We live in an age where watching cooking shows could take up more of a person’s time than actually cooking. Originally, the culinary arts referred to the skill and artistry that went into cooking real food; now we have the art of showcasing the culinary arts through the media. And no entity has done it with such gusto and success as Food Network.
The history of Food Network since its inception in 1993 is chronicled in Allen Salkin’s book From Scratch: Inside the Food Network (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013, $29.50). The book starts out by stating: “Somehow Food Network captured an audience that did not know that it wanted twenty-four hours a day of food television. Then, having roped in the early adopters, the network figured out how to create an even bigger audience. Food Network is not single-handedly responsible for the ‘food revolution,’ but it took what was happening in some food-forward pockets of the world … and delivered it to everybody.”
It is interesting to note that the concept was not the brainchild of passionate chefs, but rather executives making strategic decisions to cash in on the rise of specialty cable stations, following in the footsteps of CNN, MTV, and HBO. The businessmen behind its creation were not epicureans, and it took some imaginative searching to come up with a cast of TV-friendly chefs that could pull off hosting their own shows.
Robin Leach, already famous for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, was drawn in as a recognized personality to host a food-related talk show. The earliest food expert, David Rosengarten, was hired for a regular show called Food News and Views. Salkin writes that Rosengarten’s “marriage of fine cuisine, ego, and vaudevillian showbiz schmaltz would set the tone for what viewers experienced of the network in its early years.” Certain individuals were making it obvious that “chefs had the kind of big personalities and charisma that could lead to show business careers.”
Emeril Lagasse, a chef with some renown in New Orleans, was an early import to host a show called How to Boil Water. This first show was not dynamic enough to fit with the larger-than-life persona of Lagasse, but it didn’t take long for Emeril Live to come along, which proved to be a turning point for the network by mixing variety shows with live cooking demonstrations. In the book there is a strong focus on Lagasse, who was the first chef to get a million dollar TV deal. The demise of Lagasse’s ten-year run on Food Network was instigated by the executives’ need to keep up with the changes in food programming with shows that ventured outside the studio kitchen.
In fact, cancelling shows and changing with the times were all part of the behind-the-scenes business of the network. Before becoming a money-making machine with food as its fuel, there were early financial troubles. Yanking the cord on the channel was on option during many ownership changes in the first three years of production. But sticking with it resulted in 2007 revenues near $500 million, and by 2012 the network was estimated to be worth $3 billion.
A string of business leaders came in to guide the station to success. Most were interested in using food as a business catalyst, not as a way to make a mark in food culture. But that mark was being made nonetheless, due to the dedication of some staff on the lookout for the next big thing to stretch the boundaries of food programming. Quirky shows that strayed from the standard fare started appearing in 1999, like the kitschy Iron Chef out of Japan that developed a cult following, and Alton Brown’s Good Eats, a smart, offbeat, slapstick approach to food education. The ratings for Iron Chef alone were double those of the Food Network average, and after this success the executives decided to use more entertainment food shows rather than the traditional “dump and stir” format normally associated with cooking shows.
Food Network was also an early adopter of mixing internet and television with a 25,000-recipe library webpage available by 2004. Sharing recipes with the audience brought them even closer to the extended family that was growing all the time, with household names like Rachel Ray, Jamie Oliver, Paula Deen, Anthony Bourdain, and Ina Garten. This sense of family was spread further when competition shows were introduced as a way for anyone to send in an audition tape and earn on-air time as a culinary personality working alongside cooking superstars. It is both these types of seasoned chefs and amateur home cooks who can, from scratch, get inside Food Network themselves, because this media juggernaut continues to provide opportunities for culinary personalities to rise to fame and fortune.
DARIN COOK is a freelance writer who works and plays in Chatham-Kent, and keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.