'The Food Show' with Tom Fitzmorris celebrates 25 years on the air!
Jay Vise Reporting
There are many facets to the city of New Orleans that you will not find anywhere else. The Food Show, hosted by Tom Fitzmorris, is indeed one of those truly unique institutions. This week, the show celebrates 25 years as a daily broadcast.
Tom’s roots as a purveyor of food and restaurant info began back in 1977, when he began publishing The New Orleans MENU, a newsletter of dining and cooking. It evolved over the years into a web-based daily newsletter, which thrives today at nomenu.com. Still, it’s Tom’s boyhood dream of being in radio that has been realized in his three-hour show that is live six days a week: Monday through Friday on ESPN-1350 AM, and on ‘The Big 870’ on Saturdays, noon to 3.
I talked to Tom as he prepared for his 25th anniversary show, a day on which he’s also hosting one of his Eat Clubs at one of the best-known restaurant in the city, Commander’s Palace.
Q: Tom, tell us what you’re celebrating today.
25 years ago, I was asked to do a program a couple of hours a day about food. We were rebuilding the radio station, WSMB, which had fallen on pretty hard times. It had a new owner, who wanted to sweep clean everything that was on the air and replace it with the other stuff, and somehow I got mixed into this. I had already done radio for quite a while, but I hadn’t done a long-form show in about five years. We talked about it, and was hired by a lady named Mary Ann Connell, who six months later I married. It began not just a new career for me, but a new life in a whole lot of ways.
We went on the air on the 18th of July, 1988, and I thought it would be a battle, but wasn’t! It never really was. People took to it immediately…but look at it, we’re in a city that makes so much of a big deal about food, such that dozens of jokes have been made about that. So we had this whole show that was a couple of hours, and then expanded to three hours, and all we do is talk about food. And there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world, as far as I know, as a daily show in drive time.
Q: Do you think this kind of radio show could be done in any other city?
I think so, I really do think it would be successful almost anywhere…but it has a major problem that would be kind of difficult to overcome, in that it’s unconventional. As you know, it’s common in the radio business that most companies only want to do what’s already being done by somebody else successfully. And there are not very many pioneers out there who want to put their necks on the line. But it seems like an obvious thing to me, because we’re in a time when gourmet eating and gourmet cooking has never been more popular in our country. I’d say there’s not a country in the world that thinks more about food and does more about it than we do in this country today. I think it would be a big deal, and another piece of proof it would work is that there’s a couple of network channels that are dedicated to food.
Q: I’ve heard you mention on the show that we have many more restaurants operating now in New Orleans than before Katrina.
That’s my favorite statistic. Whenever I give a talk to a group, I always stick that in somewhere, and it always, even without me playing up to it, gets a round of applause. We have 809
I only count restaurants that actually cook on the premises and none of the national chains. We had 809 before the hurricane, and now we have 1,346, which is 500 more restaurants than we had before the storm.
Q: What do you think has led to the dramatic increase?
One thing is that national trend that I mentioned – People are now eating more meals in restaurants than they eat at home, that’s the line that had been crossed around 2005 or 2006, nationwide. It went the other way during the financial problems, but it’s now going back the other way. More people are eating in restaurants than at home.
Another reason for it is that the generation of people who are becoming adults now grow up with the ideas of going to restaurants as the normal, everyday thing. When I was growing up, I never went to restaurants. My parents never, as in not EVER, went to restaurants. It was unheard of. But now, that’s all we think about. My kids, certainly, eat in restaurants, even though they’re getting into cooking, too.
Q: What’s your favorite dish when you’re eating out, and what’s your favorite when you’re cooking at home?
The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about eating is, where are the oysters in this restaurant? I don’t need to find the oysters where I go, but I love oysters tremendously, and we live in an area where the oysters are not only really good, but really cheap. So, I’m always thinking about oysters when I go out, so in a way, I guess that makes them my favorite.
At home, I kind of like cooking home-style dishes that you really don’t get in a restaurant. To give you a weird example: Shepherd’s pie. Everybody loves shepherd’s pie…whenever we’re making mashed potatoes for anything, we always make too much of it, so we can make a shepherd’s pie later with it. So it’s that kind of stuff we cook at home, really basic stuff. And BBQ, BBQ is a big, big deal.
Q: Where do you see yourself, and the New Orleans-area food industry, in the next 25 years?
As for the food industry, everything is on the up with the restaurants and cooking…both at home and in establishments where you go out to eat. There are a lot of organizations that are giving young people the opportunity to get into cookery as a career, and if not as a career, then as a really enjoyable past-time. And that is only going to increase. The demand for it is there, and the people are there, and I think we’re going to see just continued growth in the restaurant business. The only way I have my fingers crossed is that it’s not in chain restaurants, I hope it’s largely in the local restaurants, because localism alone leads to culture. And that’s what makes us different, is that our food is different.
As for me, I want to be alive! (Laughs) And, I’ll keep doing this radio show as long as I can get away with. I love doing it, I love radio. I’ve wanted to be on radio since I was a kid. The food thing is another biggie for me…What I do for a living is a dream come true. It’s amazing to have been able to get away with that.