Mario Batali, Guy Fieri and Rachael Ray are just a few of the stars the Food Network helped create. But what the network gave, it could also take away.
In From Scratch, author Allen Salkin takes an unsparing look at the network's progression from struggling cable startup to global powerhouse, and the people — Emeril Lagasse, Paula Deen — who rose and fell along the way.
Salkin tells NPR's Rachel Martin that while the network was intended for cooks, it wasn't run by them.
"They were not trying to spread the gospel of kale and of shallots," he says. "These were guys trying to make a media play and make some money."
On what cooking shows were like before the Food Network
It was this thing relegated to weekend mornings on PBS with Julia Child, obviously, pioneering the format in the '60s with The French Chef, and then in the '80s with The Frugal Gourmet and Martin Yan. And it really was sort of a ghetto of television. Nobody believed that anyone would ever want to watch this on primetime.
... Julia is a great figure and really showed the way to having some personality on food TV, but it was not being exploited. It fell to these cable TV pioneers to take a shot at it.
On the early, low-budget set for Mario Batali's show, Molto Mario
He was such a great host at first, telling these erudite stories about how he learned about a certain kind of ravioli in a certain village in Umbria, but there was no oven. So he would pretend to slide that tray of whatever he was making under the counter and stamp his foot on the floor to simulate an oven sound — which is, you know, great television.
On how Emeril Lagasse helped jump-start the network
Emeril was actually a guy from Fall River, Mass., and he had become famous because he sort of revolutionized and modernized Creole cuisine down in New Orleans. And he was first making appearances on the Nashville Network, and these producers down there basically pitched Emeril as a potential host.
... It was with Emeril Live eventually, his third show on the network, that he was really the first breakthrough star. He took the original Julia Child dump-and-stir, if you will, format and married it with this Tonight Show pizzazz of a monologue and a live band, and that was really the thing that started the Food Network on its way.
On the near-death of Emeril's "Bam!"
A character on [The Larry Sanders Show] used to say "Hey now!" all the time, and [Creative Director] Jonathan [Lynn] thought that Emeril's shtick with the "Bam!" and "Hey now!" and "Let's kick it up a notch!" was derivative, and so told him to kill the "Bam!" ... Can you imagine? It's like telling the Fonz not to say, "Eyyy." [Emeril won] because Emeril, in his restaurants in New Orleans, was already getting a little bit of feedback with people shouting "Bam!" back at him. He knew he was working.
On Emeril's departure
Emeril had been the biggest star on the network for 10 years, and the network had started seeing him as this aging quarterback who could no longer take them to the Super Bowl — especially starting in the early 2000s, with Top Chef competing against them on Bravo, and others. And the Food Network felt like his demographic — you know, it's always the same: His viewers are getting older, his ratings are going down a little, his program was more expensive. Ultimately, they treated him pretty shoddily. ... It really was the final, kind of, end of an era of this great star — who made the network, who was a chef, who was grounded in restaurant culture — being shown the door by a bunch of television executives.
On where the network stands today
If you look at it, their last breakthrough, household-name star was Guy Fieri, and he won, in 2006, [The] Next Food Network Star. So that's been seven years. ... In about 2002, 2003 this network was just generating household names: Barefoot Contessa, Giada De Lorentiis, Paula Deen. And they are no longer doing that. In fact, they no longer even have their own internal production; they're not making their own cooking shows anymore. The network, at its heart, used to literally smell like apple pie and baking chickens, and now they're doing what every other network is doing: They're sending executives to have meetings with production companies in L.A., trying to find the next Duck Dynasty.
On Paula Deen
The Paula Deen problem started before this N-word controversy, which came from the racial and sexual discrimination lawsuit against her and a deposition she gave. The problems she had started way back in 2001. Her agent had negotiated a deal where the network was not participating in any of her businesses. In other words, they have the American Idol model: You win American Idol, you've got to give part of your record contract back to the people who make American Idol. And that's what Food Network wants. They believe that their brand is so strong that they should take a cut of your cookbook sales, of your spatulas and everything else. They didn't get that from Paula so they were not really in business with her.
Secondly, the diabetes drug deal that she had made about a year and a half earlier, where the Queen of Butter and Sugar had all of a sudden admitted she had diabetes exactly at the time she was taking millions of dollars to endorse a diabetes drug, rather than before that. And none of her programming had been changed. The Food Network hired a crisis consultant company and was calling reporters on background and telling us, "We had nothing to do with this, this is outrageous," and really distancing the network from this. So she already had a few strikes against her.
At the same time, these stand-and-stir cooking shows that Paula was doing were losing viewers. And this, ultimately, was a network that is trying to expand channels into South Africa, Singapore, all over Asia. And so when the N-word controversy happened, she already had two strikes against her and her contract was up at exactly the wrong time.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is now a household name: The Food Network. Most everyone has spent an evening or a lazy afternoon watching Giada make dumplings, Emeril kick it up a notch or, before her public demise, watching Paula Deen cook fried butter balls. Because the Food Network isn't just the network that made ravioli and casseroles, it's the network that made stars. But before it was a billion-dollar industry, those stars were cooking in slapped together sets and studios in some cases without ovens, like Mario Batali.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MULTO MARIO")
MARIO BATALI: Hello and welcome. My name is Mario Batali and this is "Multo Mario." I'm here with my good friends Naomi, Jake and Maggie.
ALLEN SALKIN: He was such a great host at first, telling these erudite stories about how he learned about a certain kind of ravioli in a certain village in Umbria, but there was no oven. So, he would pretend to slide that tray of whatever he was making under the counter and stamp his foot on the floor to simulate an oven sound - which is, you know, great television.
MARTIN: That's just one of the stories Allan Salkin tells about the birth of the fledgling network. His new book is called "From Scratch: Inside the Food Network." He joined me to talk about it, and we started at the beginning before food became flashy.
SALKIN: Well, it was this thing relegated to weekend mornings on PBS with Julia Child, obviously, pioneering the format in the '60s with "The French Chef." And it really was sort of a ghetto of television. Nobody believed that anyone would ever want to watch this on primetime.
MARTIN: So, when this new network started, it was originally called the Television Food Network. A lot of people thought it wasn't a good idea, including the wife of the network's president, Reese Schonfeld. Yet somehow he thought that there was room in the American television landscape for this. Why was he so convinced?
SALKIN: Well, if you remember in this era, in the early '90s, there was only about 35 cable channels. And they knew that it was going to expand into the 500-channel universe. Of course, now we're in the kajillion-channel universe with their Internet. And Reese knew how to do stuff cheap, and that really was the business play of this. These weren't foodies. They were not trying to spread the gospel of kale and of shallots. These were guys trying to make a media play and make some money.
MARTIN: And it was so much about big personalities. Emeril Lagasse was really one of the first stars made by the Food Network. Can you remind us who he was back then, where he started out?
SALKIN: Well, Emeril had become famous because he sort of revolutionized and modernized Creole cuisine down in New Orleans. And he was first making guest appearances on the Nashville Network, and these producers down there basically pitched Emeril as a potential host. Unfortunately, Reese had this idea for a show called "How to Boil Water," in which literally the first show was putting water in pot, turn on gas. So, this great Creole chef was relegated to basically making grilled cheese sandwiches at first. But it was with "Emeril Live" eventually, his third show on the network, that he was really the first breakthrough star. He took the original Julie Child dump-and-stir - if you will - format and married it with this "Tonight Show" pizzazz of a monologue and a live band...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMERIL LIVE")
EMERIL LAGASSE: Hey, speaking about Elvis, folks, give it up for our band tonight. Lagasse's Posse in the house.
SALKIN: And that was really the thing that started the Food Network on its way.
MARTIN: But he was still subject to all kinds of critique from the creative directors. At one point you write they almost made him give up the bam.
SALKIN: Jonathan Lynn was a fan of the "Larry Sanders Show" on cable. And a character on Larry Sanders used to say, hey now, all the time. And Jonathan thought that Emeril's shtick with the bam and hey now and let's kick it up a notch was derivative, and so told him to kill the bam, lose the bam. But by that point...
SALKIN: Can you imagine? It's like telling the Fonz not to say ayyy.
MARTIN: So, he won. He won that battle.
SALKIN: He did. Because Emeril, in his restaurants in New Orleans, was already getting a little bit of feedback with people shouting bam back at him. He knew it was working.
MARTIN: So, another celebrity chef whose career was made by the network, Rachael Ray, huge name.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RACHEL RAY SHOW")
RACHAEL RAY: Now, if you're a vegetarian or have one in your life, it's a good idea to arm yourself with some meals that are meat-free but hearty enough for everyone to share. I'm going to start by filling up a pot with some water for the penne pasta. And on the...
MARTIN: But you write the backstory. She did not have Emeril's blessing when she came aboard, which is a big deal. He's essentially the godfather, the first big star. What was going on between those two?
SALKIN: Well, Emeril felt this was a network for chefs. And in fact, at first, Rachael agreed with him. She told him you have this all wrong. I'm beer in a bottle. You guys are champagne. And the network made a decision. They wanted to go with more real people to try to appeal to a new kind of viewer, not just people who wanted proper knife skills and to know how to order the proper rose. And after her, the whole network changed.
MARTIN: What makes for a successful celebrity chef today? What does that person have to be?
SALKIN: Well, Food Network is trying to figure that out. In about 2002, 2003 this network was just generating household names: The Barefoot Contessa, Giada De Lorentiis, Paula Deen. And they are no longer doing that. In fact, they no longer even have their own internal production; they're not making their own cooking shows anymore. The network, at its heart, used to literally smell like apple pie and baking chickens. And now they're doing what every other network is doing, they're sending executives to have meetings with production companies in L.A., trying to find the next "Duck Dynasty."
MARTIN: Do you have a prediction? I mean, there's "Iron Chef." You've got all these kinds of really intense cooking competitions. You've got extravagant kinds of personalities. You've got Guy Fieri traveling around the country. Is there a genre of food show, is there a food show out there that you have in your mind's eye that could be the next big thing?
SALKIN: I don't think there's going to be a next big thing. It's like saying if somebody right now is as good as a guitar player as Jimi Hendrix, it wouldn't matter. We already have Jimi Hendrix, and we can listen to his records. And it's not the center point of the culture anymore. Food Network rode this wonderful wave of foodie-ism, which has swept the country. But people now care more about the best meatball in their town or their city than they do about some chef in New York standing in a studio telling them how to make meatballs. And I think Food Network is just going to have to get used to being a nice, solid, profitable business with spinoff networks in Africa and Asia and all over the world and still very profitable but maybe not at the forefront of our culture as it has been for the last decade.
MARTIN: Allen Salkin. The new book is called "From Scratch: Inside the Food Network." He joined us from our studios in New York. Hey, Allen, thanks so much for talking with us.
SALKIN: It was a real honor, Rachel. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.