Katherine Ryder learned an important lesson on her 55th birthday: Don't poke holes in potatoes before boiling them.
"With mashed potatoes, I never could really quite get it, and I never really understood why," the Las Vegas woman explains of her habit of piercing potatoes. "That is an important detail I never knew."
Ryder's newfound knowledge came while watching "Martini Time," a live cooking show hosted by Tina Martini at the M Resort, along Las Vegas Boulevard a few miles south of the Strip. Inside her combination TV studio and kitchen, Chef Tina offers tips on making delicious meals that are also healthful. During the show, guests are served portions of the plats du jour.
Planning your trip
'Martini Time' with Chef Tina is presented at noon, 4 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays at the M Resort, 12300 Las Vegas Blvd. S. Prices range from $39.95 to $59.95 and include the buffet after the show. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com or by calling (800) 745-3000.
"Get your chef attitude on," Martini advises shortly after dashing down a ramp and onto the set, her long ponytail bouncing against her back. "Get your recipe and read it through twice .... The key is preparation. Gather everything up before you begin."
Her students are intent as she shares information on the nutritional value of various natural foods. Some people take notes, although recipe cards are on the placemats. Martini loves interacting with audience members, who sit at crescent-shaped tables overlooking the kitchen.
Without knowing it's Ryder's birthday, Chef Tina chooses her to act as the show's volunteer sous chef. On the menu, which changes weekly, is a hearty potato leek soup. The potatoes are already peeled, but they're not pierced. That makes them lose their flavor in the boiling water.
To the surprise of some, there's no container of plain yogurt anywhere in sight. The women are using a pitcher of heavy cream.
"Are we going to drink this entire pitcher?" Martini asks. "No. [And] we're not going to eat that whole stockpot. We're going to eat a bowl."
Martini, a Southern California native who, at age 17, began her career as an aerobics instructor, quickly learned the value of moderate portions of dishes made with nutritious ingredients. With a personality as bubbly as water on the boil, the chef shares her wealth of knowledge, but without sounding preachy.
"The potato is loaded with minerals, Vitamin C, [and] abscisic acid … not to mention the allium compounds in the leeks," she observes, adding that the cream is a good source of alpha lipoic acid, an antioxidant that produces energy.
"Beautiful, delicious food can be really good for us — just like the potato soup," Chef Tina adds as her guests nod in agreement.
The presentation isn't actually being televised, except on the several flat-screen TVs scattered throughout the room. Still, audience members feel as though they're in a studio at the Food Network.
"I think [the TV studio] creates excitement. I think people want to be part of something bigger," she notes. "The television is the mighty speaker for whatever message we want to get out."
Some of the shows are sellouts, thanks partly to the soaring popularity of prime-time cooking programs.
"The majority of the audience tunes in to ‘Top Chef,' ‘Hell's Kitchen,' [and] ‘Chef Academy,'" Martini explains. "I think they just like to see somebody put things together and make it seem effortless.
"People are kind of mesmerized by chefs. We're kind of the rock stars on the scene."
Gluttony, of course, is a popular pastime in Sin City, thanks in part to the legendary, round-the-clock buffets inside nearly every casino. Despite that, Chef Tina's message about moderation is resonating.
"Being in Las Vegas, we wondered if the healthy message might turn people off," says the affable chef, who used to host cooking shows in Macy's stores around the country. "It's done just the opposite .... People actually say the show has changed their lives and the way they perceive food."
That change is sometimes evident immediately after the show, when the guests are led to the adjoining buffet for a meal that is included in the ticket price. The bounty pits temptation against moderation.
Some are instant converts, according to MeMe Keppler, a lead server in the buffet. She enjoys sharing the story of the recent visitor who called her over to show off his colorful plate of greens surrounded by red beets, with an outer ring of pink shrimp.
"He said, ‘I have my greens, I have my protein, I have my beets for my blood,'" Keppler recalls. "Then he said, ‘Would you please let Chef Tina know that I did a good job?'"
Martini relishes hearing such comments because she realizes that, with some folks, she's walking a fine line.
"Food is love. Food is comfort," she explains. "I like to connect people with more natural food [but] I don't like to call it ‘healthy,' because that turns everybody off.
"I always say, ‘If I have to eat cardboard and drink water, kill me now.' I'd rather have fun, use a little more moderation, and get some exercise."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun