Julia Child nods off in the makeup chair while clutching a bag of McDonald’s french fries. Mario Batali leads a battalion of celebrity chefs to a Cleveland strip club, ordering shots and lap dances for all. Bobby Flay stands atop his cutting board and yells “Raise the roof!” after a landmark battle with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, sparking an international scandal. These are a few behind-the-scenes bonbons offered up in Allen Salkin’s From Scratch: Inside the Food Network—and that’s nowhere near the full meal deal.
Salkin’s recipe is one part steamy exposé, one part deep-fried human interest and one part television history. This fusion cuisine should satiate food fans while providing television buffs an unprecedented look at the evolution of a network. “I find those nuts and bolts details fascinating. The dogged way certain people stuck with this idea because they believed in it even as it wasn’t making money,” Salkin says. “Even a great idea is hard to get going.”
Food Network’s progenitor was Colony Cablevision cameraman Joe Langhan, asked by bosses to brainstorm new networks. The timing was ripe: Fiber-optics and satellites would soon expand carriers’ capacity to hundreds of offerings, and there was money to be made. Ideas for a 24-hour pet channel and 24-hour talk show channel preceded Langhan’s best and brightest food network idea; then the brass brought in Reese Schonfeld, who turned Ted Turner’s vision for an all-news network into CNN. Even so, skepticism reigned—as evidenced by Robin Leach’s initial reaction to Schonfeld’s lure: “Robin was silent for a moment. It occurred to him that Reese had gone out of his mind,” Salkin writes. Nevertheless, Leach signs, as does Child, and the signal goes out on Sept. 27, 1993.
A New York Times reporter and author of Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us, Salkin has an inquisitive mien and serves heaping helpings of documented detail in over 400 pages. What will keep pages turning may be the same as what keeps Food Network viewers watching. “…Someone we feel comfortable with is in the kitchen making something good, and it will be ready soon, soon, soon,” Salkin writes. “The cook can be a drill sergeant in a diner, a samurai warrior in silks, or a mom who moved to a working ranch to find herself. We all need a little warmth, and we all have our preferences among those from whom we will accept it.”
In other words, it’s about people. “Zelig-like” Alice Cooper manager Shep Gordon was the first to conceive of chefs as rockstars. “Shep was the pioneer. He saw that these lowly kitchen slaves could be made into pop culture gods,” says Salkin. As the network evolved, many of its brightest stars—including Ray, Flay, Anne Burrell, Sandra Lee and Guy Fieri—ended up being products of broken homes and rough-and-tumble childhoods. “It’s like they have this internal hunger to put something beautiful on the table, as if that can make the whole world right,” says Salkin.
Flay is an evident favorite, and perhaps the best illustration of where the network came from and where it’s going. “Smart, street kid at heart, who knows how to suss out a situation and execute a plan: He seems to be without self-doubt,” Salkin says. “There are times when I say to myself now, ‘What would Bobby Flay do?’ Bobby Flay is a real New Yorker. In order to survive in this town for a long time, you have to roll with the punches and be wiling to change because everything is changing around you.”
Today the network with hardscrabble roots is a billion-dollar international juggernaut. Those calculated risks of the early years—hiring scrappy, unaccredited cooks like Ray and Paula Deen on gut instincts—are all but gone, as the network trends toward focus-grouped conservatism. “As a business, they are growing internationally and becoming more profitable. In cultural relevance, they are clearly losing. Their ratings are down. They haven’t had a new breakout star since Guy Fieri in 2007. They seem to have lost that magic formula they had for creating new stars, and there’s no sign that they’re going to find it again,” says Salkin. “I would love if they got back to what they were best at: making programming that made people feel comfortable.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.