Chef Jon Ashton, in town to promote his May 19 cooking show at the Portland Expo, intersperses our interview about the show and his philosophy of food with his own questions about Portland’s restaurants.

He asks for suggestions for dinner on the town, and raves about a lobster roll he had the day before at J’s Oyster on Portland Pier.

“The bun was perfectly toasted on the outside,” he said in an accent that brings to mind Mary Poppins’ friend, Bert the chimney sweep. “It was crisp, and on the inside it was soft. And the lobster was unadulterated. It didn’t need any makeup, just like a beautiful woman.”

All day long, Ashton asked everyone he met where he could get a good lobster roll — research, presumably, for his next trip to Portland, when he will put on a live cooking show.

Ashton is executive chef for the weekly food magazine Relish, which runs in this newspaper and hundreds of others across the country, and has 15 million readers. In his travels around the country, he enjoys meeting those readers, visiting them in their homes and pulling them up on stage for cooking demonstrations.

He will do 20 live shows this year; this is his first in Maine. The show — a Dash of Diva event presented by The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram — will feature family-friendly recipes with ingredients you can find at your local grocery store.

(Guys, don’t stay away just because of the Dash of Diva connection. There are plenty of great cooks out there who happen to be men, and you are more than welcome to attend.)

Ashton said he tries to provide Johnny Carson-style entertainment that makes his audience feel good, as opposed to putting on an angry chef attitude.

“Our goal for the cooking show is to teach you as much as we can in the time we have,” Ashton said. “We want to celebrate America’s love for food, but we want to do it in a fun way as well.

“My granny loved to cook for the neighbors, and her door was always open. People would just come in and have a cup of tea, and we’d have a jolly good laugh. And I think that same thing applies with the Relish cooking show. If someone’s got a question, put your hand up and ask a question. If someone’s got something to share, please have a share.”

It’s not all tea and crumpets, however. If Ashton brings someone on stage to taste something and they hate it, he wants them to be honest and say so. That’s actually part of the fun.

“There was one lady, I said, ‘Would anyone like to try this delicious salmon burger? It’s absolutely delightful,’ “Ashton recalled. “This lady came up and she took a bite. I said, ‘Do you like it?’ and she said no.

“I said, ‘What do you mean, you don’t like it?’

“She said, ‘I don’t like salmon.’

“I said, ‘Why did you put your hand up?’“Ashton recalled, dissolving into laughter. “It was just smashing, and the audience was just bawling laughing.”

As in other cities, Ashton will be going into a Portland-area resident’s home for a private cooking lesson. Typically, he helps the home cook prepare a meal based only on what they already have in their pantry. (The winner of this “pantry challenge” giveaway will be chosen Thursday. To enter, see details elsewhere on this page.)

‘BRILLIANT’ AMERICANS

Ashton was born and raised in Liverpool, England, and has only lived “properly” in the United States for eight years.

His “Granny Ashton” got him interested enough in cooking as a child that he signed up for home economics classes in school — and was bullied for it. After graduating and working in several restaurants, his friendly personality and love of food landed him on some British cooking shows.

But what he really wanted was to come to America.

Ashton first set his eyes on the United States as a teenager, watching television programs that were either about this country or based here. When he was 18, he traveled to Spain, France and Italy, but was in his 20s before he was finally able to make it across the pond.

It was love at first sight.

“I really love this country,” Ashton said. “The people are just brilliant. Brilliant.”

Ashton said he is living proof that the American dream is alive and well.

“I came with $2,000, and I never knew one person,” Ashton said. “My goal in the United States was, number one, to become a citizen one day, but number two was also to see every single state in America without paying to go to those states. So I wasn’t allowed to go there unless someone paid me to go there. I’m very proud to say that two months ago, I finished it off in South Dakota.”

(He’s been to Maine once before.)

BAKING FOR THE NEIGHBORS

Today, Ashton rubs elbows with celebrity chefs ranging from Emeril Lagasse to Wolfgang Puck. He’s appeared on “Today,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and other TV programs that feature cooking segments.

He has a home in Florida, where he cooks with his daughter, 4-year-old Victoria Mei. Every month, they make brownies or some other treat to take to the local fire and police stations.

“I’ve never had a speeding ticket; I just do it because I want to teach Victoria Mei the gift of giving, which Granny Ashton taught me at the age of 8 when we baked for the neighbors,” Ashton said. “I think if you cook together, food’s a very powerful thing.

“Food is the only true relationship you ever have, from the moment you’re born till just before you go to heaven, whereas other relationships — parents, friends, wives — relationships we have die and come and go, whereas your relationship with food is one that will go on for your whole life.”

Ashton is a big proponent of families cooking together. He likes helping “all the busy mums out there” or the fathers who have come home from a 12-hour shift and want to get a meal on the table while their wives bathe the children.

His goal is to get people actually cooking with the recipes they find in Relish.

“How many times do we see other magazines and the chefs who are on TV, and they cook with parts of an animal you only see on ‘House’?” he joked.

Ashton doesn’t really begrudge anything celebrity chefs do with food, “as long as you respect Mother Nature and try to work with the seasons and remember that in all honesty, you’re not the hero.”

“The ingredients, really, they’re the heroes,” he said. “I’m just the maestro who brings them together.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]