One look at Nick Tolbert’s life and the cynical line you often hear, “You just can’t get anything done in this city,” fades away. Eleven years ago Tolbert, known as The Midnight Gourmet to viewers of his public access cooking show, was sitting in an empty house in Northern Kentucky watching cable TV. In the middle of a serious depression following a painful divorce, he was deciding what to do with the rest of his life.
“She took about everything, all the furniture, and I was just sitting there watching the Food Network,” he says. “I noticed there was one African-American chef on the whole thing. The guy’s name was Curtis Aikens. I saw him doing it and I said, ‘I could do that, that looks like something I can do.’ ”
It takes a certain transcendental moxie (i.e., serious cojones) to be able to see yourself on national television when you’re in the middle of a major depressive episode. This is what separates Tolbert from the rest of us — those of us who might quell our recent divorce with a nightly ritual of cable TV, chicken wings and a six-pack of beer instead of scheming to become a celebrity on national television.
Ask why he’s like this, and Tolbert will tell you about the time his dad made him quit the Hughes High School basketball team.
“I never wanted to cook,” he says. “I wanted to play basketball, but my father made me quit because we were very poor and he wanted me to bring money into the house. I never told anyone that at the time, but that’s what happened.”
When he quit basketball, Tolbert says he promised himself he’d never quit anything else again.
“That has kept me moving forward all these years,” he says.
Tolbert says he had no intention of becoming a chef. After high school he wanted to go into the Marines, but he flunked the test.
“You got to be smart to go into the Marines,” he says. “My grades were bad. I barely graduated high school.”
But that didn’t stop him from applying to The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the country, at the urging of Horace Shilty, then general manager at Cincinnati’s Terrace Hilton. Tolbert spent his high school years working there as a floor chef and spent his early years as a dishwasher at the old Alms Hotel, where his parents worked and met.
“After watching the executive chefs there and the perks they got, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I couldn’t believe they could stay in the hotel for free and eat anything they wanted to eat. And those chefs used to walk around and pat girls on the butt. And they’d get away with it! I used to watch them taking a bottle upstairs to party with them.”
In that era, hotel chefs were like Rock stars, Tolbert says, and as a kid he wanted to be one of them. After getting into CIA on the recommendation of Shilty, Tolbert says he bought a one-way bus pass to New York and spent his years after graduation as both sous chef and head chef in several restaurants and hotels on the East Coast. But like many Cincinnati natives who find themselves transplanted to one coast or the other, he wound his way back home again.
As a result, he ended up in his living room on that fateful day in 1998, watching the Food Network. The dream of going national that struck him that day inspired Tolbert to start talking to some local TV stations. But he soon realized they only cared about news and weren’t interested unless you had an advertiser
He took a public access class on how to produce your own show, and the people he met there loved his idea so much that they volunteered to help him produce it. He was on the airwaves later that year.
Fast-forward to 2000, when The Midnight Gourmet was picked up by Black Entertainment Television (BET) and went national. Another Cincinnati connection helped make that happen — the sales manager for the Cincinnati Herald had a friend from college who happened to be a vice president at BET.
“I got some money together and paid my editor’s bus fare — we’d put a demo together,” Tolbert says. “We took the Greyhound bus all the way to D.C. It was the cheapest way we could get there.”
The VP loved it, and for two years The Midnight Gourmet appeared in 17 million homes across the country.
“I don’t think it really hit me that I was going to be in that many homes,” he says.
But Tolbert has always had a lot of viewers, even in the early days of public access in Northern Kentucky.
“After we did that first show, I went to Kroger in Erlanger,” he says. “I’ll never forget it. I was walking around there doing some shopping and the general manager at Kroger walked up to me and he said, ‘Man, I love your show.’ ”
Tolbert says the majority of his viewers were white males, which surprised him.
“When you got a crossover that strong, I knew I had something there.”
It’s probably because Tolbert is an inspiration to all males, regardless of race. With his towering presence, deep voice and smooth manner, he’s definitely an alpha male, and as The Midnight Gourmet he taught his male viewers how to impress the ladies by cooking elegant, romantic dinners, all while wearing a tux and managing to keep it spotless. He also has his female fans. In fact, after his radio show that airs every Sunday at 11 a.m. on WCIN (1480 AM), women call him just to hear his voice, Tolbert says.
Unfortunately, in 2002 Tolbert had to let go of BET and his dream of remaining national — he couldn’t find enough advertisers to sustain it.
For the next six years, Tolbert focused on his radio show, seeking out investors so the show could support him financially. And in his spare time, he investigated networks for his TV show — he hadn’t given up on the dream.
Not knowing where to turn, Tolbert started pursuing American Public Television (APT), and in 2008, at a recent quarterly APT meeting, 29 percent of affiliates approved the show for programming (it needed only a 24 percent vote to pass), and another 63 percent were interested in viewing a pilot.
“The show passed a crucial hurdle then,” says Doug Smith, former investment broker and owner of the Hollywood Hills-based production company Creative Pictures. Smith is now producer and chief operating officer of The Midnight Gourmet, LLC. Smith was another Cincinnati find; Tolbert ran into him one day at Findlay Market.
While Tolbert and Smith have received a congratulatory letter from APT, no formal contracts have been signed by national affiliates to date. But the two are optimistic. The Midnight Gourmet will debut locally on WCET (Channel 48) this year — they’re shooting for mid-April — and 27 other public television stations across the country have agreed to air it.
Because even public television costs money, The Midnight Gourmet needs to find a corporate sponsor. Tolbert also has immediate production costs, but he’s found local investors to cover them. Restaurateurs Martin and Marilyn Wade — owners of Lavomatic, Chalk Food Wine and Edgecliff Bistro, to name a few — have agreed to be the primary backers of The Midnight Gourmet despite the fact that Martin Wade has never seen the show.
“I didn’t have to,” Wade says. “We invested in Nick. When he came to see me, I knew he was no fly-by-nighter coming to see if he could scam me. He had a business plan, a strong idea of what he wanted and was very focused.”
Carl Lindner was also a strong supporter, funding the show’s initial development and the APT approval process that put Tolbert in the running for national viewership.
“Carl was the first person who believed in me,” Tolbert says. “If it hadn’t been for Carl, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”
Recently, the Wades, Tolbert and Smith also decided to form a catering business, The Midnight Gourmet, which will utilize the Wades’ commissary. The inspiration struck when they all realized there was a need for minority caterers in the local community, Wade says. The catering service will serve food very similar to what the commissary offers now, but with “various ethnic orientations,” Smith says.
Meanwhile, the University of Cincinnati has also jumped on The Midnight Gourmet bandwagon. DAAP will be offering a studio, while CCM has offered internationally acclaimed composers and musicians to create and perform unique compositions for the show.
“We’re going to make sure the show is representative of our community, Cincinnati, but then on a national scope it also has to translate to Santa Fe, Seattle, wherever we end up,” Smith says. “But the way we’re describing the show right now is, ‘Imagine a black James Bond cooking.’ Suave, sophisticated and elegant with a touch of romance.”
With all the local support Tolbert is getting, the obvious question is whether he could have done this in a bigger city like Los Angeles or New York City. He’s skeptical.
“Martin Wade, Carl Lindner, UC and everyone else who has helped us in every way along the way have been just great,” he says. “It’s been fantastic. You know, the thing about it is they say you can’t get nothing done in Cincinnati. That’s not the truth, because I took a show from cable access and put it on national TV. They say it can’t be done. It can.”
NICK TOLBERT will appear 6-9 p.m. Friday at the opening of The Art of Food, an exhibition of “ephemeral art created out of food” at The Carnegie in Covington.