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‘Mr. Food,’ easygoing television chef, dies at 81

Art Ginsburg worked at WRGB, recalled fondly by many

November 21, 2012
Updated 9:05 p.m.
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Art Ginsburg, known as Mr. Food, has died at his home in Weston, Fla..
Art Ginsburg, known as Mr. Food, has died at his home in Weston, Fla..

— Even after hitting the big time, Mr. Food never forgot the people who watched his rise to national fame.

Art Ginsburg always seemed to remember the people who worked with him in the studios of WRGB Channel 6 or the people he encountered as a successful Capital Region caterer. Even after moving the production of his nationally syndicated television food segment to Florida, the lovable chef would return to the area for surprise visits to the places where he worked and to see the friends he cherished.

Ginsburg’s television persona became indelibly linked with the trademark tagline closing each broadcast: “Ooh! It’s so good!” He was a best-selling author and was a popular television mentor for on-the-go cooks during a time that predated many celebrity chefs.

“He was really an original, well before there was the Food Network,” recalled Lisa Jackson, the news director of CBS6. “He was like the first guy out there making things for busy families.”

Ginsburg, 81, died at his Weston, Fla. home Wednesday, following a year-long bout with pancreatic cancer. The cancer had gone into remission following early treatments and surgery, but returned earlier this month.

Ginsburg had an unlikely formula for success in this era of reality cooking shows, flashy chefs and artsy foods. With a pleasantly goofy, grandfatherly manner and a willingness to embrace processed foods, Ginsburg endeared himself to millions of home cooks via 90-second segments syndicated to 125 local television stations around the country.

And though he published 52 Mr. Food-related cookbooks, selling more than 8 million copies, he was little known to the nation’s foodies and mostly ignored by the glossy magazines. That was the way he liked it.

“They’re on the Food Network. They’re getting a lot of national publicity. And they’re getting big money,” he said of fellow food celebrities during a 2010 interview with The Associated Press. “I was always the hometown guy. I don’t want to be the super celebrity. When you need bodyguards, that’s not my deal.”

Ginsburg grew up in the meat business, and eventually started his own catering company. He made his television debut in 1975 on a local morning program with WRGB. His Mr. Food vignettes were syndicated in nine television markets by 1980 and peaked in 2007, when he was appearing on 168 stations.

Jackson first became familiar with Ginsburg watching his segments at a station she worked for in Indianapolis. When she started at WRGB in 1987, she was humbled to be working next to a guy who seemed to be voraciously gobbling up television markets across the nation.

“He was a gem of a guy and a true original,” she said.

Ginsburg relocated to Florida during the late 1990s, but still visited the station almost annually during the holidays.

Jackson said WRGB still has the kitchen where the icon shot many of his segments over the years.

“It’s a shock and a loss for everyone,” she said of his death. “He will be sorely missed.”

Ginsburg’s work as a kosher caterer also helped inspire one of the Capital Region’s most prolific restaurateurs.

Angelo Mazzone said he first met Ginsburg while working at Union College in Schenectady. At the time, Mr. Food was just getting big. But Ginsburg had already made a name for himself as one of the Capital Region’s top caterers.

Mazzone recalled Ginsburg as a willing teacher who never forgot his understudies later in life. He said Ginsburg was always inviting him to visit Florida.

“He was just a pretty incredible guy,” Mazzone said.

Neil Golub of Price Chopper recalled Ginsburg as a headstrong and capable caterer who knew how to break down the fundamentals of cooking in a manner that it was easily digestible for kitchen neophytes. He said Ginsburg also did theater and was an accomplished dramatic actor.

But Golub best recalled the television chef for his gregarious nature. He remembered entering a Chicago steak house with his wife several years ago only to hear the familiar voice of Mr. Food behind him, insisting they join him for a meal.

“In his big bellowing voice, he said these folks are sitting with me,” Golub recalled.

Ginsburg was a regular at Villa Valenti Restaurant in Wynantskill and would make an appearance whenever he returned to the area. Restaurant manager Sarah Valenti said he once did cooking lessons with her grandmother Emma Valenti and almost seemed like part of the family.

“He was a great guy, she said. “When he did come back, he’d always make an appearance.”

In recent years, Ginsburg eased his involvement in the day-to-day operations of the company he founded. Ginsburg Enterprises Inc. produces the television segments and oversees his many other ventures, including a line of housewares. The company also produced television segments that did not star Ginsburg, billing them as the “Mr. Food Test Kitchen.” It plans to continue producing and syndicating those segments.

“Art Ginsburg was a warm, gregarious man who knew food is more about love and sharing than a fancy ingredient list,” said Rachael Ray, who Ginsburg invited on air long before she was a celebrity. “He was a supportive and loyal friend and I’ll miss his smile and warm hugs. This Thanksgiving I’m thankful I knew him.”

 
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