wanting a more secluded area in which to test out my food chops, I moved to a small resort town in Maine and opened a cafe.”

Steve: “I was still doing commercials up until recently; now I don’t have time, with the Food Network show. Acting is still my great passion, but now I’ve found a way to put my two favorite passions together—food and performing.”
What is the coolest event you have catered?

Dan: “We did a brunch for Hillary Clinton and a week later, we did a dinner for Kenneth Starr— this was during the Lewinsky scandal.”

Any funny catering disaster stories?

Steve: “People always ask us about disaster stories and we always rack our brains because thank God, we don’t have any.”

Dan: “I have a couple of wedding cake disasters. I made a wedding cake in July. It was buttercream. I put it in the back of the non-refrigerated truck, drove half an hour and the last quarter of a mile was over a pitted, unpaved road. By the time I got there, the buttercream had melted and the cake had shifted all over. The family was hanging out in the kitchen. I threw them all out, put the cake in the refrigerator to firm it up and pretty much re-iced the whole thing. I also used a lot of fresh flowers to cover it up.”

Your class menu this summer has a Middle Eastern theme– with gazpacho, kebabs, tabbouleh and rosewater cupcakes– is this based on a trip you have taken?

Steve: “That wasn’t on purpose. It was more trying to do something summery that would be great for a barbecue or outdoor party. The gazpacho was something we put together for the Mexican Fine Arts museum—it’s sweet, spicy, colorful and refreshing.”

Dan: “The beef kebabs were actually what we made for The Next Food Network Star”

Steve: “That was the recipe that nearly burned down the Food Network kitchens. The marinade on that is very thick and very flammable. We put it on the indoor grill. When you’re filming, the fans are turned off for the microphones, so the place got so smoky, you could barely see. And when we took the pan off, the residue burst into flames and the teleprompter kept flashing ‘Put out fire. Put out fire.’ We had three minutes, but they kept the cameras rolling anyway— good TV was more important than the time limit.”

How did you handle it?

Steve: “We joked about it. I think it gave us the chance to show what we’re really like. We feel really irreverent about cooking. Dan was making some comment about the food and I said, ‘Are you going to keep talking or put out the fire?’”
Do you have designated roles?

Steve: “Dan does the food, Steve does the booze. But seriously, people ask why we are successful and I think it’s because we don’t have an ego– we let each other do what each one excels at.”

Steve handles the front of the house and in their book, he introduces each chapter with an anecdote, Dan presents the recipes and Steve finishes with practical tips. Or as they say in the book, “In reality, it reveals how our relationship works: Steve starts off talking, Dan waits until he can fit a word in edgewise, and Steve gets the last word.”

Steve and Dan have a new venture called HBTV.

Dan: “We tell people it’s like cooking karaoke.”

It gives people the experience of being a cooking show star, teaches them how to cook on-camera and how to use a teleprompter. Participants get to take home a DVD of themselves on camera.

Steve: “Everyone thinks it’s so easy, but they end up crashing and running out of time and we all laugh at them and have a great time.”

Dan: “The funniest thing is in a three-minute demo, most people think it’s a long time. In the first two minutes of the demo, they will take their time and talk a lot. Then when the one minute card goes up, they look like a deer in a headlight, all bets are off and they start throwing food around and in each other’s mouths.”

Do people send their HBTV DVDs as Food Network audition tapes or is it just for fun?

Steve: “No one has done it yet. We make sure they look bad. We don’t want any more competition. Ha ha.”
How would you compare Chicago to the Bay Area in terms of food?

Dan: “Chicago is a big foodie town, but outside of the big cities in the Midwest, they tend to eat heavier foods, even in the summer.”

Steve: “We were in the south side of Chicago and in the middle of July, people would ask what kind of soups we had and when I told them, they would say, ‘What else?’ because they want a heavy cream soup. I would scream [not to the customers], ‘One soup! One soup! It’s July!’”

Dan: “And chilled soups– don’t even think about them. It has to be a hot soup.”

As the parents of a toddler, do you have any tips on cooking for kids?

Steve: “Nate is an awful eater. We must have done something bad in a previous life and this is how we’re paying for it.”

Dan: “Though he likes gourmet cheeses. He won’t eat pizza, but will eat Leyden cheese with cumin seeds.”

Steve: “I judge people by their shopping cart at the supermarket. I would stand behind them and look at their carts and judge them. Now I am aware that people might be doing that to me in the supermarket, especially since they might know who I am. And they’ll be saying, ‘Look at that Food Network guy– all he’s got in his cart are chicken fingers and hot dogs.’”

The Hearty Boys will be teaching An Enchanting Dinner Party class in San Mateo and Blackhawk on August 19 and 20, 2008 respectively. Their recipe for smoked salmon, vodka and caviar dip is below.

salmon caviar dipSmoked Salmon, Vodka, and Caviar Dip

Steve says: “What a lot of people don’t know is that I’m a bit of a Russophile. I love to read about Imperial Russia, and that was the inspiration for this recipe. Caviar and vodka are quintessentially Russian, so I thought, Why not create a dip using them? Here it is—and, may I say, na zdorovje!”

  • ½ pound smoked salmon, finely chopped
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon vodka
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons minced red onion
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill, plus fresh dill sprigs for garnish
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 heaping tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons red lumpfish caviar, rinsed

Put the smoked salmon, sour cream, vodka, lemon juice, onion, dill, salt, pepper, and heaping tablespoon of the caviar into a large bowl and, using a rubber spatula, fold until well mixed.

Transfer the dip to a decorative bowl and mound the 2 teaspoons caviar in the center. Garnish with fresh dill sprigs and serve with crackers or Savory Pita Crisps.

Yield: 2 cups

Preparation time: 15 minutes
*Can be made up to 2 days in advance.

© 2007 Talk With Your Mouth Full by Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh