September 26, 2013

Recipe for success

By Allen Salkin
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The Food Network and the stars it spawned are such ubiquitous figures in our kitchens and living rooms, it's hard to recall that at its founding the network was a seat-of-the-pants experiment that virtually everyone expected to fail. In From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, Allen Salkin takes us through that history and, as you might expect, things get dishy.

Initially conceived as a low-budget channel well-stocked with reruns of old Julia Child shows and newsy live programming (one exec called it “CNN with stoves”), the network hit pay dirt when agents began promoting chefs as “rock stars.” Prior to that time, even Wolfgang Puck often found himself on a coach flight to an ill-stocked kitchen with no support staff to prepare a “gourmet” meal for bored heads of state. No more. The network moved away from wonky programming and straight into the flying cleaver of “chunk”—that's chef-hunk—Emeril Lagasse. Viewership and sales took off, not with a whimper but a “Bam!”

Salkin uncovers great stories here. Agent Shep Gordon chose his profession at the urging of Jimi Hendrix while poolside in L.A. On her first day in the studio, where the talent were not allowed to stop taping for any reason, Rachael Ray oiled an overly hot pan and unleashed a four-foot column of flame. Her eyebrows survived and she soldiered on. Emeril Lagasse failed to see the writing on the wall as his expensive show lost viewers, and was devastated when he was abruptly canceled.

And those are just the big names! The power struggles behind the scenes are another thing entirely. Shows filmed in an unventilated room with electric ranges and no ovens (hosts would pretend to slide the food under the sink and stomp the floor to mimic the sound of an oven door) would not seem to be worth fighting over, but every change in power brought new rules and restrictions. When the New York-based network was purchased by Scripps News Service, a minor civil war over standards and practices erupted for fear that Southerners wouldn't appreciate risque humor. Good thing they weren't watching when someone spliced a minute of hardcore pornography into an episode of “Too Hot Tamales.”

From Scratch is a saucy tell-all, by turns shocking, funny and informative. Fans of the network or those who just love seeing how the show-biz sausage is made, this one's for you.

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From Scratch

From Scratch

By Allen Salkin
ISBN 9780399159329

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