Long before the advent of the foodie label the husband and wife duo Ann and Peter Haigh, hosts of the weekly hour long radio show “On The Menu” were dishing about chefs, restaurateurs, travel and dining destinations and everything else connected to the world of food at large. The sprightly couple has a few decades of experience under their belt and are regulars at food events around the world from San Sebastián Gastronomika to the James Beard Awards in Chicago.
Their weekly radio broadcast program showcases a wide range of food world luminaries such as well-known chefs, winemakers, food producers, kitchen ware makers, authors, hoteliers and more. Ann Haigh a.k.a the Dining Diva is the editorial and content curator of the show while Peter Haigh the telecommunications expert handles the research and technology aspects of the duo’s lifelong adventure in the world of food. For the past twelve years the OTM radio show has hosted big name chefs from Jacques Pepin, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Marcus Samuelson, and Graham Elliot to many international luminaries like Joan and Jordi Roca, Massimo Bottura, the Arzaks and many more and is a veritable portal into the world of gastronomy. Ann’s publishing credentials include Business Week, USA Today, US Airways Magazine, Playboy, Memphis Magazine and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, while serving as a Dateline correspondent for the James Beard Foundation Newsletter. She is frequently tapped by cook book authors for her input as well as her witty, upbeat personality.
Peter, born and raised in England and Cambridge educated, spent several years in Australia before he met Ann and it was a coup de foudre at the first sight. The couple have made Pittsburgh their home base, where they occasionally take a break before continuing on with their travel adventures, showing up at the glamorous World’s 50 Best Awards or braving the throngs at the Chicago Beard Awards shindig. Peter is frequently surrounded by lovely young women at these events, his dashing attire of brilliant blue or a red dinner jackets as well as his sunny personality make him irresistible while Ann is holding court among some very famous faces from the industry! The lovely couple leave a trail of friends wherever they go and are an inspiration to many of us in the food world, setting an example for others about pursuing a passion in any stage of life.
Examiner: How long have you two been together, and Peter, how did you meet the Dining Diva?
Peter: We first met in 1972 as fellow travelers. We were both traveling to Philadelphia and I remember it was Mother’s Day and at that time I didn’t even know what that (Mother’s Day) was about here.
Ann: Peter was living in Australia while I was in Philadelphia at that time and he came there on a business trip. I was on my way to have dinner with my mother in Pittsburgh and we met at the taxi line. The rest is history and we have been together for 42 years now.
What have been the highlights of your journey together?
Ann: Our life together has been amazing considering all the miles between us when we first met and the fact that we still met is according to me the highlight of our life. Don’t forget we have been through a lot of miles together.
Who was the restaurateur in the family?
Peter: I certainly was not one.
Ann: That was me and I had the food background since I had a restaurant in Philadelphia when I was in my twenties. I wasn’t cooking myself but I had this elated concept of establishing a corporation with a friend to open ethnic restaurants in Philadelphia since there were not any at that time. Frankly the first was a nightmare for us so we never got to the second one. Then I stayed in the industry as a restaurant critic for a very long time.
Peter: I actually worked in a restaurant in Australia mostly centered on barbecues. I would call that anything associated with fine dining.
When did you both change the direction of your work?
Peter: The biggest change came after Ann was asked to become a restaurant critic for a magazine. She was known as a good cook by our family and friends. I always said that on her own birthday we ate in the second best restaurant in town (the first being our own home) but on my birthday it was the best restaurant since she cooked at home for me.
What were some of the places you frequented for these special occasions?
Peter: It could be the Bagatelle in Washington D.C but since we traveled so much it could still only be the second best restaurant in any city we were in since the best was at home. In 1991 she tried out as a restaurant critic and then from that point on together we explored the fine dining scene. We would always debate if we wanted to spend a lot of money at a restaurant like Pierre Gagnaire or make another choice but we invariably ended up at a fine dining place wherever we were in the world.
In what capacity did you participate at some James Beard House dinners in New York? Did you cook there?
Ann: I was involved with those twice over the years. The first one was with a group of chefs from Pittsburgh and was called Five Burgers To Go and the second time I was involved more with the menu planning etc. that would time it was a Portuguese chef in the kitchen and I assisted with the execution.
You have both been involved in various aspect of the hospitality industry for a few decades. What is the most startling change you have observed that you could not have predicted?
Ann: It is a totally different ballgame in the restaurant industry in terms of reviewers. In those days there were strict rules and stipulations as to how we behaved as anonymous restaurant critics. The certainly were no Yelpers in those days.
As you go through doing what you do in this business over the years you make friends that over time become like your extended family. We run into the same people over the years in different places to the point we are truly friends and have come to know each other well. I think it’s a wonderful industry.
Peter: We have always been warmly welcomed into restaurants when all they knew about us was that we had a dining website or that Ann was a restaurant critic and we had a weekly radio show about food, wine and travel. It also exciting an exciting life like for instance we visited three Michelin star restaurants in San Sebastián in two and a half days. That takes a degree of stamina on our part for sure but also interesting to see how kind, generous and welcoming people can be.
Ann, I was intrigued about your having written for Playboy magazine. How did that happen and what was it about?
Ann: I have to say I got a lot of mileage about that one!
People wanted to connect with me as a restaurant critic for doing one of their lists. USA Today would solicit my opinions of restaurants and run snippets of my restaurant reviews etc. Playboy wanted to do a list of the most outrageous bars in the U.S. We had this run down bar in a gritty part of Pittsburg where the owner was so popular and much loved that women would take off their bras and hang them on the bar. Funny thing was his wife never knew all of that until I let the cat out of the bag and as I recollect she was a literature teacher.
Peter, as a technology and telecommunications expert, what according to you has been the most damaging aspect of use of social media for the restaurant industry?
Peter: The challenge is the same as for everything on the Internet and applies to the food and drink establishments and the chefs reputations in general. What you have to realize is what’s on the Internet at times is verifiable or not. If you pick up a piece of information from the Internet or Wikipedia you are not sure if they are reliable. In fact there is no such thing as a reliable source on the Internet and that is a big problem. Due to this at times somebody’s reputation or livelihood can be destroyed. If someone writes a careless review, if they were in a bad mood at the time then these things can make social media very damaging. That said it is also an amazing way to communicate and we wouldn’t be able to present our program if the Internet did not exist.
Ann: The people putting out this news should not forget that these are real people and businesses they are writing about. You have to be very responsible in writing about someone or their business. The reason why I am in this field is because of the people in this industry and the very diverse personalities I come across.
You both travel to food events in the U.S as well as internationally. What are some of your favorite events and places?
Ann: We love the World’s 50 Best in London and next year it will be in New York, San Sebastián amongst others. We travel every month and some years we travel a lot. We meet some amazing people there from distant places and we get to interview some of them. There are so many of these festivals now that you have to choose wisely the ones that are more worthwhile since some of them take place simultaneously. The first year of an event is wobbly, the second is better and then in the third year they hit their stride and then they go all cocky and go overboard and have more people than they can accommodate.
Peter: The best part of the 50 Best is that almost everyone is there as this year they had 49 out of top 50 at the ceremony. There is a wonderful atmosphere amongst those who are there because they already know that since they got invited they have been included in the top 50.
Any amusing anecdotes related to your travels?
Peter: About eight years ago we visited the Trattoria Zamboni in Vicenza, Italy where thanks to a waiter translating for us we were able to interview the chef owner since he didn’t speak English. Then just last year we were back there and got in touch to meet Salvatore again. We were told that he had since passed away but they were delighted that thanks to our recorded interview for our radio show they could listen to his voice again.