Cooking up the Food Network from scratch

Most people don't like to cook all that much. But they do like to feel as if they're cooking. That contradiction is at the heart of From Scratch, Allen Salkin's deep and excellent probe into the Food Network, because it's at the heart of that network's success.

Salkin, who has been a reporter for major publications including the New York Times, will discuss his book and lead a panel discussion with Food Network regulars Masaharu Morimoto, Scott Conant and Donatella Arpaia at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater as part of the Enjoy Arts & Tastes festival in St. Petersburg. The book will be for sale.

Salkin spent several years researching and writing the history of Food Network, which began in the early 1990s. It was considered a harebrained idea by most television insiders. The early chapters of the book don't boast the stars of today we know by single names: Ina, Giada, Alton, Bobby and Guy, for example, but they are the most interesting, giving us an insider look at how a television behemoth was formed almost by chance and instinct.

No one initially involved had a love of cooking. Joe Langhan, who worked for a small New Jersey cable company and who is the person most responsible for Food Network's inception, ate only pizza. The biggest star back then was probably Reese Schonfeld, who had developed CNN into a powerhouse all-news cable channel for Ted Turner in the early 1980s. He was brought in to develop Langhan's concept of a 24-hour food channel. He and his wife had torn out the kitchen of their New York apartment because they never cooked, but that was beside the point for everyone involved and illustrated the basic tenet of the network then that remains true today: Teaching people to cook wasn't its main purpose; making money was. Still, there was genius apparent in the belief that a popular interest in food and cooking was nascent in the public mind, just waiting to be brought to life.

Schonfeld, being a news guy, dubbed it "CNN with stoves" and brought in newscaster Donna Hanover (then the wife of Rudy Giuliani) to anchor a news show with food writer David Rosengarten. Schonfeld also persuaded his friend Robin Leach, who became famous with his show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, to do a show called Talking Food, which was hilariously awful.

"In those days," Salkin writes, "a bumper crop of fully formed food celebrities did not exist," so they looked for chefs "with presentation skills and looks" to do what are known as "stir and dump" cooking shows. The earliest hire in that genre was Emeril Lagasse, a well-respected chef at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, before the days of chefs as rock stars.

"It was $50 a show or some crazy nonsense," he said. "It was ridiculous. That's what it was."

Bam! Wake up!

Food Network debuted on Nov. 23, 1993, in about 6.5 million households, mostly to yawns from viewers and critics. But by 1996, that number almost doubled. Programming had been beefed up: Mario Batali was hosting Molto Mario and Bobby Flay had Grillin' and Chillin'. Batali worked on a set in the New York studio that wasn't even equipped with an oven.

"After he finished assembling ingredients in a baking dish," Salkin writes, "he lowered it under the counter in front of him where he pretended there was an oven. ... He simulated the sound of an oven door slamming shut by stamping his foot on the floor."

Lagasse, like all the early chefs, struggled in front of the camera. His first show, How to Boil Water, did not showcase his talents as a chef. He was beginning to shine on a new show, Essence of Emeril. Salkin writes that, as on many Food Network shows, the crew moonlighted from their regular jobs and were often sluggish. One of Lagasse's cameramen often fell asleep. The chef would yell "Bam" as he cooked to wake him up. It soon became his trademark.

The big breakthrough both for Lagasse and the network was giving him a live audience, whom he charmed. When Emeril Live debuted in January 2007, "it was a hit from the start, doubling the network's ratings in its 8 p.m. time slot."

There followed an avalanche of new faces: Rachael Ray (who was the most naturally gifted television personality) in 2001; Paula Deen, Ina Garten and Sandra Lee in 2002; and Giada De Laurentiis in 2003. These women represented a trend toward "the seasoned amateur" rather than professional chefs. Each woman represented a certain type and style that added up to a broad appeal. All emphasized, in their own ways, a more informal, non-chefy approach to food. Batali and Sara Moulton's Cooking Live didn't have the sizzle anymore. Both shows ceased production around 2005, though Batali continued to appear on Iron Chef America for several more years.

Becoming edgier

Two lessons were learned from that era. Even if TV hosts went away, the network still owned hundreds of episodes of their shows, which could be put into perpetual rotation. And the success of Iron Chef America represented a new direction for nighttime programming, away from cooking demonstrations and toward entertainment, as did the success of Alton Brown's Good Eats and The Next Food Network Star. And, as always, making money was the bottom line.

Those factors doomed Emeril Live. Since it first aired in 1997, he was the network's greatest star. He had become a crossover personality who briefly (and badly) had a sitcom. Food Network was unofficially known as the Emeril Network. But by 2007, the network faced competition, especially from Top Chef, a big hit on Bravo. Audience surveys showed that viewers like "edgier" shows. Lagasse's show was expensive, and its fan base was growing older, not bigger. Brooke Johnson, who became Food Network president in 2004, wanted to cancel the show but keep the chef on the network, perhaps on Iron Chef. But he resisted. Johnson canned him. Lagasse was devastated and disbelieving.

Much has been said about the soullessness of Food Network, epitomized by its cavalier treatment of the man who had been there for 15 years and been its greatest success. But the fineness of Salkin's book is in its repeatedly nuanced presentation of the dynamics of every story and scenario.

Of the handling of Emeril he writes, "It was not the network's job to teach or to have a conscience or memory or to always put something beautiful on the plate. The network's prime directive was to sell as many Ginsu knives ... detergents, Corollas and breath mints as it could for paying advertisers," and woe to those who forgot it.

Pragmatism rules

Food Network is in transition, Salkin said in a recent telephone interview. Though old ones are still shown, Ray no longer makes new 30-Minute Meals. Both she and De Laurentiis now have evening reality shows, which are more popular.

The network likes to foster an image of its hosts as "family" but metes out harsh punishment if they transgress. Robert Irvine was stripped of his show, Dinner Impossible, in 2008 after the St. Petersburg Times revealed he had falsified his resume. The worst scandal is the recent Paula Deen debacle, when the network severed ties with her after her use of the n-word went public.

But, as always, pragmatism rules. Irvine was returned to the fold after viewers expressed little interest in his qualifications and more in his personality and stage presence.

Deen, however, is through at the network, Salkin believes. She wasn't pulling in the numbers anymore and executives were already greatly irked that she didn't inform them of her diabetes or her deal with a pharmaceutical company. The racial slur, however, was the great nonnegotiable mainly because, he said, Food Network is now a franchise in other areas of the world, including Africa, so any hint of racial prejudice would hurt the business. But for that, Salkin said, she probably would have been eased out gently, her shows still being broadcast.

Food Network is now in 100 million households, one of the great success stories of cable television. It has given the once humble profession of chef rock-star status. It has made millionaires of home cooks with camera chops. It has reshaped our perception of cooking.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

Cooking up the Food Network from scratch 11/11/13 [Last modified: Monday, November 11, 2013 6:57pm]

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