‘Living Culture’ airs on CCTV and is hosted by local boy Nate Rafn
I’ve never been much of a TV person, so when I do watch, I tend to flip channels, pausing on anything mildly engrossing. For some reason, I often find myself watching cable access. (If you’ve watched much cable access, I’m sure you can relate.) But cable access is a lot like thrift store shopping. It takes wading through a lot of stuff that’s not your style before you find a diamond in the rough.

Recently, my diligence paid off. I happened upon a charming show that’s become a household favorite among many. “Living Culture” is a monthly food and lifestyle program produced and hosted by 23 year-old Nate Rafn, a local “foodie” who exudes boyish charm, earnestness and authenticity in equal measure. This leads me to wonder: could the next Food Network star be wandering the streets of Salem?

Or perhaps an alternative to Food Network is more like it. “Living Culture” is a welcome antidote to the celebrity-fueled cooking shows that populate channel 56.

Instead of the slick studio backdrop, the production values are casual and unfussy, with most of the segments shot in Rafn’s own kitchen. In one segment the phone rings and instead of yelling “cut!” and resuming later, Rafn nonchalantly answers the phone and begins to chat. A slow fade tells us the conversation is going to take a while. Likewise, Rafn isn’t above drawing in the cameraman, Daniel, who happens to be his brother. Reaching across the void, Rafn offers Daniel tastes of each culinary treat that he concocts.

Episodes revolve around Rafn demonstrating a recipe or two and then visiting local chefs who do likewise. Whether it’s Jeff James of j. james restaurant cooking a pan-seared steak bresole, or Mark Nassar sharing a traditional family recipe for baklava, guests on the show are much like Rafn — unpretentious and enthusiastic about sharing their techniques and deep reverence for good food.

Rafn dreamed up the idea for “Living Culture,” which premiered in March 2005, while working the line at Caruso’s (he is employed there as a waiter). After a year in the kitchen, learning the basics of boning chicken, butterflying scampi, making sauces and later moving onto more complex projects such as preparing veal demi-glace, Rafn caught culinary fever and became curious about how other chefs operated. He didn’t want a new job, so he concocted another way to get into their kitchens — film.

While “Living Culture” is shot using a handheld camera, the results are far from amateurish. What elevates the show from ho-hum to something original and exciting are the artistic flourishes the Rafn brothers pepper throughout — time-lapse video montages and short film segments celebrating everything from the waning afternoon light to the changing seasons. Daniel Rafn’s band, Root Villa, provides the artsy, post-punk soundtrack.

One of Rafn’s most affable guests is Steve Morton of Morton’s Bistro Northwest.

Morton is a huge fan of Rafn and “Living Culture,” and thinks the show is destined for bigger and better things. Morton says that it was only after Rafn hounded him on and off for months that he agreed to appear on the show. But he admits it’s one of the most exhilarating things he’s done in a long time.

“I’d seen some cable access stuff and I thought it was cheesy. But Nate kept bugging me and bugging me so I finally agreed to do it. The whole time we were filming I was worried it was going to be terrible. At one point we even had to go to the store for camera batteries. But when I saw the finished show, my jaw dropped. They did a great job editing and the music was so wonderful. It was like when a photographer takes your picture and it really looks like you.”

For all the public interest in organic and sustainable foods, mainstream cooking shows give surprisingly short shrift to the movement. For Rafn, the local foods movement and Northwest-reliant chefs reign supreme. A recent episode of “Living Culture” found Rafn and Morton scouring Salem for fresh ingredients and inspiration. They hit Fitts Seafoods on 12th Street for fresh diver scallops and freshly foraged white truffles. Across the way at Salem Saturday Market they added hedgehog mushrooms to their bounty.  Morton says, “I’m really glad Nate’s making the local environment part of the show. If any area needs to be exploited this way it’s the Mid-Willamette Valley. Local sourcing of ingredients and regionality are key.”

Ultimately, Rafn would like his own restaurant, with a focus on Willamette Valley ingredients.

“Since I don’t have a restaurant yet,” he says, “I like to prepare meals for groups of people.”  

For now that means hosting a monthly supper club for about 25 lucky guests. The delectable menu might look something like this: roasted squash soup, cod cakes and polenta, and a dessert of local apple cobbler with a hazelnut cornmeal crust.

And while Rafn doesn’t watch the Food Network himself, he’s not above dreaming that his show might land there or somewhere else one day. For now, he’s content doing what he loves and loving every minute of it.

“Living Culture” airs on CCTV Channel 22 Thursdays at 8 p.m., Friday at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1:00 pm. For more information about “Living Culture,“ visit www.livingcultureonline.com.