The Christmas season is my family’s time to shine. My grandma Lucille absolutely loved the holidays and the traditions we embrace each year have been practiced for decades. A huge part of our tradition? The food, of course. My grandma used to cook the entire Christmas meal for her whole 25+ family by herself. When she finally had to slow down because of age and illness, we sat her in a chair positioned specifically so she could see me and my cousin try to replicate the recipes she refined for years.
When I first heard about the new show “Baking It,” I knew it would be the perfect addition to my holiday season TV lineup. Not only are cooking and baking shows an obsession of mine, but the show also adds a new, unexpected element that may push it above the competition – grandmas.
In the Peacock app’s new show, there are four grandmas that act as the judges for the holiday series. These grandmas are there to taste all the bakes and ultimately decided who wins the big prize at the end of the season.
To the credit of the show’s casting directors, two of the featured grandmas are New Orleans natives. Harriet Robin and Anne Leonhard are not only instructors at the New Orleans School of Cooking but have also been friends since their childhood. There’s nothing more New Orleans than that.
Ahead of the holidays, here is my interview with Harriet Robin about her life and the show now available for streaming on the Peacock app.
So, Harriet, tell me about your life. Did you always know you wanted to cook and teach cooking?
[The show] was not in the plan of life. Things just happen to you. In my case, it’s been mostly fun things, along with some sad. But you go wherever life takes you and do the best you can. Life is like a rollercoaster, like we used to have at Pontchartrain Beach, up and down and sometimes around and around. But it’s interesting and it takes courage to leave your comfort zone. In my day and age, whenever someone showed up somewhere, cooking was in the day’s plan. I learned to cook from my grandmother and mother, and when I would visit the country, where my father was from, in Acadiana. I always wanted to teach home economics, but one thing I couldn’t do was sew an inch. I could do everything but put those pieces together. When I went to Mount Dominican College on St. Charles, which is now Loyola, my first class was in Latin with Sister Alexandria. All I knew was French and I knew I wouldn’t survive Latin. I went to the office to ask them to show me which classes there were besides Latin, and I got into food and nutrition. And that’s how it all started. I became a registered dietician, did an internship in Cincinnati for a year and came back to work at Touro. I stopped working when I had my third child and stayed home for a number of years. When my oldest, Michael, went to high school I decided to pick up my career again. I ended up working at East Jefferson General Hospital for 25 years.
You know, when you live in New Orleans and you go into a hospital, you want food that’s comforting, food that you recognize. And we did that, we did all the New Orleans dishes – of course modifying for patients that needed [modification]. I was on the floor with patients at first, but it was so sad I quit after two weeks. My boss asked me to stay on until he found someone to take my place and said I could just stay in the kitchen. And that’s where I retired. Twenty-five years later, I just stayed in the kitchen. It was hard work. But I worked with wonderful chefs that were homegrown. We had very good organization at East Jefferson in the dietary department and that’s how I got into it. After I retired, I ran the streets. You needed something, I could tell you where to get it and what price. Then after about a year, my friend suggested I take the tour guide class at the Friends of the Cabildo. So, I did that for about nine years and then came to the New Orleans School of Cooking 13 years ago. And it was a shoe that fit. I was very comfortable and that’s how I’m here at the school. I love it.
Speaking of the New Orleans School of Cooking, another judge on the show is Anne. You and Anne are good friends, right?
Yes, we’ve known each other since 1950. Both of our parents, after World War II, moved from the old neighborhood. I lived with my grandmother while all the men in my family went off to war, after the war was over my grandmother passed away. After, my mother and father moved out to Lakeview. I was six blocks from Mount Carmel, I rode my bike there when I was in high school. Anne lived a block and a half from me. We weren’t really tight in each other’s lives, but like any neighborhood you grow up in you know all the people. And she was here at the school before me. I became interested in the school listening to Anne and talking about it at a tour guide meeting. She went to work the next Monday and her boss asked her if she knew anyone who would be interested in teaching. She said, “you’re not going to believe this, but I just ran into an old friend, and she would be ideal.” And that friend was me.
How did you (and Anne) get on the show? What was the process like?
[Someone at the school] met me one day when I was getting out of class, and she said there was a program starting up that’s interviewing and asked if I would be interested. I said, “sure, why not?” Anne and I both interviewed in May. There were several interviews, just like we’re doing now [Zoom] but sometimes there were other women on the call and sometimes just me. There were a whole lot of different combination of personalities present. I think we did three or four interviews, and then we got down to the nitty gritty and we knew this was for real. I didn’t think I was going to get picked. But then I got picked and we were just dumbfounded and excited and scared all at the same time.
I couldn’t imagine having to judge people’s work, that would be the hardest part for me. What was it like being a judge?
This was a real cooking competition. This wasn’t make believe. So, I took it very seriously. I know the whole time, and all four of us took this very seriously. You don’t want to think you made a mistake; you want to be right. In your mind think, I did the right thing. And that’s what you have to focus on. So, even though you might be enjoying it, you’re paying attention a great deal. And when we sat down to deliberate, we talked about everything. I can’t think of any one episode where there was an argument back and forth. We were all pretty certain each time and when everything was said we were on the right track. It truly isn’t easy. We also tried very hard not to be partial. We didn’t want to know about or really talk to any of the contestants. We always kept away from the action. We just came in for the results and didn’t want to make it personal.
Saturday Night Live alums Maya Rudolph and Andy Samberg were the celebrity hosts, what was it like having them on set?
It was a delight to work with such true professionals, people you’ve seen on TV or in movies. But let me tell you, they’re real people just like you and me. Maya sat next to me, and Andy would sit at the head of the table, and we would just start conversations. lo and behold, Maya and I found out we had a connection to Tulane University. Now, talk about a small world. It was unbelievable.
You mention your grandkids in the show, have any of them followed in your culinary footsteps?
Five of them are boys and I have one adorable granddaughter, Katie Scarlett. The boys are mostly interested in sports. My grandson Edward is the only one here in Metairie – the others are out of town – and he’s gotten to be a little interested. About two years ago he had to bring in some desserts for school and we did it together. He did it by himself, but I was coaching him. You never really know when the bug is going to bite.
What’s your favorite thing to cook or bake?
I have to say red beans and rice. I love to do red beans and rice. And sometimes you can throw fried chicken in as a side or smoke a few big pork chops. Oh, fried chicken I could eat every day of my life.
“Baking It” is available to stream now on Peacock.