Which came first: the Food Network or the American obsession with all things food?
“I definitely think there was a small group of visionaries at the network who saw what was happening around the country,” said Allen Salkin, author of the book From Scratch: Inside the Food Network. It’s a look at the politics and personalities that took a fledgling network of great cooks with lousy stage presence to what is now often the opposite – and churned billions of bucks over the years.
Salkin, a journalist and former New York Times reporter, spoke with me about the book by phone in advance of his upcoming lecture Sunday at the Mandel Jewish Community Center (details below). After leaving the Times, he figured he’d have total access to the network after writing about them and their stars for nearly two decades.
As the network turns 20, “This is a time to take stock and figure out where we’ve been in this journey,” he said.
A visit to the South Beach Food and Wine Festival 2008 in Miami spurred his interest in the Food Network phenomenon. “I was amazed when I saw chefs with talent agents and body guards, and fans who paid $150 to catch a glimpse of them or stand in line for hours for an autographed cookbook.”
It was the same year Emeril Lagasse signed his $50 million deal with Martha Stewart. The sheer spectacle of it all drew Salkin in; his five-year project earned him unprecedented access to the network’s archives.
The book is filled with inside baseball on the wild and rocky ride of Food Network. It’s chapter after chapter of exhaustive details in a quick read about early doubts and mid-life crises of both stars and producers reinventing their baby while chasing the next big concept and star. The cast resembles a much-expanded Downton Abbey with all the high drama that goes with it.
It was 20 years ago Friday – Nov. 1, 1993, – that the press release announcing the new network was released to the media. Cable TV had just exploded the number of channels most homes received from 50 to 500. The timing was perfect – and so was the subject of food.
“There were other cooking shows on TV – PBS had what I call the traditional ‘dump-and-stir’ shows like Julia Child, the Frugal Gourmet and several others. But there wasn’t a whole network devoted solely to cooking.” Executives first approached PBS with the concept, but they wanted no more of boiling pots. “They said ‘we’re the network of Nova and news – not cooking,'” he says.
History made fast at the Food Network
So it went out on its own – and the rest is food, television and business history. Americans were slow to warm to the cold stars and whatever-works type concepts, but exhaustive marketing research pegged a few stars and shows, and it took off.
Those in the West Palm Beach area will remember the early cast of characters after the network trotted out the then stars for an appearance at the Kravis Center in the mid-‘9os when growing pains were evident: Sissy Biggers, a host of the cooking game show, Ready…Set…Cook! – a precursor to any number of timed cooking reality shows today; the Two Hot Tamales, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken; Sara Moulton, an early kitchen worker on the set; Jack McDavid and Bobby Flay of Chillin’ and Grillin’ – most there to promote restaurants, Salkin said.
Famous feuds – some involving an early FN star, Anthony Bourdain, are juicy bits. Rachael Ray is a hardworking pro, says Salkin, while Bobby Flay may come off as one of the heroes. Others, as Flay’s mom noted on a recent Rachael Ray show, come off as the divas they appear.
Salkin takes stock of the network at its present stage – an old dame, now, faced with another round of emerging media platforms and expansion. “When they started, there were 500 new channels; now, there are a cajillion.” How it will remain relavent is anyone’s guess, especially with producers who struggle to figure out what today’s viewers want – or even who they are.
“I expect they’re the same as they always were: women who are at home with young children,” Salkin says. “And men who want to jump in Guy’s Corvette and go eat with him.”
Guy Fieri is the last talent to have become a household name from the network. He rankles many – but keeps up what ratings they do have today. Other stars are now a blemish for the network, including former butter queen Paula Deen, whose diabetes debacle started a messy downfall.
“They don’t want her back,” Salkin says. “She needs to remake her brand as someone pulling up from her bootstraps.”
But FN doesn’t look back – a failing for its viewers, he said. “They’re shortsighted,” he said. “They promote whoever is at the top, but people have a really deep connection to all the people who have come before.
The network no longer has cooking sets or produces any of its own content but buys shows from around the world. Its profits now come from overseas where the network is popular in Asia and Europe.
But their heydey seems to be over as they continue to search for a winning concept in the new media.
An opening scene in the book has Lagasse faced with the cancellation of his show Emeril Live. “It’s telling. They should have made him once a week – there’s no reason for it to be cancelled.”
Allen Sarkin appears today, 4-6 p.m., at the Mandel Jewish Community Center, 5221 Hood Road in Palm Beach Gardens. Tickets are $45; for more information, go to the JCC site. Tickets also are available at the door.