Divulging the Food Network
Allen Salkin’s new book From Scratch: Inside the Food Network is a fascinating chronicle of the evolution of a television network, from a scrappy start-up to an influential powerhouse that turned food into a cash cow and chefs into celebrities. The former New York Times reporter paints a behind-the-scenes picture, including PR nightmares (Sandra Lee’s notorious Kwanzaa cake) and scandals (Paula Deen!), while illuminating one of the most notable cultural trends of the last decade. Salkin talks about the future of the Food Network, the crash of Paula Deen’s brand and which star surprised him most.
AndrewZimmern.com: Tell us a bit about your background. What led you to write From Scratch: Inside the Food Network?
Allen Salkin: I was a New York Times reporter sent down to cover the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami and was amazed to see all these chefs surrounded by talent agents, manager and bodyguards – and fans who had hobbled in on crutches, some of them, from hospital beds just to pay $150 to catch a glimpse from a distance of Rachael Ray. This was 2008 and Emeril Lagasse was there, having just closed a deal to sell most of his business to Martha Stewart’s company for $50 million. I said to myself “How the hell did this all happen, that chefs who used to be on par career-wise with janitors, are now STARS?” When I left the New York Times a few years later I decided, “Well I guess I’m going to be the one to write the book that answers the question.”
AZ.com: Was there push back from the Food Network while you were writing and researching this book? How much access to employees, documents, etc. were you granted?
AS: Push back came and went. At first the network was friendly, especially when I wrote an article for the Times about their new sister network Cooking Channel. I sat in on meetings and attended many tapings. By the time I sold the book project to my publisher, the network realized the book was going to happen with or without them, so they’d best co-operate if they wanted an accurate story told. It really is a great American rags-to-riches kind of business story, the rise of a cultural phenomenon. That’s how I pitched it to them and it is what I delivered in the book. Also quite helpful were ex-employees who I could reach out to without having to go through the network. In the end, I interviewed all of the network’s presidents, including the current one, Brooke Johnson, all the key executives and nearly all of the major stars – who are independent contractors and free to make up their own minds about who they talk to. The network did grow increasingly nervous about the book as time went on. TV people, accustomed to instant results, are not used to projects that take three years to complete. Since the book has come out, I have heard barely a word from the network. I have no idea what they think of From Scratch.
AZ.com: How would you describe the evolution of the Food Network? Where do you see the network headed in the next decade?
AS: It went from a scrappy start-up teetering on the brink of extinction, to catching one of the most powerful cultural waves in American history, the obsession over food in all its meanings, both stoking that wave and riding it. Obviously, the network became a bit more focused on the personalities of its stars and less with presenting perfect cooking technique over the years. I think that as with many cable channels, it will have a nice profitable future but is unlikely to achieve the ratings success in the U.S. of its peak years. I hope it becomes more like its old self, a bit sweeter in nature, more hearth-like, less body-builders yelling at people trying to start restaurants. However Food Network is a global brand now, establishing channels in Asia Europe and Africa. It will make more profit than ever.
AZ.com: Which Food Network star had the juiciest stories? Who surprised you most?
AS: You can follow Rachael Ray from being a scrappy kid surviving brutal muggings in New York City to finding love to becoming a star and fending off strippers and shots of booze ordered by Mario Batali on a wild night in Cleveland. And Sandra Lee is certainly dripping with intrigue. But Bobby Flay surprised me the most. Basically he’s a Manhattan hustler, trained on the streets, bringing hard work and a gamblers eye to the television game and seeming to score Blackjack time and again.
AZ.com: Paula Deen’s scandal this summer must have been a jackpot for this book. What are your thoughts on her fall from success?
AS: We added her to the cover and I had time to add new information about her fall to the book. I had already chronicled her unlikely rise to success, so the story fit seamlessly. It certainly has scored me extra media attention – I’m even making an appearance in the new documentary “E True Hollywood Story: Paula Deen.” Basically, what I think is that everything was lined up wrong for her. Obviously, the words she used are offensive and there are no excuses for them. But her team should have known about her use of “the N word” in her deposition and settled the case before it became public. After that, the fact that her “dump and stir” cooking show was getting poor ratings, that her diabetes endorsement deal a year earlier was grotesque, and that the network was sick of her and her contract was up all came together with awful crisis management public relations to crash a huge brand.
AZ.com: In your opinion, how has the network spurred the growth of America’s food culture?
AS: The network found a nascent foodie culture germinating in certain enclaves like Northern and Southern California and downtown Manhattan and began spreading the news of this way of life to the masses. It fed the wave and then it rode it, then it fed from what it had helped build and the symbiosis led to what it has become a nation of the food-obsessed and a brand worth at least $6 billion.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
AS: Eggs, mache, retsina I carried back from Greece, and leftover Chinese.
Allen Salkin has been a journalist for such publications as New York magazine, The Village Voice, and Details. As a reporter for The New York Times, he wrote nearly 200 features about food, culture, and media, including a well-known piece in which he persuaded world-famous chefs Ferran Adria and Jose Andres to come to his home and cook him dinner. He produces and stars in video interviews of food celebrities for a variety of websites. In addition, he launched the website New Books in Food, as part of the New Books Network, on which he has interviewed such authors as Gabrielle Hamilton. As an investigative reporter for The New York Post, he wrote hundreds of articles on everything from corrupt judges to emergency room ethics to troubled cults. He has also produced video interviews with celebrity chefs for a slew of food Web sites, appeared on the E! reality show #1 Single (with Lisa Loeb), True Hollywood Story: Chris Farley, and on numerous outlets to discuss his first book Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us (2005), about the Seinfeld-inspired celebration. His journalism has taken him to more than 40 countries: from the Beijing Olympics to the snorkel wakes of “Doom Tourists” in the Galapagos. He has also worked as a rubber ducky salesman and a casting agent for industrial films in Hong Kong, and taught journalism at New York University and Media Bistro. He lives in New York City.