Delighting television audiences across the country is Chef Kevin Belton, with his upbeat personality and big smile, sharing the spirit of New Orleans with his viewers and telling them how easy it is to make his mouth-watering recipes. He’s a natural-born entertainer and literally larger than life, standing at six-feet nine-inches.
“Never in my dreams did I imagine I’d have a TV show airing around the country that teaches people how to cook,” laughs Kevin Belton when asked about early culinary aspirations.
“You see, I had no clue what I wanted to be when I grew up. My mom was a teacher and advised me to try different things. I learned from my parents to enjoy it, and once it stops being enjoyable, to do something else.”
Chef Kevin got his culinary start with Joe Cahn, who founded the New Orleans School of Cooking. And it was also Joe Cahn who, in a quirk of fate, got Kevin in front of the cameras for the first time at WYES, local-PBS affiliate, during their then-annual Showboat Auction fundraiser.
In 1992, Joe invited Kevin to come with him to the station while he manned an auction board. The station’s producer asked Kevin to come back the next week to read a board himself. That went so swimmingly, they then asked him to do future pledge breaks.
About this early start, Kevin said a friend called, having seen him on TV, and said what a neat job it must be. But Kevin thought to himself, “It’s not a job, I’m not getting paid!”
Mom said, ‘Take every opportunity to learn and give back in some way.’
“So, I’m giving back and I’m learning how to do live TV. You can set up a camera and practice all you want, but until you’re live, you don’t know how to do it. I watched the TV production, the angles, and put it all in the back of my mind.”
And so he progressed, with the station asking him to host a Saturday show during pledge drives. Viewers would send in their recipes for Kevin to choose, and then the station invited them in to prepare the recipe on-air. Of his early start, Kevin explained, “I’d pick a recipe and we’d make it together live. It was a fun way for people to see their neighbors, relatives, and friends on live television. And then the show kept evolving, and it became a way for the station to put together a cookbook for donors. We were the pledge breaks and doing everything live. It was fun!”
“Life is like standing at the river’s edge and watching the barges go by. Jump on one, then another until you find the right one.”
That’s an apt description for Kevin’s path before he discovered television (or, more appropriately, before television discovered him). We asked him what he did in the years before getting in front of a camera.
“I didn’t set out to do it, but this is where I ended up. I try to like everything I do, whether working long hours or putting in the grunt work to learn more. For a while, I played semi-pro on a team here in New Orleans and then I was in the hospitality business. Before I started at the school with Joe, I began as store manager. He wanted me to learn the business, the products, inventory, and how it worked. He said, ‘Don’t worry about the cooking.’”
At that point, Kevin Belton had mostly been cooking for pleasure and dishes he’d learned from his mother and grandmothers. But – with his mom being a teacher – he was quick to pick up cookbooks, read them, and learn techniques and how a particular recipe came into being.
Being a native New Orleanian and with his father’s family from Lafourche and near Morgan City, Kevin naturally was curious about Louisiana cuisine. “I knew the difference between Creole and Cajun, and just took it from there.”
“I’m blessed to take my ability to bring happiness to someone’s life or their day.”
As it turned out, Joe Cahn’s hunch was right; Kevin had a natural aptitude for teaching, and he was doing cooking demos soon after starting as store manager. And as time progressed, Kevin found himself in the company of other New Orleans chefs.
“I didn’t go to cooking school,” Chef Kevin explained. “I learned the basics from Joe, and then I was meeting different chefs and learning from being with them – Warren Leruth, Michael Roussel (Brennan’s), Paul Prudhomme, Leah Chase. They also taught me about things besides cooking. Miss Leah was always so humble and appreciative of how people enjoy what she was able to do.”
“There was a time, I was with Chef Paul (Prudhomme) – at the Hilton for a function with a lot of different chefs – and he said, ‘walk with me.’ My crew was gone, the lights were almost off, and people were waiting in line for him to sign his cookbook. I stood over his shoulder, watching him sign. He personalized every book the same way, with his special message, ‘Good eating, good living, good loving,’ and his signature. He told me, ‘If they’re going to take the time to stand in line, then I’m going to take the time to sign the way I always sign.”
Chef Kevin internalized Paul Prudhomme’s message. He frequently goes to WYES to sign stacks of books, from ten to fifteen cases at a time. Each WYES-ordered book is specially inscribed by book. For his first book, the message is “Keep the table blessed,” the second book’s message is “Share your table,” and the last is “Celebrate your table.” Above his signature, he also writes “C’est bon,” (“it’s good” in French).
He explains, “If you like the things I do, (then) I’m going to show you how much I appreciate it – and you.”
“You put a little of yourself in every recipe and every dish.”
Watch Chef Kevin Belton in action and you’re guaranteed to smile. Anyone who’s seen him cooking on television – or at a live appearance – knows his exuberance firsthand. His enthusiasm for cooking and sharing his love of New Orleans food is absolutely contagious, and has led to multiple guest appearances on other shows, including Emeril Live, and regular cooking demonstrations.
Chef Kevin also is affiliated with WWL-TV in New Orleans, and during this COVID-19 new normal, he now tapes his Tuesday morning cooking segments remotely from his home kitchen. That relationship started six years ago when he was asked to dedicate the Frank Davis Kitchen at the station with three weeks of cooking demonstrations alongside Frank’s widow Mary Clare. It was around that same time that he was approached by PBS for the WYES series.
Three cooking series have been shot in the WYES studios: New Orleans Cooking with Kevin Belton, Kevin Belton’s New Orleans Kitchen, and Kevin Belton’s New Orleans Celebrations. These continue to re-run not only locally but across the U.S. on multiple PBS stations. He’s also written three companion cookbooks, one for each series.
He’s compelled to write and demonstrate recipes to keep them alive. “When people say this recipe is a secret, that’s when it dies. I was talking with someone earlier that the world is small. And that’s what recipes are all about, passing it along and keeping it (a legacy) alive.”
What viewers may not realize is that Chef Kevin doesn’t use “swaps” or pre-made dishes on his shows. Everything is cooked in real time. (And then eaten by the crew!)
As he says, “I know this will come out (right), I’ve made it in segments, just not altogether. Early in the first series, I decided not to try some of the dishes beforehand. And now that we’re in the third season, that’s what I do. That’s the fun of it! I can explain to people what’s going on, and if I run into a problem, I tell the audience, ‘This is how you fix this!’”
He went on to explain, “And that’s how all of us – the whole team – we make it work. It’s not slick, it’s not done with mirrors. It’s a bunch of folks having fun in the kitchen.”
Trevor Wisdom is a native New Orleanian and managing editor of Nola Boomers.