July 11, 2001 — Burt Wolf is a soft-spoken man with a gentle smile and genial air covering a dedicated purpose. That purpose Monday afternoon is filming a shopping jaunt on Main Street on St. Thomas for a Virgin Islands segment of "Burt Wolf's Travels and Traditions" which will air nationally this fall.
Wolf arrived on the island last week for four days of filming all three islands. That's not much time, but for someone who has been doing this for 25 years, it's a piece of cake.
Wolf is the host and author of five internationally syndicated TV series that focus on food, travel and cultural history. The New York Times has called his shows "the best food and travel series on television."
What does he look for when going to a new location? "I want to know about the people," Wolf says, "so what I look for is what they eat and whom they pray to," an eminently logical approach that he has used in the more than 138 cities he has documented.
Wolf discloses this while enjoying a meal at Gladys' restaurant in Royal Dane Mall, an eatery he last visited when it was located in a patio off Main Street. "It's still good," he comments before running off to take some pictures of kitchen preparation.
Wolf's sense of humor flavors his conversation as well as his shows. "If I'm not having a good time, people will know it," he says, "and they won't have a good time watching the show either." He explains this while chatting with a camera salesman who wants to know how many people work on his show. "Oh, about half," Wolf tells him.
In fact, Wolf travels with a producer, cameraman, light and sound technicians as well as his right hand, director Emily Aronson, who has been with him for 27 years. The five trail or precede him down the street, but there are no random stops. For four days shooting for a half-hour show, Wolf says each minute is accounted for.
"When you have everything planned to the last minute, you can do a sight gag or two, have a little spontaneity," he says. "If you're prepared, you can have a 'happy accident.'"
To illustrate Wolf recalls a moment while visiting Haagensen House on Government Hill when he was sitting in a planter's chair. "I produced a can of Planter's Peanuts, and looked to my crew," he said. "If they don't think it's funny, we don't use it." He mainly looks for a nod from Aronson. "I don't make a move without Emily," he says, having asked her approval for a reporter to tag along while they "shopped" Main Street.
Sunday the crew filmed Mango Melee on St. Croix. Monday and Tuesday were devoted to St. Thomas — Haagensen House and the newly restored Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas synagogue on Crystal Gade. This is Wolf's fourth visit to the territory, and what he has noticed most about St. Thomas this time is the ongoing preservation efforts on the island since his first visit about 27 years ago.
Tuesday Wolf ventured to Coral World for a SeaTrek where he donned a diving helmet and explored the flora, fauna and fish first-hand. "He was absolutely thrilled," says Ruth Butler, Coral World public relations director. "He talked about it being the experience of a lifetime," adding that Wolf said he had never expected the beauty and the multitude of fish. "And the cameraman was impressed, too," Butler says. "Our four-foot barracuda followed them around, and he thought that was wonderful."
Butler added she can't wait to see it on television, but Channel 12 isn't currently carrying Wolf's series. She suggested a write-in campaign to WTJX to encourage the station to air the show.
Wednesday Wolf and company take the ferry to St. John for the day for a look at the Annaberg ruins and a walk along Trunk Bay. But they won't leave without having a Hercules pate. Wolf has an excellent memory for food. "When I go to a restaurant, I look to see who is wiping his plate clean with a piece of bread – that will tell me where to eat."
Wolf is in good hands with St. Thomian Luana Wheatley of the Tourism Department's PR firm, Martin Public Relations, who is Wolf's tour guide and who led the shopping tour Monday as the crew filmed B-roll. This is what it's called when the crew films a background for Wolf's comments.
The engaging Wolf sort of fell into his profession, to hear him tell it. "I have no idea how it really started," Wolf says. "It's not a career; it's a continuance of a magnificent delinquency."
Wolf had earned a law degree and was working in Switzerland as an investment consultant when he was asked to collaborate on a book, a "Cook's Catalog," as his interest in cooking had been well-established. The book became an amazing success.
He was asked to appear on the Johnny Carson show after he returned from Switzerland to New York with his three sons, for whom he had custody. He was, at the time, still working in investments, "a working 'mother,'" he says. After his appearance on Carson, somebody told him he had the kind of sense of humor to do television.
"I was appalled at the idea," Wolf says. "In those days I thought TV was comparable to appearing in a Playboy centerfold."
After a couple years, however, he acquiesced and began a food and travel show called "What's Cooking?" and the rest is history, well-documented history. Wolf has written or edited more than 60 books. The "Cook's Catalogue" recently enjoyed a 25-year anniversary. Time magazine has described it as "the definitive book on cooking equipment." A 13-part television series, "Local Flavors," based on the book, is in national syndication on public television.
Public television will air the Virgin Islands series. Perhaps Butler's idea about a write-in campaign will help get it shown in the territory. Wolf's shows also air on CNN and the Travel Channel.
Wolf will be in the Caribbean again in December to begin filming for a new series, "Seeds of Change," which will document how Columbus changed the world and how it still affects behavior worldwide. "Nothing has had a more dramatic effect on this planet," says Wolf, "unless we start exchanging food with another planet."
The filming will include South America, Mexico, Spain, Ireland, Germany and the U.S. "It's wonderful, mostly a cultural history told from the changes he instigated," Wolf says. He doesn't know if the Virgin Islands will be a part of the Caribbean segment as yet.
This time, the crew will shoot about 27 hours of film in the four days, which will be edited down to 25 minutes and 55 seconds, a half-hour show.
Now that Wolf's sons are grown, he lives in a one-bedroom apartment in New York. After all his travels where would he prefer to live? "To do what?" he replies. Italy for food — Venice, Pisa, he says, shaking his head at the question. He would have to opt for New York, but "I am in my apartment about five days at a time," he explains. "My living room is mainly a clothes rack. It's filled with clothes and shoes. Emily (Aronson) comes with me and tells me to 'take this, this and that' and we're off." Next week, Switzerland.
To access some of Wolf's columns go to www.Salon.com and put his name in the search engine on the site or simply put BurtWolf in the Google search engine on any Source page to find more on his travels and books.


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