On Norwood cable, a 14-year-old Rachael Ray fan cooks up a storm, landing her a visit with her idol and bite of the Apple
'You don't have to be a pro to cook like a pro," says Melisa Varitimos. But she's hardly your average amateur.
The 14-year-old freshman at Blue Hills Regional Technical School is in the kitchen of her Norwood home, directing her comments to a digital camera manned by her father, Peter Varitimos. The wooden table in front of her is strewn with bowls, eggs, flour, and other ingredients to make brown Irish bread.
Her mother, Lauri Varitimos, hops onto a countertop next to the clothes dryer and carries a hand-held video camera to capture the cooking from a side angle.
On screen is Melisa's 11-year-old brother, Antonio, her assistant and comic sidekick.
During the last four years, on nearly every Saturday from November to April, the family's bright, airy kitchen has become a makeshift production studio for Melisa's cooking show, "Oven Luv'n With Chef Melisa."
And these aren't just home movies. The show has become so popular that it airs not only in Norwood, but on cable stations in Dedham, Wrentham, Sandwich, Palmer, and Douglas.
"It's not Emeril or Rachael Ray, but it has a character of its own. It's raw and simple and that's the appeal," said Jack Tolman, Norwood Cable's station manager. "Plus, people enjoy [Melisa and Antonio] together, it's as much about them as it is the cooking."
If Melisa lacks the polish of those superstar television chefs, her show has a few not-so-coincidental similarities to that of her cooking idol, Rachael Ray.
The show's motto, "you don't have to be a pro to cook like a pro," was inspired by Ray. As she cooks, Melisa drops such Ray-isms as "E-V-O-O," Ray's shorthand for "extra virgin olive oil," and she describes the cheese of a breakfast sandwich as full of "squishy deliciousness," another Ray-ism.
"I love her," Melisa says. "Someday I would love to have a show like hers."
That dream may be years away; for now, appearing on her idol's show will have to be enough.
The family has been invited to New York, where Melisa will sit at Ray's TV kitchen table and talk about "Oven Luv'n" during a segment dedicated to incredible people doing incredible things, says Lauren Nowell, a producer for "Rachael Ray."
Nowell said Ray has hosted teens who have done such food-related activities as growing a garden or working with food pantries, but Melisa will be the first to have a cooking show. "What she is doing is very unusual," Nowell says.
The date the syndicated show will air nationally hasn't been determined.
Melisa said that when her parents told her the show's producers wanted her to appear, she was in a state of "disbelief." At first, her friends at school didn't believe, either, but as plans have taken shape, the feeling is being replaced by excitement, and for some, nervousness.
"I'm not really nervous," Melisa said. "My parents are much more nervous than I am."
"There's nothing Rachael loves more than meeting kids who are excited about being in the kitchen, and Melisa Varitimos takes that to a whole new level," said Janet Annino, the show's executive producer. "At just 14, she hosts her own cooking show - and it's now carried in five other towns. Who knows, at this rate, Melisa could be the next Rachael Ray before she turns 18." It won't be the first time Melisa has met a famous chef. In 2007, she won a contest to have Jon Ashton, a British chef who is the featured culinary expert for Relish magazine, come and watch Melisa do her show.
At Blue Hills, Melisa is in the culinary arts program, studying to be a professional chef. She plays varsity soccer and is an honor roll student.
After high school, Melisa wants to attend the renowned cooking program at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, and hopes to open her own restaurant.
The family began the show four years ago after Peter bought a digital video camera and began recording Antonio's soccer games.
"We wanted to do something for Melisa, and this is what she wanted to do," Peter says.
Varitimos pitched the idea to Tolman at Norwood cable, which offers time to just about anyone who wants to try. Tolman accepted and has been more than pleased with the family's efforts. Since then, the family has spent most Saturdays cooking such dishes as Chinese stir-fry dumplings; an egg, sausage, tomato, and onion breakfast sandwich; Southern brandy fruitcake; and Christmas snowball cookies - the very first recipe to kick off the show.
The show takes a break from April to November, when Melisa and Antonio are too busy with soccer to record episodes. During that time, cable stations rebroadcast earlier programs.
Some shows come out better than others, Melisa says, just like some recipes come out better than others, but she's having fun and learning as she goes along.
"For someone so young to be so comfortable in front of the camera is really amazing," says Tolman.
During a taping, Antonio has the job of cracking eggs for a breakfast sandwich. As Melisa speaks, Antonio goes to the sink and can be heard laughing, making odd noises, and occasionally putting his arms in the air. After cracking about a dozen eggs to get the eight called for in the recipe, Antonio rinses the goo from his fingers and declares: "I'm bad at cracking eggs." On another show celebrating their Uncle Charles's 50th birthday, Melisa and Antonio wear party hats and blow party horns as they make their uncle's favorite dessert - fruitcake.
At one point, Melisa gives Antonio a good-natured elbow nudge when he speaks while she should be talking.
"He thinks it's his show," Melisa jokes.
When the taping is done, Peter edits the footage he and Lauri have recorded, adds music, and burns a DVD that he drops off at Norwood cable. Lauri said she and Melisa collect recipes from television, magazines, newspapers, or from viewers who send in their favorites.
Viewers whose recipes are chosen get an Oven Luv'n T-shirt in the mail. As for testing out the recipes, that pleasure usually goes to neighbor Sue Miles.
On Saturday afternoons, Miles keeps an eye out of her window to watch for a Varitimos family member to walk to her house bearing another delicious culinary creation.
"It's always a surprise and when we see them coming we wonder what we're getting," Miles said.