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With Two Best-Sellers, a Hot Show and a Happy Home, Frugal Gourmet Jeff Smith Is Cooking on All Burners

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The Frug,” as he calls himself, revels in the whack of his Chinese cleaver on a piece of meat. He chuckles when his eyes burn from pepper sauce, and he gleefully turns out such dishes as Ants Climbing Up a Tree or Garlic Chicken With Garlic, Garlic. All the while, the 6’3″ bearded and bespectacled glutton for attention spices up his high-speed delivery with questions like “Isn’t this a kick?”

Fifteen million weekly TV viewers obviously think so, as do cookbook buyers, who recently paid Jeff Smith the delicious compliment of putting his two cookbooks into the No. 1 and No. 2 positions on the New York Times Advice and How-to best-seller list. Smith calls himself the Frugal Gourmet, explaining that ” ‘frugal’ does not necessarily mean ‘cheap.’ It means you use everything and are careful with your time as well as with your food products. Fresh foods, prepared with care and concern,” he stoutly maintains, “will result in terrific meals with lower costs.”

Smith is hotter than his Hunan Bean Curd With Peppers, and the ingredients of his success are as varied and exotic. On-camera, he handles produce with the casual abandon of Julia Child, while maintaining the friendly, harmless air of Mr. Rogers. A revved-up Mr. Rogers, that is. Says his wife, Patty, “Jeff doesn’t ever just sit—he never does nothing—ever. Except when he’s asleep.”

Hyperactive though he may be, Smith delivers a soothing message: Cooking is easy. “I try to remove the anxiety and fear,” he says. “I don’t intimidate anybody.” This totally at-home-on-the-range attitude is so effective that half of his regular audience is male. Says Smith, “Men are amazed that they have so much fun cooking.” The 48-year-old kitchen magician does not think of himself as a chef. “A chef,” he says, “is classically trained. I’m a good cook.”

Not just a cook. Smith also happens to be an ordained United Methodist minister. Now with catholic appeal and a mass audience, his ambition is to satisfy more than just the secular palate. “Food is a sacrament,” he says, “in the sense that it points away from itself to something else, and it is a celebration in the sense that it draws us together.”

Smith’s own clan is drawn together in the kitchen. When Dad is home in Tacoma, Wash, (he spends nine weeks a year in Chicago taping his show), the Smiths meet around the dinner table at 5:30 sharp after all have chipped in during the preparation. Menus tend to vary, although Smith occasionally lapses into a gastronomic rut. After a recent trip to New Orleans, he served Cajun cuisine 13 nights in a row. Then there was the time Smith had a contract with a frozen clam company, and a month of mollusk madness ensued. “At first, the recipes were great,” recalls son Channing, “but then he started getting kinda weird with them, like clam fritters—for breakfast. He’s dumping syrup on them, and saying ‘Eat your clam fritters, guys; they’re great!’ ” Son Jason remembers the period well. “We’d be walking down the hill,” he says, “and see the car and think ‘Uh oh, Dad’s home.’ We’d start calling our friends to get invitations for dinner. It was scary.”

Less humorous family differences are something Smith has some experience with. Growing up in Seattle, Smith describes his salesman father, who died an alcoholic, as a Willy Loman type. “When I first read Death of a Salesman,” says Smith, “I was mortified that someone had the gall to discuss my family on the American stage.” His parents were divorced when Smith was a teenager. His Norwegian mother instilled in him a love of food and frugality, and a Lebanese uncle showed Smith that cooking was okay for real men.

Drawn to the ministry, Smith was working on his master’s degree in theology at New Jersey’s Drew University in the early ’60s when he met an undergraduate from Brooklyn named Patty Dailey. They married and moved to Tacoma, where Smith became chaplain at the University of Puget Sound. There he taught a course called “Food as Sacrament and Celebration.” After five years he left the university and started the Chaplain’s Pantry, a combination restaurant, deli, catering service and cooking school. This led to a local TV cooking show, which spun off into a small, spiral-bound cookbook. In 1982 a public TV station in Chicago offered to produce his show.

Before Smith could leave for Chicago, a heart-valve failure nearly killed him. An artificial heart valve was inserted, and he swore he’d never work again. He sold the Chaplain’s Pantry after a 1983 appearance on Donahue convinced him that he could make a living talking and writing about food. The little recipe book sold 45,000 copies, and Smith started his TV show.

Smith’s schedule today would martyr a lesser man with its exhausting itinerary of book tours, lectures, foreign research trips and show tapings. Up at 5 a.m. seven days a week, he doesn’t need much inspiration to spout from the pulpit. “Don’t put up with TV dinners,” he decrees. “They were invented by the Antichrist.” His favorite parable is that of the Prodigal Son. “It’s my favorite,” he relates, “because when the son returns home, his father says, ‘My son has returned. Kill the fatted calf.’ I want people to have a fatted calf—and I don’t mean a six-pack and a bunch of Twinkies—in their refrigerator, so they can declare a festival when their kid comes home and yells, ‘I passed algebra!’ Haul out the fatted calf, for heaven’s sake. Bring on the dancing maidens.”