Long Island Books: All Food, All the Time

By Ellen T. White
Allen Salkin Earl Wilson

“From Scratch”
Allen Salkin
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27.95

    In the age of slow food, cooking reality shows, gourmet magazines, epicurean specialty shops, food blogs, celebrity chefs, and enough blockbuster cookbooks to fill a metropolitan library, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when the idea of a food network sounded like pure lunacy.

    “But how on earth do you do twenty-four hours of food?” Robin Leach of TV’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” asked. Mr. Leach had been approached to host a show on the newly anointed Food Network as its only and, frankly, somewhat tattered celebrity.

    “That’s the challenge we both have,” said the network’s president, Reese Schonfeld, who had successfully hatched CNN for Ted Turner. “Can you help me?”

    In “From Scratch: Inside the Food Network,” Allen Salkin has done a masterful job of documenting the rise and more recent decline of the network — beginning in 1991, when it was a mere gleam in the eye of Joe Langhan, a former cameraman working in Woburn, Mass., at Colony Cablevision.

    In truth, Mr. Salkin, a journalist for fast-paced publications such as New York magazine and Details, could probably turn the comings and goings of the local post office into a rousing tale. For “From Scratch,” he has tracked down and drawn out virtually every player in the Food Network story. Indeed, so prodigious are his investigative efforts you half expect him to turn up a few nefarious plots and dead bodies along the way.

    As Mr. Salkin tells it, there are essentially two sides to the Food Network legend — the dicey (hmm) business of starting a cable network and the challenge of putting together programming that lures fickle audiences into the fold. Business mavens will be more interested than the average reader in the breakdown of early investor shares in Food Network, which ultimately determined who “got rich” from the enterprise and who didn’t. Suffice it to say that with investors finally in place, the network was launched on Nov. 23, 1993, under the auspices of the media company ProJo (The Providence Journal), by then owner of Colony cable.

    They raced to beat the Discovery Channel, which they feared might be preparing a spinoff channel from its cooking shows. The earlier date of Nov. 22 was rethought when they realized it was the 30th anniversary of J.F.K.’s assassination.

    “In those days, the main requirement to be on Food Network was being able to get there by subway,” admitted Bobby Flay, the grill master who would host “Throwdown,” an in-home cook-off show. And, indeed, as Mr. Salkin points out, “most of America still viewed anyone who worked in a kitchen as someone with about as much status as a lawn care professional.”

    Aside from Julia Child reruns, some of the early on-air line-up included Donna Hanover (the wife, then, of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani) and a foodie named David Rosengarten doing “Food News and Views,” Mr. Leach’s “Talking Food” (with celebrities), and Nina Griscom, a socialite, and Bill Boggs, a newsman, in a chat segment about New York restaurants. Not wanting to blow her cover, Ruth Reichl, a food critic for The Times, appeared on the network in a red wig, which became her signature. The “Saturday Night Live” comedienne Jane Curtin taped some of the early intros.

    “The production value was so bad” on the early shows, in the words of Tom Colicchio of “Top Chef,” many professionals didn’t want to get anywhere near the network. As a celebrity guest who charmed, Nora Ephron was asked if she’d like to host her own show. “Absolutely not,” she said, horrified.

    Actually, food knowledge seemed to be the least of the network’s concerns. Mrs. (Debbi) Fields — of cookie fame — teetered around her set of “The Dessert Show” with her long red fingernails and “gigantically blown-out hair.” In one episode, she had trouble saying Bananas l’Orange. “I may not know how to say Luh Orange properly,” she intoned, “but it really does taste good.” Food Network made a virtue of her deficits. The print ads asked, “How does Mrs. Fields cook with those fingernails?”

    Then there was Emeril Lagasse, a roly-poly Creole specialist with a pronounced Massachusetts accent — named the 1991 winner of Best Chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation. After watching a five-minute audition tape, Mr. Schonfeld was not impressed: “I’m not interested in Emeril. He’s okay, but he’s not good enough.” However, when a female staffer offered that he was “a hunk,” Emeril was signed as the host of “How to Boil Water.” His signature phrase, “Bam,” was apparently developed in an attempt to keep a sleepy cameraman awake.

    With a series of shows and his line of spices, Emeril would, of course, become the breakout star of Food Network, its name synonymous, in fact, with Emeril himself. Yet the mighty often fall with a resounding thud in “From Scratch.” The book opens with a blow-by-blow description of Emeril’s dismissal in 2007, when it became clear to the network that its celebrity chef was not keeping up with the food revolution he had helped set in motion.

    Mr. Salkin keeps his ear to the ground for the good story; typically no more than a few pages pass before one unfurls. The network ran into trouble with the F.C.C. on a show called “Too Hot Tamales” when one of the tapes turned up spliced with porn. “You’ve got to pound the meat,” said one of the chefs to another. As Mr. Salkin reports, the mysteriously sabotaged tape then cut to a naked man and a woman, well . . . pounding the meat enthusiastically.

    As a visiting guest, the comedian David Brenner claimed that his father thought his mother’s cooking was so bad, he nailed a piece of sauteed liver to his shoe to make the point. A “chef” wrangled a show out of Food Network called “Dinner: Impossible” with the claim he had prepared inaugural dinners for both George W. and George H.W. Bush and had served “dignitaries” aboard the royal yacht Britannia. It turned out he hadn’t even attended the food and nutrition school listed on his resume.

    “From Scratch” is at its best when Mr. Salkin sticks to Food Network’s creatives. It’s genuinely interesting to hear the back story on a familiar celebrity such as Rachael Ray — a former shop girl in Macy’s food emporium who warned the network that it had been duped, calling herself “beer out of the bottle” to the network’s “champagne.” Or the humble origins of Bobby Flay, always the gentleman.

    Unfortunately, the urban legend that Ina Garten twice turned down a dying child’s request (through the Make-a-Wish Foundation) to cook with her is true, though her representative called the episode an “old story” not worthy of further comment for this book.

    As Mr. Salkin notes, it’s the difficult people who often make good TV, and the tales of woe make interesting copy here. The story of the downfall of the comfort-food queen Paula Deen, revealed to have diabetes, is a page-turner, even if you’ve heard it all before. Ms. Deen’s brief resurgence as the spokeswoman for a diabetes drug prompted Anthony Bourdain’s tweet, “Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.” Hilarious. You wouldn’t want to follow Mr. Bourdain down a conversational dark alley, where he’d surely slash you down to size, but Mr. Salkin certainly knows how to use his wit to sharpen his narrative.

    As he moves through the 20-year history of Food Network, Mr. Salkin faithfully tells the back story of its ownership, starting with Colony, to ProJo, and on to Scripps in Knoxville, Tenn., and, finally, its sale to Belo Corporation. The network’s early days sound like the Wild West, even though its seedy offices could be found on 33rd Street near the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, a veritable “hive of prostitutes.” Robin Leach reported seeing rats both outside and inside the studio and had the tapes to prove the latter.

    In those early days, a former stripper did the books, and a new staffer found herself working from a desk fashioned out of an overturned cardboard box. Budgets were so sparse office supplies were a luxury. Yet, through these descriptions, you can just feel what a thrill it must have been to be part of such an ambitious, if seemingly harebrained, enterprise.

    “Start-ups are fun,” Joe Langhan told Mr. Salkin recently, “but really only if you succeed. It’s not as much fun if you fail.”

    Where the narrative falters is in Mr. Salkin’s sometimes overly involved descriptions of Food Network’s revolving cast of executives, who are not nearly as interesting as the celebrities you feel you know. Corporate hirings, firings, and territorial disputes read a little like an account of someone else’s office politics: entertaining at first, familiar, but ultimately tiresome. Mr. Salkin introduces these “characters” by their full names and titles only briefly. Thereafter, Joe, Ken, Erica, Eileen, Brooke, Jack, and Dave start to feel interchangeable. One exception is Reese Schonfeld, whose genius and volcanic temper are an impressive force.

    The making of Food Network, from scratch, is replete with all the “Big Personalities, High Drama” promised on the cover of the book. In 1992, Mr. Schonfeld wrote ProJo, “I am absolutely convinced that the Food Channel is a business that will be worth between $250,000,000 and $500,000,000 on the day that it is carried in 40,000,000 cable homes.”

    Twenty years later, the network was in nearly a 100 million American homes, worth roughly $3 billion, and had entirely changed the culture of food in America.

    Ellen T. White is the author of “Simply Irresistible,” about the great romantic women of history. She lives in Springs.

    Allen Salkin spends summers in Amagansett.