By Paula Gottlieb Herman
Would he remember me? Would I get the chance to tell him that I, too, made a pledge to honor my Dad’s memory? Would he get to hear about my cooking parties? Would he recognize the silver pin I wore on my suit, a staff Christmas gift he bought me many moons ago? Those were the questions dancing around in my head on Tuesday, January 8th at 7:00 PM. That evening, Al Roker was scheduled to do a book signing at Book Revue in Huntington. His newest book, Never Goin’ Back chronicles his battle with weight, and his promise to his dying father, that he would get serious about losing it.
Al and I worked together at NBC News on a variety of shows, Sunday Today, Weekend Today, and Today. I began my career at the Peacock Network in August 1986, and left my beloved NBC in October 1993, when my position as a Production Coordinator was eliminated, during a division-wide lay-off, and coincidentally, the same time my Dad was diagnosed with kidney disease. Rather than working 80 hours a week at 30 Rock finding the right “talking head” or making travel arrangements for guests, I was able to research treatments and specialists to help Dad preserve his remaining renal function.
It had been at least two decades since I produced segments with Al. My favorites included “Fugu & Wagyu,” (Japanese Blowflish and Hand-Massaged Kobe Beef), “Cirque du Soleil Nouvelle Experience,” “Stuttering,” and a bunch of live segments featuring cooking gadgets and outdoor cooking. Al was smart, funny, and wrote a great script. He was a pleasure to work with, except when there was a weather emergency, hurricane, or earthquake. Those years, he was doing the local WNBC-TV weather at 5:00, 6:00 and 11:00, as well as our network weekend or weekday Todayshows. So, I had to pray for sunny skies, in order for him to be available to do the interviews I set up.
My husband, Michael, and I arrived really early for Al’s book signing. We got front row seats and chatted up the people around us. Some of the audience included men and women who were about to consider gastric bypass, and wanted to hear Al’s take on it. Others included a California college student who wanted advice on breaking into NBC for a publicity job, an amazing graphite pencil artist named John D. Herz, who can be commissioned to draw a portrait from photographs (his Donald Trump was spot on), and some educators, and retirees.
As quickly as I settled into my seat, a young man approached me with a camera mounted on a monopod, and asked if I would like to give a video testimonial about Al, and why I came to Book Revue that night. I was his first “subject,” and we walked over to one of the bookcases, and I told Raj, the Director of New Media for the book store, how thrilled I was of Al’s weight loss. I explained that when I produced some of our television segments, on occasion, I needed to buy him coveralls or overalls. But, in his size, they were really difficult to come by. I would have to go to Army & Navy Surplus stores, Big & Tall shops, etc. I mentioned how proud I was of his weight loss success and equally proud to call him my friend.
Shortly after my interview, Al took the podium. He looked amazing, so fit, and literally half the size of the man I knew years ago. Before speaking, he took a photo of the audience and tweeted it. Interestingly, it was my husband, who told everybody to hold up their books. So, we did. Click here to see Al’s photo of us on the left in the front row.
Al was candid, personable, and clear that gastric bypass is not for everybody. He choked up a little when he recounted the story of his Dad swimming in his pool in July 2001. His Dad was just diagnosed with lung cancer. On October 3rd, he made Al swear to G-d to lose weight. Shortly after that, cancer hit his brain, and on October 30th, he died in a hospice. On March 2002, Al had gastric bypass, keeping the pledge that he made to his father. He kept the weight off for about eight years until his Mom was diagnosed with pancreatitis. In her three-month battle, he put 40 pounds back on.
Following her death, he got serious about his weight again, and overall, in the last 11 years, he has lost a total of 140 pounds. He went from a size 60 suit to a lean 42. These days, nobody can call him “Fat Albert”, as he was taunted in 1973, at Xavier H.S. in Manhattan.
During a Q&A session, audience members asked him what he did to keep the weight off, what he eats, does he exercise? Al said that for the last five years, he has been following a slow workout program to maintain muscle tone and bone density. He works out three days a week with a trainer. He does a 28-day detox program, drinks protein shakes, eats salads with fish, lean meats, and vegetables. He currently weighs 206 with 200 as his goal weight. Well, whatever his regimen is, it clearly works for him!
The last part of the event was the book signing. We all got on line with our newly purchased copies of Never Goin’ Back, and waited for Al to sign them. In advance, we were asked what we wanted the inscription to say. On my Post-It, I asked them to write, “My Dearest Producer Paula.” It took a while to get my turn to meet Al, but when I did, he hadn’t looked up yet when I approached his table. Then he read the inscription, gazed up, and immediately recognized me. He stood up, gave me the biggest hug, and said I looked great.
I told him I was blown away by what he had to go through, shared that my parents, who he met at numerous NBC functions, were now also gone, and that I started LilChefs.com Special Events, to honor my Dad’s memory, since he taught me to be passionate about food, but in a healthy way. I gave him my brochure and business card, told him I would love to do a cooking party for his kids, and he said he’d be in touch. He penned my book with that familiar drawing of a smiling sun, we posed for a photo, (above on right) and said our good-byes.
Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel entitled, You Can’t Go Home Again, and I disagree with the premise. I did go back to a special time of my life, reminiscing about the good ol’ days, and realize that so many of the skills I acquired at NBC, I still use today. Since we do cooking parties from NYC to Montauk, Westchester, Rockland, and parts of New Jersey, I treat every event like a live remote. I need to be organized, my gear needs to be packed, timelines set, video stand-ups with me, Chef Paula as talent, introducing the party through closing thoughts.
Thank you, Al for the opportunity of goin’ back with you. And, I was serious about my desire to do a party for your son or daughter. We can even do gluten-free, healthy and colorful menus that will be prepared by the kids and lovingly devoured by all! Until then, I’ll be checking out the recipes in the back of your book. They look delish! Your chicken taco one just caught my eye. I have a recipe I use at my Mexican Taco Fiestas. Care for a Bobby Flay-inspired throwdown with Chef Paula?
Comment shared by Bruce Solomon on Facebook, 1/25/2013...