I've been thinking lately about how the Food Network got to be the Food Network and I remembered that I had a Chefography episode about just that thing. I wanted to figure out how the glory days of Mario, Emeril and Sara led us to where we are today. This is how it happened:
The first scene is of a baby-faced Emeril, Bobby and Sara, who looks exactly the same today. We’re told that the Food Network began as a series of cooking demonstrations. The shows had such low budgets that they taped them all the way through without stopping the camera.
Bob Tuschman begins by telling us that a channel devoted to food is a channel devoted to living. We hear from the president of The Food Network (THEY all say Food Network without the THE. I think it sounds weird). Brooke Johnson, president of (the) Food Network says their goal is “to make cooking more fun and accessible to people”.
In 1963, Julia “re-defined and re-energized” food television on PBS. She was followed by many major food personalities with their own PBS shows – Martin Yan and Jacques Pepin for example. In 1992, CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld decided to start the CNN equivalent of food news. The TV Food Network started on November 23rd, 1993 in a small New York City studio.
Interestingly, the TV Food Network didn’t have a kitchen, so they concentrated on food NEWS shows, with the occasional cooking demo. I vaguely remember Food News & Views with David Rosengarten and Donna Hanover. They filled the rest of their 24 hour programming with repackaged cooking shows from the 1950’s and 60’s.
I don’t remember Robin Leach’s Talking Food. But apparently that was the first show Bobby was on with co-host Kate Connelly. His 15 minute cooking segments were so long that he got to know her well enough to marry her. (She was wife number two. His third and current wife is the talented and gorgeous Stephanie March.)
In 1994 came How to Boil Water with Emeril and the rest, as they say, is history. He was little known, like the network, when they started this “cooking show for beginners.”
In 1996, Food Network gave Emeril his own Essence of Emeril. TV Guide called it one of the top 10 TV shows of the year. We learn that Emeril started “BAM!” as a way to keep people awake after taping 8 shows a day.
In 1994, the Food Network, relocated to a 3000 square foot studio with flimsy kitchen sets. Bob tells us that then the network concentrated on “just” cooking shows, as if that somehow was a lowly enterprise. Marc Summers says the shows were educational, not necessarily entertaining.
I’m not really liking the characterization of the old food network as boring on account of their mainly instructional shows. Fine, add your road shows and competitions and other stuff, but keep the good old stuff too. Weren’t any of these people scouts? (Goodness knows they love to throw in a girl scout at a moment’s notice.) Don’t they remember Make new friends, but keep the old?
We see their very basic kitchens in the studio with just burners. It was funny to see Mario pretend to take something out of the oven, when he was really just reaching down and grabbing it off a shelf.
And with no budget for editing, we see Bobby struggling with a food processor and Mario cutting his hand and then dunking it in tomatoes so the blood wouldn’t show! Boy, did that sting! Sara had 3 fires on her show LIVE!
The early days were built around fantastic chefs. They had a show called Chef Du Jour which featured lots of New York chefs. It was a way for them to vet new stars for their network. Bobby said there was prejudice at the time amongst restaurant chefs about appearing on television. My how times have changed! They showed Mario and Tyler who looked 12 years old. Plus Too Hot Tamales…Loved them.
The Food Network “survived and thrived”. In 1997, it was bought by Scripps, owner of HGTV. They began to “break out of the studio.” to “show food in a whole new way”, according to Bob. They pumped money into the network and upped the quality of the shows.
Emeril Live was the hallmark of the revamped channel with its live audience, band and celebrity guests. (Fine Living has just started airing Emeril Live, including some never before seen shows.)
Alton Brown was introduced in 1999 with Good Eats. His shtick included oven and fridge cams.
A Food Network executive saw the Japanese version of Iron Chef in 1998, when it was shown on just a few stations in the States. He was enthralled. The Food Network began broadcasting the original in July of 1999. (I had forgotten how funny the dubbed English voices are. Japanese food tasters sure giggle a lot.)
Okay, here’s a test. What new Food Network host of 2001 said, “You’re champagne, I’m beer”? Of course, it should have been more like “You’re champagne, I’m Kool-Aid. “
Yup, it was none other than Rachael Ray who started a whole progression of non-chef hosts (but the others were REAL food professionals – Paula, Ina in 2002 with a party at the end of each show, Giada, oh and Aunt Sandy in 2003. The FN had 75 million viewers by 2003 in great part because of their Saturday morning cooking shows.
In July of 2004, they moved to a fantastic new building in Chelsea. They had well-equipped kitchens, lots of studios and they began featuring more travel shows and other “entertainment” type offerings, like Unwrapped and competition shows like the World Series of Barbecue.
In 2005, with Bobby Flay, Mario and Morimoto behind the stove, they launched another version of IC - Iron Chef America. Alton Brown hosted. Bob said it got its chops from the fact that chefs are by nature competitive.
We get a glimpse of one of their newest hosts Anne Burrell as Mario’s sous chef on Iron Chef. That was fun. They reminded us of the debacle of Bobby and Giada losing to Mario and Rach.
We’re told that viewers like the drama, tension and artistry of those various competitions. TNFNS is so out that league that it’s pathetic. The only artistry is in Susie’s carefully arranged curls. The tension comes from looking at the clock and wishing the hour was over NOW.
They use Ingrid as an example of new cuisines that they’re anxious to include. That’s fine if you consider an inability to pronounce Worcestershire sauce the only requirement of an authentic Latin show.
They say in the old days of the Food Network, food took a back seat, but now “the preparation and appearance of food is a priority.” Bob says something funny, (yeah he did). “The food practically has its own its own agent, its own makeup person, its own stylist.”
Then they talked about how they look for talent in many different ways. They talked about finding Guy and being in 95 million homes. Bob says how lucky they are to have so many of their first generation stars and that they’re always looking for new talent.
They should show this history of the network more often. I have to admit it did leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy about some of my favorites on the Food Network. But then…THEN, I get kind of enraged when I remember that the legacy of Mario and Sara and Emeril could very well end up in the hands of a self-described “actor and server” with questionable culinary skills named Adam Gertler.