Episode 935: You Asked For A Food Show : Planet Money The top producer of Top Chef helps us spice up this food edition of listener questions. How do you master the salad bar? Why do Americans refrigerate eggs? The story of Choco Pies and more. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Episode 935: You Asked For A Food Show

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Episode 935: You Asked For A Food Show

Episode 935: You Asked For A Food Show

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There is something about a food competition show - you know, like "Top Chef," "Chopped," my personal favorite, "The Great British Bake Off" - that, to me, is magic.


SANDI TOKSVIG: It's biscuit week.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, biscuit week. And I think what it is is that they take something that we all have to do every night, like a chore, and make it into a drama.


TOKSVIG: And another will be asked to leave.


EMILY HAHN: I personally didn't want Jamie to have to do a crappy dish.

JAMIE LYNCH: I didn't try to do a crappy dish.

HAHN: He didn't at all.

LYNCH: I just did.

GRAHAM ELLIOT: Each of you did your own dishes.

FOUNTAIN: So good. And the other day, I got to talk to one of the people who not only knows the tricks that these shows use; she invented some of them.

All right. Before we start, can you just introduce yourself?

DONEEN ARQUINES: I'm Doneen Arquines. I'm the executive producer/showrunner of "Top Chef."

FOUNTAIN: And what was your first job on "Top Chef"?

ARQUINES: I was a production assistant in season one.

FOUNTAIN: You started at the bottom. Now you're the boss.


FOUNTAIN: Doneen and I got to talking about her show. It's now headed into its 17th season. But honestly, pretty soon, our conversation just turned into this, like, therapy/advice session for producers.

We do a lot of shows around here at PLANET MONEY. We cover economics every single day - business and economics. And we - you know, it starts to be the same sort of thing. Not to say it's boring, but, you know, we cover trade. We cover the Federal Reserve.


FOUNTAIN: And what we are looking to talk to you about today is how to take something that may seem mundane, like cooking, and make it exciting...


FOUNTAIN: ...And for you to teach us some of the tricks of food competition shows so that we can use them to spice up our coverage. Does that sound cool?

ARQUINES: Yeah. Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: All right. We usually start our show by saying hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY and then our names. So would you do that?

ARQUINES: Sure. Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. This is Doneen Arquines.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, yeah. And I'm Nick Fountain. Today on the show, we're going to open up the inbox and take listener questions on food and food-related things. And I got to say, there are some pretty weird questions, but the PLANET MONEY team is going to do what we do every day. We're going to report them out. And this show is going to be unlike any we've ever done because Doneen is going to tell us how to use the methods of a food competition show to make our show shine.

All right. So what we're going to do today is bring in each of the reporters. They already know the listener question they're going to answer. What they do not know ahead of time is their challenge. They do not know the tricks that I learned from "Top Chef" executive producer Doneen Arquines that I'm going to spring on them today. And the first one we talked about is kind of old hat for food competition shows, but it's maybe my favorite.


MARK DACASCOS: Today's secret ingredient is...

FOUNTAIN: Do you guys use the surprise ingredient?

ARQUINES: We do. We try not to do it too much 'cause there are a lot of shows that do that, too.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, it's kind of a trope at this point.



DACASCOS: Ground meat.

TED ALLEN: Each course comes with its own basket of mystery ingredients.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, not what I [expletive] wanted.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What do you have?


FOUNTAIN: What is it about the surprise ingredient that, like...

ARQUINES: I think because it's easy. It's one of those things where it's like - it's very straightforward. People can see it, and then they can maybe even do it at home.

FOUNTAIN: Easy, simple, effective, not yet a trope in radio journalism - let's do it.

Our first question comes from Alicia Oudwong (ph) in California. And Alicia had heard something about Choco Pies, which are sort of these, like, whoopie pie, MoonPie s'more things. She'd heard that they became part of the underground economy in North Korea, and she wanted to know more. So I asked Elise Hu.


ELISE HU, BYLINE: I feel a sense of dread.


HU: (Laughter).

FOUNTAIN: You started NPR's South Korea bureau. You've covered North Korea a ton. What is going on with Choco Pies in North Korea?

HU: North Koreans love Choco Pie. They have...

FOUNTAIN: Wait. Wait. I'm going to interrupt you.

HU: Yes.

FOUNTAIN: Before you tell us about Choco Pies...


FOUNTAIN: ...Kumari, who's a producer at the NPR office in LA where you work, should be coming in...


FOUNTAIN: Oh, there she is.

HU: Hey.

FOUNTAIN: We asked Kumari to scrounge around the office and find a secret ingredient that you have to work into your segment.

HU: A can of tuna.

DEVARAJAN: You're - I know you always wanted one.

FOUNTAIN: That is your surprise ingredient, and you have to figure out a way to work that into your story...

HU: Oh, my God.

FOUNTAIN: ...On Choco Pies. Go.

HU: OK. So Choco Pies, or Choco Pies, as we call it - Choco Pies as they're known in the Korean language - figure into geopolitics, the politics of North Korea and South Korea, because while they were popular in South Korea like this since the 1970s, they weren't introduced to North Koreans until 2004.

FOUNTAIN: What happened in 2004?

HU: So they made their way across the border through something called the Kaesong Industrial Complex. This was a joint North-South special economic zone.

FOUNTAIN: So this is, like, an industrial zone. There's North Korean workers working at South Korean factories, making shoes and clothes and whatever.

HU: Yeah. It's usually cheap labor, right? So it's a lot of manufacturing going on. And there's just one factory after another out there.

FOUNTAIN: OK. Bring this back to Choco Pies and/or tuna.

HU: OK. So the reason Choco Pies come into play is North Korean workers who labored there - they weren't actually paid directly by their bosses. The South Korean businesses had to pay the North Korean regime. So we don't know how much the workers actually made.


HU: But what South Korean managers could do is pay in snacks. And at first, it was delicious - right? - when they were first introduced some 15 years ago. It was like, OK, this is a fun snack. I get a reward.

FOUNTAIN: But after your fifth Choco Pie - not so great, right?

HU: Which then created this burgeoning Choco Pie black market in North Korea 'cause it is not a capitalist country, but there is a rather lively black market. And so North Korean workers stop eating the Choco Pies and start selling them in order to make some money on the black market to buy the things that they wanted to.

FOUNTAIN: I can imagine that the North Korean government did not appreciate these symbols of capitalism seeping into everyday life.

HU: Right. Plus, they field the black market.


HU: So in 2014, North Korea banned Choco Pies, and the result is the black market value of Choco Pies jumped from, like, one U.S. dollar to 10 U.S. dollars at one point.

FOUNTAIN: Do you have any sense of, like, how much, say, a can of tuna would go for on the black market?

HU: Oh, look at you do...

FOUNTAIN: We're nearing the end of our segment, and you still haven't tied it together. So bring it home. What does this mean for North Korea and the tuna?

HU: Often, North Koreans - North Korean fishermen defect in order to get into South Korea by boat.


HU: And I guess occasionally, they are fishing for tuna...


HU: ...Right? But Choco Pies are also a huge factor in a defector story from November of 2017.

FOUNTAIN: OK. Tell me that story.

HU: There was a 24-year-old North Korean defector who made a daring escape across that border where the little blue huts are that you've probably seen on television...


HU: ...A bunch of time. He ran through that border in November of 2017. He was shot at by his fellow soldiers 40 times and then eventually rescued by South Korean and U.S. soldiers on the other side of the border. But once he woke up, the first thing he asked for was...

FOUNTAIN: A can of tuna.

HU: We know that he definitely asked for a Choco Pie. We don't know what fish he asked for, but it's possible. Anyway, so Orion, the company that makes Choco Pies, sent a hundred boxes of them to his hospital room and then is continuing to supply him for life with Choco Pies.

FOUNTAIN: Lifetime supply of Choco Pies.

HU: That's right.

FOUNTAIN: Elise, you nailed your assignment. Thank you for sneaking that into this very informative interview.

HU: I would've rather you had a production assistant bring in Choco Pies for me instead of a can of tuna.

FOUNTAIN: Fair enough.

HU: But (laughter) next time.


FOUNTAIN: OK. Liza Yeager, newest member of the PLANET MONEY team.


FOUNTAIN: What's your listener question?

YEAGER: OK. So my listener question is, how do you get the best salad, value-wise, at a salad bar?

FOUNTAIN: Comes from Sean Diamond (ph) in Somerville, Mass. But before you answer the question, I asked Doneen how "Top Chef" might have gone about making this segment.


ARQUINES: Limitations - you know, we do some challenges on location so they're in a new place that they've never been before, new equipment that they've never used before. You know, they have to figure out how they're going to work within the space that they've never seen and then kind of work with what's there.

Like, let's say it's - we take them camping. And there's an open flame, and they've got a pot. That's all they have to work with. So they're going to have to figure out how to work around that.

FOUNTAIN: So I have this reporter who's answering a question about salad bars.

ARQUINES: Interesting.

FOUNTAIN: Do you think we should just make her do all her interviews at the salad bar at rush hour?

ARQUINES: Absolutely.

FOUNTAIN: Liza, you ready?

YEAGER: Yeah. I - I'm in.

FOUNTAIN: All right. Get out of here. And when you're back, tell me what happened.

YEAGER: Will do.

FOUNTAIN: And we're back. Much like on a cooking show, the thing we just talked about mere seconds ago is already complete. Liza, what'd you get into today?

YEAGER: So I went out into the world looking for a salad bar where I could answer this question.

OK. Here we are - Midtown.

FOUNTAIN: Home of expensive salads.

YEAGER: Home of hundreds of businessmen lining up around the block to buy $20 salads in a plastic box. It's so sad.

FOUNTAIN: Fifteen.

YEAGER: Straight shot - 13-minute walk.

So I was looking for a salad bar - rush hour.

OK, getting closer.

Walked a few blocks...

Oh, my God. There it is.

...Found this one.

It's, like, a deli chain on Madison Avenue.

So I asked the first person I met if there was someone I could talk to about the salad bar, got pointed to a manager...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The skinny one, tall one...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...Standing in the back.

YEAGER: And he pointed me towards this other dude.

EFREN: Efren (ph).

YEAGER: Efren.

EFREN: Efren, yeah.

YEAGER: And honestly, I just, like - I really don't know why Efren's manager sent me his way.

FOUNTAIN: Why's that?

YEAGER: Well, because...

Like, if you are a person getting a salad, what do you do?

EFREN: I wouldn't buy, like, to be honest.

YEAGER: You would never buy salad at a salad bar.

EFREN: To be honest, no.

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter).

YEAGER: Yeah, so Efren hates salad bars.

EFREN: If there's no other food to buy - you know, that's the last option that I have - OK. I mean, I'll buy it. But if not, I'll just get a burger (laughter).

YEAGER: He was sort of, like, standing there just, like, looking at me, like, rolling his eyes and shaking his head and smiling. Like, he knows how much they overcharge. But I pushed him a little bit. I was like, Efren, if you had to go to a salad bar, what would your strategy be? And he was basically like, my strategy is to walk around the salad bar and open up the case that has the prepared food in it.

EFREN: I'll just look for pre-made ones.

FOUNTAIN: The prepared food. But those salads are made, like, in another state last night.

YEAGER: No, no, no, no, no. He was like, common misconception. Look at this fruit over here. We're selling it for 6.99 a pound, packaged.

EFREN: When you go to the salad bar, you know how much it costs - 10.99.


YEAGER: And it's the same fruit.

EFREN: Yeah, same fruit.

FOUNTAIN: OK, don't be a snob. Don't avoid the pre-made salads. Did he have any other tips?

YEAGER: No, he didn't. So Efren was obviously not going to be that helpful. I left his salad bar, walked out on the street, walked another 10 minutes, and I found a salad bar advertising lunch. This is, I'm going to say, a much fancier salad bar. Everything is gleaming. They just put out the buffet, and all the foods were piled really perfectly. There were no scoops taken out of them. There's also jazz music playing, a lovely soundtrack.

So I got there, and I met this guy, Tony Lee (ph). Tony is the guy who buys everything at the salad bar. He knows exactly how much money they're making and losing on everything they sell. And he was not about to tell me all his secrets, but he had one very basic tip that he was willing to share.

TONY LEE: I recommend that people don't get too much of the rice. When you get this much of the rice...

YEAGER: Yeah. You're making, like, a - you're making, like, a fist size.

LEE: Fist size - just prepare, like, five bucks.

YEAGER: Yeah, so at this salad bar, you have three different kinds of rice, three big, shiny silver tubs, beautiful silver tubs of rice.

LEE: We make a lot of money from the rice (laughter).

FOUNTAIN: OK, don't buy the rice. What should we be buying?

YEAGER: So there is this amazing thing that happens at Tony's salad bar, which is that once a week, they get lobster and salmon.


LEE: That one is expensive.

YEAGER: They buy it for $20 a pound, and they sell it in the salad bar for 11.49 a pound.

LEE: And the people that don't eat lobster - we lose the money.

YEAGER: Like, almost half the money you're losing.

LEE: We bring the people in. They have a lobster and they have a lot of food, you know?

YEAGER: They're banking on people coming in, getting a little bit of lobster and a lot of rice.

FOUNTAIN: So you're saying we should just take the salmon and the lobster.

YEAGER: I mean, Tony told me that.

LEE: Get the salmon if you can.


YEAGER: If you're fast enough.

LEE: Right. Right, right.

FOUNTAIN: I would have never thought that a salad bar was losing money on any single ingredient.

YEAGER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So the purest form of saving your money at the salad bar is literally just, like, looking for the thing that costs the most outside the salad bar and filling up your box with only that thing - grilled lemon salmon - which I did.

This is the best deal.


YEAGER: This is the best deal at the salad bar, they told me. I asked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Oh, yeah? I'll go in right after you.

YEAGER: Thank you.

FOUNTAIN: That guy may not have been interested in your salad bar tips, but I am. Bring it home. What else did you learn?

YEAGER: I just really thought this was a great tip. I loved it. But to be fair, it was not the real answer that our listener was looking for. So to actually answer that question, I came back with a salad.

FOUNTAIN: Awesome. Let's see it.

YEAGER: All right.

FOUNTAIN: This is the ideal salad.

YEAGER: Value-wise, yes.

FOUNTAIN: I'm in. OK, I am seeing a lot of leafy greens.

YEAGER: Yes, get a lot of those. Pick the fanciest ones. They're basically air.

FOUNTAIN: A lot of craisins and, like, nuts.

YEAGER: OK, toppings - very light, very expensive off the salad bar. Get a lot.

FOUNTAIN: Not a lot of veggies.

YEAGER: No - water weight.

FOUNTAIN: And I noticed that you took Tony's advice. There is some salmon in here.

YEAGER: There's a little bit of salmon, yeah.


FOUNTAIN: Liza Yeager, thank you so much for answering Sean's question. And thanks for the salad.

YEAGER: Oh, it's actually for me.

FOUNTAIN: OK, goodbye.


FOUNTAIN: OK, next up, Darian Woods, welcome to the studio. What is your question that you're answering today?

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: Leonardo Pozzobon (ph), a listener from Texas, asked, why do Americans refrigerate their eggs when nobody around the world does that?

FOUNTAIN: But before we answer it, we asked Doneen how "Top Chef" would add some dramatic tension to this segment, and she told us this.

ARQUINES: Time. Time is an easy way to kind of up the ante with things.

FOUNTAIN: Is that the oldest trick in the book, works every time, no pun intended?

ARQUINES: I think so, yeah, 'cause not everybody works against a clock. That's not a normal thing.

FOUNTAIN: All right. I have my timer here. Darian Woods, 60 seconds, why do Americans refrigerate their eggs? Go.

WOODS: Sixty seconds? And I've just gotten rid of five of those already - squandered them.


WOODS: Salmonella - that is the answer because if you have a little bit of salmonella in an egg, it's going to grow and grow if you've got variable high temperatures. The refrigerator keeps the temperature low, stable, and the bacteria doesn't grow as fast. People get poisoned less frequently from that.

FOUNTAIN: Thirty-five seconds.

WOODS: Europeans - they vaccinate the chickens, and then they don't require as much handling and care with the actual eggs. American egg processors also wash their eggs, which is this whole other thing with costs and benefits that I can't get into in 60 seconds.

FOUNTAIN: Which works better, the European vaccination method or the American refrigeration method?

WOODS: Look; it's hard to tell, but why not do both? Who wants salmonella? It's this terrible disease. It kills 30 Americans a year from egg-related salmonella.

FOUNTAIN: You're saying no one should die of salmonella.

WOODS: I would like for there to be no deaths from salmonella.

FOUNTAIN: You got 10 seconds left. What do you want to say?

WOODS: I just want to give a shoutout to my girlfriend and my family...


WOODS: ...And also the Meat and Poultry Hotline.

FOUNTAIN: They gave you some tips for this one?

WOODS: Archie Magoulas - he's my good friend now.


FOUNTAIN: There's the timer. Well done.


FOUNTAIN: Darian, I can't believe you explained that so quickly. I'm talking really fast. Goodbye.

WOODS: See you.



FOUNTAIN: Keith Romer, welcome back to the studio.

ROMER: Thank you.

FOUNTAIN: What is the question that you're going to answer today?

ROMER: OK. My question comes from Nate Hibore (ph) in Hudsonville, Mich., and he is in a state where they've got the 10-cent deposit on the cans instead of the 5-cent. And he wanted to know if having that higher deposit made any difference to anything.

FOUNTAIN: OK. And because yours is the last one, we're going to make it especially hard.

ROMER: Oh, good.

FOUNTAIN: Doneen told me that sometimes to make good TV, you've got to take people way out of their comfort zones.

ARQUINES: One of the ways is to think about the food in a different way than it's known for, give us a dish that looks like one thing but tastes like another. That could be, you know...

FOUNTAIN: Looks like one thing but tastes like another. What would that sound like?

ARQUINES: Well, I guess you could have the reporter sing it.

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter) What genre?

ARQUINES: I think country probably would be the best. You know, telling a story.

FOUNTAIN: Keith Romer, does this make you kind of uncomfortable? You look kind of uncomfortable.

ROMER: I mean, I literally don't play the guitar, for one. Am I allowed to, like, bring in help?

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, of course.


FOUNTAIN: Coming up after the break, Keith writes a country song.

Keith, you're back. You've had a couple days to write a country song about Michigan's 10-cent can redemption rate, and you've brought a friend.

ROMER: I found somebody who could play guitar. This is my friend John Pinamonti, the country singer. We're just going to - we're just going to do it.

FOUNTAIN: Let's hear it.

ROMER: John, you tuned up? You ready to go?

JOHN PINAMONTI: I'm all ready, man. I was born ready. (Strumming guitar).

ROMER: All right, well, I'm going to start by telling you one story.

FOUNTAIN: Go for it.

ROMER: And then I'm going to sing you a different story. The first story, the one I'm just going to tell you, starts back in 1976. Back then, folks in Michigan had themselves a problem, and the problem was this. On the sides of the roads and on the shores of Lake Michigan and, well, just everywhere, empty bottles, empty cans. And the people rose up, and they passed a law that said, from now on, there's going to be a 10-cent deposit on every bottle and every can. That's a true story, and so is this song.

PINAMONTI: (Playing guitar).

ROMER: It's called "The Ballad Of The 10-Cent Man." It's about a man in 2016 who decided, heck, I know about some cans down in Kentucky where there ain't no 10-cent deposit. I'm going to get them. I'm going to drive them back to Michigan. And, well, he figured that was a pretty good idea.

(Singing) Michigan man had a crazy dream. Aluminum cans got a silver gleam. A dime apiece - well, he'd get rich. Perfect plan didn't have a hitch. You see a cop, get out of Dodge. It's time for Coke can arbitrage. For a thousand bucks, he drove from Kentucky. With 10,000 cans, he might get lucky. It's better than a nickel. There's always a dime. All it's going to cost him is the gas and the time.

Now, if you're wondering if Michigan paying 10 cents a can instead of 5 cents a can made a difference...

PINAMONTI: Well, I was.

ROMER: Well, John, I can tell you that it did. Last year, just under 90% of cans in Michigan got returned. That's 10%, 20%, 30% higher than in nickel-a-can states. Why, in 1992 in Michigan, 100.4% of cans got returned.


ROMER: And that's hard to do.

PINAMONTI: Yes, it is. (Playing guitar).

ROMER: OK, let's get back to the song about our arbitrager. That's a real word, by the way.

PINAMONTI: Yeah, I'll add it to my vocabulary.

ROMER: (Singing) By the time he got back, it was late. Cop by the road - call it fate - pulled him over, said, why so fast? Man's dream of cans - not made to last (ph). This perfect plan had just one flaw. Out-of-state cans were against the law. For a thousand bucks, he drove from Kentucky. With 10,000 cans, he might get lucky. It's better than a nickel. There's always a dime. But now he was facing prison time.


ROMER: (Singing) The cop at the trial said the truck was packed with 10,000 cans, to be exact. The judge said, you don't have to go to jail. Put 1,200 bucks in the mail. The judge asked the man what he had to say. I made a huge mistake, Your Honor. I regret it every day. That's a real quote. For a thousand bucks, he drove from Kentucky. With 10,000 cans, he might get lucky. It's better than a nickel. There's always a dime. What's worse is a $1,200 fine. It cost a lot more than the gas and the time.

This really happened. You can Google it.

FOUNTAIN: It's just so good. You guys nailed it. Thank you so much.

ROMER: Thank you, Nick.

FOUNTAIN: John, thanks for coming in.

PINAMONTI: My pleasure.

FOUNTAIN: Will you guys help me with the credits?

PINAMONTI: Sure, yeah.

ROMER: John, why don't you take us out?

FOUNTAIN: With no accent.

PINAMONTI: Oh, the accent comes with the job, Nick. (Strumming guitar).

ROMER: Worried about the next recession or our chord progressions? You can write us at planetmoney@npr.org. This episode was produced by Nick Fountain and engineered by Isaac Rodriguez, who made us sound so great. Darian Woods, Liza Yeager and Cynthia Betubiza helped out with producing. John, where can folks find your music?

PINAMONTI: Www.pinamonti.com.

ROMER: Or you can just Google. PLANET MONEY is edited by Bryant Urstadt. Alex Goldmark is the supervising producer. Many, many thanks to Doneen Arquines. I'm Keith Romer.

FOUNTAIN: I'm Nick Fountain.

PINAMONTI: And I'm John Pinamonti. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

ROMER: Woo. Got it?

FOUNTAIN: We got it.

ROMER: All right.

PINAMONTI: I said wwww.pinamonti.

FOUNTAIN: An extra W.


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