On set with the 'Natural Cook'
PITTSFIELD — If Anna Gershenson's face seems familiar to you, it's probably because you've seen her somewhere in the last few years — delicately slicing an heirloom tomato at the Pittsfield Farmers Market during a cooking demo, or catering an event at the Berkshire Museum. Or, more than likely, while you're flipping through channels on your TV.
"You don't really know who's watching," said Gershenson, creator and host of "The Natural Cook with Anna Gershenson," which airs on Pittsfield Community Television. "And then one day, I was ordering a tenderloin from the butcher at Big Y and he kept looking at me. Finally, he said, 'I watch your show!' "
Gershenson believes that if something is meant to happen, and you can imagine what you want to happen, it will manifest.
So when her hairdresser one day suggested Gershenson check out PCTV's new kitchen studio, the caterer and food enthusiast knew what she had to do.
"I knew then — that's what I was looking for," she said.
In May 2016, Gershenson launched the show, which airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays, with additional playback slots on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
Since then she's filmed more than 20 episodes, delivering her version of healthy gourmet in 30-minute slots. It's hard to keep track of the number of episodes, as is Gershenson's many local appearances, since the mother of two, grandmother of two, only seems to slow down to browse a cookbook, wash a vegetable or taste a slice of roasted cauliflower drizzled with tahini sauce on air.
The show is a literal labor of love for Gershenson, who was born in Riga, Latvia, a part of the former Soviet Union, and immigrated to the United States 41 years ago. Like all PCTV shows, it's run by volunteers, including her friend and neighbor, Joanne Hardy, who serves as director while on set.
"Anna is a good friend," said Hardy. "I always say she's the better friend — she cooks."
On a recent Friday morning, Hardy helped Gershenson prepare the small, yet tidy, studio kitchen at PCTV's Federico Drive headquarters. They shoot the episodes in one take — only stopping the cameras to let something cook through before pulling it out the oven to show viewers what the food will really look like.
There are no pre-cut vegetables on set, or a ready-made dish waiting to be pulled out of the oven.
"I try to show everything cooking on camera," Gershenson said, as she put a head of cauliflower in boiling water to prepare it for roasting on camera. (She goes on to explain, during the show, that pre-boiling the vegetable makes roasting easier because you'll cook the cauliflower all the way through and still get a good char on it when roasting at a high heat.)
There are four cameras on set — three are remotely controlled via the switchboard by MCLA interns, Jonathan Saloio and Kathleen Harrison, who help produce the show by cutting away to different shots during the taping. The fourth camera is a wide shot that doesn't move, capturing the entire set and is the one Gershenson addresses directly.
Before Hardy gives the hard count to begin rolling the tape, Gershenson closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths.
When asked if the host ever gets nervous, Hardy whispers, with a smile, "She's nervous through the whole thing."
But if Gershenson is, she doesn't show it.
In her calm, soft accent, she walks viewers through an Israeli-inspired meal, explaining how the culture's cooking traditions go back thousands of years. She drops interesting tidbits — did you know the darker the color of a sweet potato the more nutrients it has? — and occasionally quips perfect culinary soundbites: "The radish is the unsung vegetable. People always ask me how to cut a radish. It doesn't matter for salad — it's going to end up in your salad and your stomach any way you cut it."
As the stopwatch on Hardy's iPhone counts down, the director signals to Gershenson how much time she has left.
"I'm always thinking about time," Gershenson said after the taping, when PCTV volunteers gathered around the small studio island to eat the show's final product — it's a real perk of working on the set, according to Saloio and Harrison.
Gershenson hopes to expand the show to include more local guest food producers, "I want people to know what wonderful resources are here."
Community, family and food seem to be what drive Gershenson on her journeyed career and life — a story that often overlaps the two into a grocery list of opportunities.
Gershenson has always loved cooking, but originally, she said, she wanted to become a pastry chef. So one day, her husband bought her a French pastry cookbook. She began experimenting, teaching herself and launched her own catering business, creating fancy wedding cakes.
"The biggest compliment of my life was when Julia Child was a guest at my friend's wedding and said my cake was one of the best wedding cakes she'd ever had," Gershenson recalled, while sharing a slice of think, delicious chocolate olive oil cake with this reporter in her Pittsfield condo. "It was an amazing compliment. It solidified what I was doing was special."
Eventually, she realized her real call to cooking was not through sugar, but rather fresh, wholesome foods. The kind she grew up eating in the foraging-based and locally-sourced culinary atmosphere in Latvia.
Since moving here with her husband in July 2008, Gershenson said Pittsfield and its sense of community has inspired her.
"Here, I feel like I can make a difference."
And so, she reaches out to different community members, organizations, hoping to spread her culinary joy and healthy tips one episode at a time.
"I'm really so blessed that I know what I love to do," she said. "Everybody has a gift, but not everyone knows what their gifts are. Now, I can share mine with people, and that's really special."
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