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Cooking for the camera
Thai food's the star of family's cable show
By M.S. Enkoji -- Bee Staff Writer
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The dining room furniture has been pushed aside for a jungle of chrome poles that hoist lights and microphones. Fat electrical cords snake among the poles.
"Are we ready?" Geefay says to an empty room. Hubbub elsewhere in the house dies and footsteps scurry toward him from the kitchen.
Geefay is producing another installment of "Thai Food Tonight," which airs weekly on a local digital cable network.
Martha Stewart, he's not. Yet.
Since Geefay got a contract for 13 episodes of the instructional cooking show, he and his family have taken on double duty to produce, write and star in the 30-minute show that airs in 10 million homes on the GoodLife TV Network.
"We don't have any time off," Geefay said during a break in pre-production preparations. "I don't know if we can keep up this pace."
With a 10th episode in the can, the Geefays are considering how to go another season, keep their sanity, generate more buzz - and draw more sponsors.
"That's the tough part," said Geefay, 58.
In just the way "Saturday Night Live" portrayed the fictional goofballs of Wayne's World, cable and satellite have transformed television into a less exclusive medium - but that doesn't mean, as Geefay has discovered, that it's easy going.
For one, you have to be entertaining, said Robert Thompson, a professor who heads the Center for Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"Many are called, but few are chosen," Thompson said.
Still, he said, with domestic doyenne Martha Stewart doing hard time in a stock-trading scandal, there is a void. "Sooner or later, her throne was going to be vacant," Thompson said, "and a lot of people want to be the heir apparent."
Decades after a rather matronly cookbook author demystified French cooking on a Boston public broadcasting show in the early 1960s, any armchair chef can tune in for how-to on everything from meatloaf to marinated gator ribs.
"Julia Child was the queen," Thompson said. "She turned it into a spectator sport."
An element of entertainment in Child's show gave viewers more than instruction - and reason to keep tuning in, so that a generation later there's the Food Network, a cable network devoted to cooking and eating, he said. And viewership is not always about the recipes.
"You go to a college dorm and there's all these guys watching the Iron Chef. Does that mean they are going to stir-fry some squid later? No. You need to be a piece of show business," he said.
Martha Stewart understood that, so does Food Network star chef Emeril Lagasse.
Earlier this year, Geefay, who owns a video production company, came up with the idea of producing the show as a way to showcase the cooking talents of his wife, Dim, and to give his family a project. He hired a marketer to find sponsors, which now include tuna powerhouse Chicken of the Sea, and lined up cooperation from Thailand's tourism bureau.
But the budget is reined in at three-figures thanks to the volunteer staff: his wife, whom he met in Thailand during a Peace Corps stint, and a daughter, nephew, sister-in-law and brother-in-law.
In the impromptu home studio, they've been spending several hours together every Saturday lately, behind and in front of the camera. In deference to the show's title, they wait for night to darken the bay window dappled with orchids that frames the set where Dim Geefay, 55, and her 23-year-old daughter, Cathy, stir up green curry chicken and slice Thai basil on a long makeshift counter.
After primping, Dim buries her nose in the script as her daughter rehearses aloud the steps for making spicy beef and green papaya salad.
A UCLA graduate, Cathy came home to work in her father's business and found herself alongside her mother, asking things like, "What kind of rice works best?"
"How much can you say about ground beef?" she said, joking about her chatter.
Once the camera is on, though, mother and daughter converse easily as meat sizzles in a pan.
Ernie Geefay, a soft-spoken, even-keeled director, hoists a camera for close-ups and examines a monitor. He tells his sister-in-law, Sakoon Voelz, 51, to tap him on the leg with a wooden spoon if he leans too far into the main camera run by her 18-year-old son.
Before they reach this point, Dim Geefay has spent days writing a script that is part travelogue and part history lesson. Then she shops.
On a warm fall afternoon, she and her sister, Voelz, search the aisles of a south Sacramento Asian grocery where newcomers can feel they need a passport to get in. The two pluck chilis, cilantro and green papayas.
Just before the shoot, the greens drain in the sink as Voelz does the chopping, unwraps the ground beef, shuttles food onto the set, then grabs the wooden spoon and crouches at the ready.
It will take Ernie Geefay three days to edit 60 minutes of tape down to 22 minutes. Then, there's next week's show to start on.
GoodLife Network chose "Thai Food Tonight" as one of five of its instructional cooking shows because Thai is unusual but popular, said Mark Ringwald, vice president of programming for the Washington, D.C.-based network. Cooking shows are among the most universally watched, he said.
James Ehler, a chef who runs FoodReference.com, said the proliferation of cooking shows has done more than convey recipes. They foster an interest in the unfamiliar; it's why they make grits in Hawaii and sushi in North Dakota.
"It shows people that some of these things you thought were hard, aren't," said Ehler, a Key West, Fla. chef, who posts recipes and food trivia.
The GoodLife Network, geared toward baby boomers, also appreciated the family appeal of the mother-daughter team, said Ringwald, who reviews half a dozen potential shows a week, some taped in garages.
Unlike a major network show that may have only three weeks to hit its stride, cable shows have time to refine and develop, he said.
"But even though there's more outlets, there's a lot more programs," said Ringwald. "So, you're always thinking, 'How do you make waves?' "
The Geefays are not unusual in their family affair, Ringwald said, but he anticipates bigger things.
"It will kind of grow. They'll be watching their pennies for a while, but then they'll get a bigger audience and generate more sponsors.
"Then, they'll put out a cookbook."
When: Mondays at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Where: GoodLife TV Network, Channel 123 on Comcast in Sacramento
For recipes and more information, visit http://www.thaifoodtonight.com/
Video clip from the show, high bandwidth
Video clip from the show, low bandwidth
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Sakoon Voelz prepares tuna toast, a Thai appetizer, for "Thai Food Tonight" while the family's dog, Billie Jean, stands by for any wayward scraps. Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling
The bare-bones budget of "Thai Food Tonight" requires Cathy Geefay, left, and her mother, Dim Geefay, to take care of their own hair and makeup before taping of their cooking show begins in the family's dining room. Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling
Ernie Geefay ponders how he'll shoot the next scene as his wife, Dim Geefay, and daughter Cathy Geefay wait for taping of "Thai Food Tonight" to resume. Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling
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