COLUMN WRITTEN BY NEAL ZOREN
For Digital First Media
The names on the 50-pound sacks Todd Carmichael stacked in a warehouse intrigued him.
They spoke of exotic lands in South America and Africa that piqued Carmichael’s curiosity and fostered his interest in two fields that would influence his life — coffee and travel.
Before going to college in Seattle, a coffee capital that was spearheading a trend toward more varieties of beans flavoring more varieties of blends, Carmichael was totally unfamiliar with the brew that would lead to adventurous excursions and a successful business. His family members in Spokane, Wash., were farmers, and though he had been raised around trees and produce, their yield was fruit.
“The job in the warehouse was just to pay for my life, to earn money while I went to college,” said Carmichael, whose La Colombe coffee is served internationally and who takes viewers to foreign coffee fields in his Travel Channel television show, “Uncommon Grounds,” which kicked off its new season on Sept. 14.
For a video, check http://fw.to/GfyH4O
“Uncommon Grounds” is an offshoot from Carmichael’s previous series, “Dangerous Grounds,” in which he illustrated the hazards he faced while going to some of the world’s least-visited outposts in search of beans he could use to make La Colombe’s coffee more delicious and more unique.
In “Dangerous Grounds,” Carmichael often took part in rigorously risky local customs or had to deal with people, such as rebels and bandits, who were not happy to see an unfamiliar foreigner in their region, or coffee growers who were less than gentlemanly in their negotiations. Carmichael definitely tested his mettle in several “Dangerous Grounds” segments.
“Uncommon Grounds” takes viewers to places they may not associate with coffee, but Carmichael said the emphasis is more on food, calmer local pastimes, and the way coffee fits into cuisine whether as an ingredient or a soothing beverage with or following a meal. In this series, he is more likely to talk to chefs, marketers, and blenders than he is to rebels or others that resent his presence in their midst. Death-defying stunts have also been eliminated, much to the relief of Carmichael’s wife, singer, composer and television personality Lauren Hart, and their four children. Hart, also a veteran traveler, writes the music for “Uncommon Grounds.”
Carmichael’s adventures are all with the coffee bean and the maxim that “Everybody knows delicious” when they experience it.
“The beans in those sacks I was lugging interested me,” Carmichael said. “Coffee was more than a brewed drink you had after dinner. I wanted to know all about its possibilities, and I wanted to travel to unusual places. Going to the places coffee was grown, the countries whose names were stamped on those sacks, was my way to do both.
“Coffee is more than a drink,” he continued. “It’s a craft. To the person buying a cup of coffee at La Colombe or any coffee shop, the taste is what matters. They don’t care about how the coffee was chosen or crafted. They care about flavor. Everyone knows delicious. The challenge is to create that taste, to craft beans so they are delicious, and in a way that is different and distinctive, that make people notice and want what they are getting from you.
“That became my challenge and my quest. I had to go to where the coffee is, to taste and compare the quality of different beans and determine how they contribute to a delicious cup of coffee. Coffee is not always grown in the mildest or most modern of places. You takes risks when you go to remote outposts in Morocco or Zambia and learn a lot when you sample coffee in Japan or
“I have been on a constant search for the best coffee since 1994. I am positive that my bloodstream contains mostly coffee. When I met Lauren, I would show her pictures from my coffee-finding expeditions. She said they would make a good television program, and that is how ‘Dangerous Grounds’ and ‘Uncommon Grounds’ became a show.
“I was a businessman looking for the next big thing in coffee. Philadelphia was a welcoming place, and people found La Colombe coffee delicious. It built from there. I saw that what I wanted to do was possible, that I could travel the world to find the best coffee to craft and craft it so that people were eager to drink it.”
Carmichael is in the process of opening a string of La Colombe cafes, the latest of which is at Sixth and Market streets in Philadelphia.
His search does not end. This season, “Uncommon Grounds” goes to Cuba, where Carmichael said much has been neglected, Istanbul, Lusaka in Zambia, and Paris.
“Every country changes me,” Carmichael said, “and everything I learn makes me a better crafter of delicious coffee.”
Channel 3’s “Eyewitness News” has added two key players as it strives to become more competitive against perennial ratings champ “Action News” on Channel 6.
Station G.M. Brien Kennedy named Margaret Cronan vice president and news director, a post that has been open since Susan Schiller vacated it in May.
Cronan is a fascinating choice. She has extensive newsroom credits, including news director posts in Baltimore and West Palm Beach, Fla. She has also been a senior producer in New York and L.A.
The interesting part is Cronan, who worked at Channel 3 in the ’90s, is not coming to her new role from a news position. She was the chief business development and marketing officer for a Philadelphia law firm, Dilworth Paxson. She has also been chief communications officer for the National Constitution Center. With today’s general lack of imagination when it comes to human resources, Kennedy’s choice of Cronan looms as both a declaration of independence and a source of curiosity.
Also returning to Channel 3 after a five-year absence is Don Bell, who today begins a new stint at the station’s sports director. Since leaving Channel 3 in 2010, Bell has been a sports anchor for Fox Sports Live in Los Angeles.
More quietly and less significantly, general assignment reporter Syma Chowdhry leaves Channel 3. Her contract was not renewed.
Even with a sterling, news-making interview with Vice President Joe Biden to his credit, the verdict on Stephen Colbert’s first week on CBS’s “The Late Show” is so far, so bad.
Colbert is not entirely to blame. “Late Show” producers saddled him with guests who are not the most entertaining talkers. Even if George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson had something amusing to say, Colbert jumped in too quickly and too manically with one-liners or rejoinders that interrupted and make him look like an anxious fool more than they enhanced or elicited a laugh. Johansson at one point jokingly told Colbert to “shut up.” I said, “Amen.” He needed to pace his comments and give the guest a chance to talk.
My general assessment is Colbert is not a natural conversationalist. Much of “The Colbert Report” was scripted. Parts that weren’t tended to key into Colbert’s comfort zone, politics. “The Late Show” is more free-wheeling. There can — or should — be no script, and Colbert not only has to relax and let both the guest and the show breathe some, but he has to convince he really cares about what his guest have to say. He was much more at home with Republican Presidential nominee Jeb Bush and Biden than he was with celebrity guests or people from pop culture. His segment with SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk was a disaster. And a bore.
Maybe because Colbert drives a Tesla, he requested Musk as a guest, but someone should have noticed Musk isn’t much of a talker and reserved him for a later week. For his first week, Colbert should have been surrounded with celebs familiar to him, such as Jon Stewart, or reliable blabbermouths like Kathy Griffin, Whoopi Goldberg or Regis Philbin.
Colbert showed signs of being suited for his new job when talking to Bush. Politics is obviously his milieu, and as my colleague, KYW Newsradio anchor Wally Kennedy, said in a Facebook post, the one thing Colbert brings to the table that the Jimmies, Fallon and Kimmel, do not.
With Biden, Colbert was excellent. He let the vice president speak, and Biden did not disappoint, being glib and moving in turn, especially as he talked about his late son, Beau, a subject to which Colbert often led him.
Biden’s naturalness brought out the natural in Colbert. The feverish, manic posturing was gone. Even when Colbert got sentimental and urged Biden to run for the presidency in 2016, his tone was measured, and his comments were articulate. If Colbert can manage that discipline with other guests, his poor performance can be regarded as opening week jitters. If the Biden interview is an exception, buy stock in Kimmel, the best of the bunch no matter what Colbert or Fallon do.
Scripting does not always help. Bits Colbert did with Clooney and Johansson were stilted and witless. Even though Johansson did a decent job in an awkward sketch on a beach blanket.
Beyond the Biden segments, my favorite Colbert performance was when he sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” with Channel 3 anchor Ukee Washington on “Eyewitness News.” I was hoping Ukee would show up in the national anthem reel that began Colbert’s first “Late Show.”
Walk Like MADD
I will be the emcee when the Pennsylvania chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving holds its 5K “Walk Like MADD” event at the Philadelphia Zoo 8 a.m. Sunday. A $25 entry fee gives attendees access to the walk and let’s visitors enjoy the zoo following closing ceremonies. Enjoy a nice day while helping an excellent cause. To participate, visit www.walklikemadd.org