Gerry Dawes, Radio Raconteur

“Gerry Dawes & Friends” is one of WPWL Pawling Public Radio’s latest offerings. The show, as described on the station’s website, will explore gastronomy, cooking, wine and Spain. It airs live every Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. and features discussions with local chefs, interspersed with musical selections, recipes, and wine recommendations from host Gerry Dawes, a Spanish wine and food expert.

I first met Gerry Dawes when he was a surprise guest on the WPWL radio show “The Current,” which I co-host with Mike Shustak. We were informed we had to take a break from our usual political discussion for some reason I can’t recall, and I began frantically combing my Facebook friends list for someone nearby who might have something interesting to talk about on our show. I came upon Gerry Dawes. We had never met, but we shared several connections – some were local friends, others were from the culinary world, chefs and luminaries I didn’t actually know but had boldly friended on Facebook back in those more innocent days when one attempted such things and could actually succeed. I knew he was the head of something called the Spanish Artisan Wine and Spirits Group, which sounded non-political and interesting enough to me. He lived in Patterson and was willing to come in and record a show.

Listening back to that show we recorded last fall, it strikes me that Gerry’s answer to my first question turned out to be a prophetic key to his character. I asked him to talk a little about where he grew up, and he replied, “When I grow up I’ll tell you when I get there.” After getting to know him, I see that he does retain a sense of wonder and adventure more typical of someone much less, shall we say, “seasoned.” This sprightliness is fairly well concealed at first glance by his gruff drawl, garnered from growing up in rural southern Illinois; but underneath it, the man remains in youthful thrall to the pleasures of food, wine, music, sports, good conversation, and what might be the great love of his life, the many-faceted country of Spain.

Through the course of our half-hour show, which both Mike and I thought went by way too fast, Gerry’s distinctly waggish sense of humor and storytelling skills were on full display. Radio is a natural medium for this ancient art, and judging from the plethora of storytelling shows like “RadioLab,” “The Moth,” and “This American Life,” listening to first-person narratives is as popular as ever. Gerry’s colorful anecdotes and insights were intriguing, informative, and entertaining all at the same time. We covered his childhood growing up in a town of 450 residents, in a house with no indoor plumbing (“We had a shack out back – a two-seater – and a Sears & Roebuck catalog,” he told us), and his Navy days in the 1960s stationed in Rota, Spain, spying on the Russian fleet. His first job after he was discharged was as an extra on the set of “The Great White Hope,” where he befriended the star – none other than our deep-voiced neighbor, James Earl Jones. (If you’re reading this Mr. Jones, Gerry would love to have you on his show so you can reminisce about those days.)

From these improbable beginnings, Gerry told us, he ended up in Manhattan selling wine to the chefs of some of the city’s top restaurants, like Union Square Café, Gotham Bar & Grill, and Windows on the World. “It was basically getting paid to have lunch,” he says. He also began writing about the cuisine of his beloved Spain and became a champion for up-and-coming chefs from that country. He created an interest in Spanish cuisine by educating both the American public with his writing and high-profile American chefs by bringing them on tours of Spain, visiting regional kitchens where many of them experienced their first taste of real Spanish food. An early article about elBulli’s Ferran Adrià helped put that chef’s groundbreaking cuisine on the map.

But Gerry’s knowledge of Spanish cuisine is far ranging – he is just as familiar with the more humble practitioners who keep centuries-old food traditions alive in more modest eating establishments. When Dawes was awarded a Silver Spoon Award by FoodArts in 2009, well-known chef and restaurateur José Andrés wrote about him: “He has connected with all manner of people working at every level and in every corner of Spain. I’m always amazed at his reach. You can step into a restaurant in the smallest town in Spain, and it turns out they know Gerry somehow.”

During the course of his unconventional career, Gerry made connections with numerous chefs, restaurateurs, and food critics. Many are now household names, like Tom Colicchio, Mark Bittman, and Martha Stewart. “I thought I had lost touch with most of them,” he confessed. That all changed with the recent release of a book chronicling the rise of the American restaurant chef in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the course of researching his book, author Andrew Friedman interviewed Gerry a few years ago. When Gerry received the galley for Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession, which came out a few months ago, he expected to see himself as a footnote. Instead he was shocked to find ten pages devoted to him and an influential group he put together in the 1990s called Chefs From Hell. A book-launch party and several get-togethers later, many of these former associates have reconnected. Some will be future guests on his show. “I guess I have more friends than I thought,” said Gerry.