About

In the television business, you are where you eat as much as you are what you eat.

TelevisionWeek Managing Editor Melissa Grego is tapping into Hollywood's penchant for the working meal with her TVWeek.com feature, Mel's Diner. Ms. Grego sits down with television industry players at their favorite restaurants, giving readers a window into the minds -- and appetites -- of industry heavyweights.

As each Mel's Diner guest dishes about what they're working on, planning and thinking about, Ms. Grego provides a unique view of the television business from the insiders perspective.

TVWeek.com invites fans of Mel's Diner to report back in the comments section on the meals, deals, or anything at all that is eating them about what the featured players have to say.

Dig in!

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Mel's Diner


Mel's Diner: Pat Mitchell

September 20, 2007 4:58 PM

Who: Pat Mitchell, president-CEO, the Paley Center for Media
Where: Cafe 440, Beverly Hills
When: Thursday, Sept. 6, lunch

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Dined On: I knew Pat Mitchell and I were going to see eye-to-eye as soon as we started talking at Cafe 440.

“Food enhances a community experience,” she said as she walked me through her best bets on the menu.

You could say Mel’s Diner agrees with that.

The small patio dining area is adjacent to the Frederick Fekkai Salon, about a block down an alley from the Paley Media Center in Beverly Hills. Pat, who lives in New York, usually dines at this spa-tastic spot when she comes to L.A. That’s at least once a month.

Pat made the “community” comment to explain why she’s been talking to this restaurant about setting up a cafe at the media center, formerly known as the Museum of Television & Radio. The Paley doesn’t have a kitchen, but it still could offer coffee drinks and pre-made breakfast and lunch fare such as bagels, salads and wraps. They’d just need some sort of mobile cart like you see at lots of museums.

The idea is to encourage people to meet for a bite at the center, where they could access its collection of audio and video material over a secure data connection. Establishing that digital access is part of a bigger push for both of the center’s locations, in New York and L.A.

“We have these beautiful buildings,” Pat said. “We hope to give people a reason to visit them even if they’re not coming for a specific show or program. Maybe people are having lunch and say to each other, ‘Remember that ‘Bob Newhart’ scene?’ And then be able to pull it up on a screen right there.”

Sign me up.

Really, could there be a more appropriate place for a future Mel’s Diner than the Media Center itself, where we can view just about anything we’re talking about?

“Newhart” was top of mind for Pat. She was in town partly to attend the Paley’s special “The Bob Newhart Show” cast reunion event, co-hosted by TVLand. The program, which kicked off the Paley’s fall 2007 events schedule, was held the night before our lunch.

Pat started out talking to Starbucks about her cafe notion, but the coffee mega-chain already has a Beverly Hills location close by.

That is just as well. Cafe 440-level food would be well worth a trip to the Paley for the meal alone. Pat and I both had Frederic’s Favorite salad. She asked for hers with chicken; I ordered mine with tuna. It’s chopped and chockfull of some of my faves as well: broccoli, mozzarella, garbanzo beans and red cabbage.

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The Dish: In addition to attending the “Newhart” event, Pat was in town for the Los Angeles board of governors meetings; she always tries to meet with Paley trustees and other media executives in the area as well.

She’s also always fundraising for the many plans she has for the Paley. The center launched a campaign earlier this year and is on its way to achieving its goal of raising $20 million by the end of 2007.

At this point about 2,000 hours of the center’s TV programs have been digitized (along with more than 1,500 radio hours). Some 10,000 hours are earmarked as priorities, and the center will do the whole 150,000 eventually, Pat said.

Processing the content would enable the center to make the library searchable and viewable to visitors using kiosks in the Paley locations in New York and L.A. Pat said she was just chatting with “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf about her plans on the very morning of our lunch.

“I told him, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if someone comes in, wants to see all about you, and they can just plug in your name and bring up everything we have related to your career?’” she said. “He loved it.”

As I continue to refer to the former MT&R as the Paley, I realize it is coming more naturally than I expected when the organization changed its name this summer.

Pat said she had been thinking about a name change ever since she came on board in March 2006.

The switch took longer to execute than she thought it might, partly because of the difficulty of finding the right moniker. (The org’s name was changed once before, from the Museum of Broadcasting.)

Changing “TV & Radio” to “Media” was an easy sell to the group there, who worked with consultants Landor on the switch.

And “Museum” never quite fit, she said.

“We have a collection, but people who came in, particularly in New York, expected things on the walls and Archie Bunker’s chair,” she said.

“Center” seemed closest to “community,” and to how she sees the org.

The folks at Landor said institutions become familiar by associating them with people’s names. Think the Guggenheim, the Kennedy Center, the Getty. Landor suggested “Paley,” for the Center’s late founder William S. Paley.

Although a lot of the Center’s members who were polled didn’t know who he was, they liked that he was a real person. In addition, Paley was a visionary whose diverse media career represented the spirit of the center and where it was going, Pat said.

Pat’s career has been expansive as well. In addition to heading PBS prior to joining the Paley, she has worked for three broadcast networks and several cable channels, serving as reporter, news anchor, talk-show host, producer and executive, among other things.

“People look at my career, and often think I must have been so ambitious and known what I wanted to do,” she said. “Really, the thing that always guided me is what interested me.”

She signed on for two years with the Paley initially, but she told me she is sure she’ll be there for a while.

“I’m very energized by it,” she said.

Mel's Diner: Special Emmy Weekend Edition

September 20, 2007 4:00 PM

Who: Dann Florek, “Law & Order: SVU”; Al Gore
Where: NBC Universal’s pre-Emmy party, Spago, Beverly Hills; the Governors Ball, the Shrine, Los Angeles
When: Saturday, Sept. 15; Sunday, Sept. 16

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The Dish: The Emmys are like a national holiday at Mel’s Diner. Throughout the awards weekend, the entire TV community gathers at party after party around town, where the best food and drink are served and spirits are high.

I stopped by several celebrations on Emmys Eve, and a couple following the awards Sunday. On both nights, I wound up eating dinner with some pretty special Emmygoers.

NBC Universal’s event at Spago Saturday night was as packed with stars, producers and execs as it was last year, when I moved a telephone off a counter in order to put my plate down.

This year, I saw a couple of seats open up at an actual table, and asked a woman sitting there if TVWeek Design Director Jennifer Ciminillo and I could join them. Turns out the couple was “Law & Order: SVU’s” Dann Florek and his wife, Karen Florek, a wonderful painter and photographer.

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Dann portrays Capt. Donald Cragen, a role he originated on the flagship NBC series “Law & Order.” He and Karen live in Venice; he was getting ready to head to New York the following Tuesday, though, to start shooting the ninth season of “SVU.”

“SVU’s” Mariska Hargitay was nominated in the lead actress in a drama category, which was awarded to Sally Field the next day, but the show already was celebrating a win for Leslie Caron’s guest turn, which was announced the previous Saturday.

We talked food, life, driving and “SVU.” Dann was candid and animated. As he said, he “has an opinion about everything.”

Especially fun was our discovery that Dann, Karen, Jen and I all hailed from Michigan. Dann and Karen attended Eastern Michigan University.

Dann said he loves driving, which is not a surprise considering his roots—those of us who come from anywhere near Detroit tend to have a natural affinity for wheels.

“[Karen] thinks I hate to drive, because I think everyone else is an asshole,” Dann said. “But I need my f-you driving time!”

Going into the ninth season of “SVU,” Dann wouldn’t dish about any spoilers, but he did say his bosses are not afraid to “try new things” at this point in the run. He’s clearly very proud to be part of the series and the role it has played in addressing the stigma of rape.

“I feel blessed in a lot of ways,” he said. “In addition to being an entertainment show, our show, we actually serve a purpose.”

“SVU” has become emblematic of people seeing it and then having the guts to say, “I was raped,” he said.

“They feel like they somehow now have the support to go after help. What I love is many of these women are now saying they can rise above it. Even 20 years ago there was shame involved and they would have felt they did something wrong,” he said. “What’s happening now, the show is somehow part of that. It’s a trigger. People think not only ‘I should,’ but ‘I can get help.’”

My dinner seating luck continued throughout the weekend. When a group of us from TelevisionWeek found our table at the Governors Ball after the awards show, we saw that Al and Tipper Gore and the former vice president’s colleagues from his Current TV cable network shared the same table—table 312.

The cable network was honored that evening with an Emmy for creative achievement in interactive television, so we got to sit with an Emmy statuette to boot.

TVWeek Executive Editor Tom Gilbert got some quality chatting time with Tipper. We didn’t get to talk too much to Al, as a steady stream of attendees kept him out of his chair, taking photos and shaking hands. Jen, Sue Teitle from TVWeek advertising sales and I, of course, added ourselves to that list before we left.

Dined On: Yes, yes, the food.

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The best of the buffet at the NBC U party was the sweet corn-filled pasta. A close second: the sliced beef, which is difficult to attack with a knife and fork while standing—the reason we crashed the Floreks’ table.

Spago also was serving lots of classic Wolfgang Puck appetizers. Dann’s favorite was the tuna tartare, while Karen loved the little sliders.

Dann also gave props to the buffet’s grilled veggies. “One of the hardest things to do is grilled vegetables. It’s very hard to keep them crispy,” he said. “These were there, baby.”

Mel's Diner: Rod Perth

September 10, 2007 10:52 AM

Who: Rod Perth, consultant/adviser, ReelzChannel Television
Where: Cafe Pinot, Los Angeles
When: Tuesday, Aug. 28, lunch

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The Dish: This outing was all kinds of unusual.

For starters, I wasn’t even sure it was going to happen. A week before I was scheduled to meet Rod Perth at the ReelzChannel headquarters for a tour of the futuristic facility and lunch nearby, the company announced he would step down as president after seven years in the job and take a consultant/advisory role.

“President to consultant” sounds a lot like “production deal” in this biz, aka “fired.” Would he want to go sit with me and talk about that?

I knew of Rod for a long time and always wanted to meet him. He spent many years at CBS and was portrayed by Ed Begley Jr. in “The Late Shift”, the 1996 film about the battle to succeed Johnny Carson. I knew he was credited with bringing David Letterman to CBS and that he left CBS to run the USA Network. But I didn’t know enough about him or the situation at Reelz to have a clue whether to take the announcement at face value.

So I asked. His people said he still wanted to have the meeting.

The great thing about the timing of his big change and our little lunch was that, given the news, Rod was flexible enough to spend a good amount of time showing me around the offices, swapping stories and enjoying a leisurely lunch at Cafe Pinot.

I definitely got to see and hear more with Rod Perth than I normally do during quick Mel’s Diner lunches. The first-hand view of the Reelz operation, an advanced, completely digital stunner, was super-cool. Since the network’s office and studio space was carved out of gutted areas of L.A. Center Studios, it represents the latest, greatest TV network infrastructure. It’s literally the embodiment of what a veteran TV exec could produce given the time to plan and the money to spend on the ideal network operation.

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Reelz is the largest tenant of L.A. Center Studios. Rod took me for a walk around the perfectly painted entertainment utopia buzzing with the people who keep original programming geared toward “Everything About Movies” flowing on the channel 24/7.

It’s clean and modern without being cold, and each member of the productive-looking staff acknowledged Rod warmly as we walked by. The studio for Reelz’s show “Dailies” is sharp; it evokes old Hollywood. The digital systems in place make it possible for 100 people to simultaneously edit the same video file the instant it is ingested.

Rod named the conference rooms Minneapolis and St. Paul for the Twin Cities where Reelz owner Hubbard Broadcasting is based.

The physical facility was not the only thing built from the ground up. In six months last year, Rod took the channel from two people in Los Angeles (him and an assistant) to 250 people. The group moved into the studios in May 2006, just ahead of the network’s September 2006 on-air launch.

“It was an unbelievable sprint,” he said.

It all came together as Rod expected since the Hubbard family and he hatched the idea about seven years ago, except that it took a bit longer, particularly to get distribution as an independent. Still, the net debuted to 28 million homes last September, which Reelz says is the largest cable/sat premiere in history. The network is expected to be in 40 million homes by year’s end, Rod said.

Even more interesting than hearing and seeing all this, though, was getting to bear witness to what it’s like for an accomplished exec like Rod to switch career gears—as he was actually shifting.

Rod had yet to move from his swank office into the smaller space he plans to use, since he won’t be coming in every day.

I mentioned on our way from Reelz to lunch at Cafe Pinot, where the staff had thrown him a party the night before, that most people would take an announcement like his as a euphemism.

“Yeah, you can’t really control that,” he said, seeming unfazed, then adding that it is a little scary to think about not walking into work with this group every day.

He’s seen a lot in this business. We had a lot of fun dishing about his career to this point. He moved seven times in 15 years, working primarily in stations for CBS before returning home to the West Coast to run late night for the network. He later left CBS for USA at a time when top net execs were not taking big gambles on cable.

“I believed in cable,” he said. “We developed probably more original programming when no one was doing much in cable.”

Before Barry Diller swept Rod out of USA, he was able to invest in some of the first original series in cable, shows such as “La Femme Nikita,” and it was clearly a highlight for him.

Sitting at Pinot, we agreed that this summer originals on cable have officially arrived—and come a long way—with so many of them seeing record ratings.

“Budgets are enablers of more ambitious ideas,” Rod said.

“Nikita” was produced for around $800,000 or $900,000 per episode. Shows such as AMC’s lush, period series “Mad Men,” shot coincidentally at L.A. Center Studios, can cost around $2.2 million an hour.

As for Rod’s own ambitions, now that Reelz is “pointed in the right direction” and approaching its first on-air anniversary, he is going to take some time to decide on his next steps.

For example, earlier the day of our lunch, he turned down an offer to be CEO of a company.

Rod continues to serve as chairman of the board of public radio station KCRW, and he is talking to a number of people about entertainment business ventures, he said.

He plans to study digital photography and to do some world travel, including a motorcycle trip in New Zealand and hiking in France, and does not see himself pitching shows around town.

Then again, he said: “I don’t want to say never to anything.”

Dined On: It was just a few degrees from being too hot sitting in the sun on the patio.

The chilled offerings at Cafe Pinot, which specializes in seafood, hit the spot.

Hamachi is a favorite of mine, and Pinot serves it well over ice. We also kept cool with simple green salads, iced tea and sorbet dessert.

On the Books: Pat Mitchell, the Paley Center for Media

Mel’s Diner: David Kenin

August 28, 2007 12:16 PM

Who: David Kenin, executive VP, programming, Hallmark Channel
When: Monday, Aug. 20, lunch
Where: Hotel Bel-Air, The Restaurant & Terrace

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The Dish: David Kenin borrowed a line from a racier genre when he told me at lunch how he determines which pitches fit what he’s going for on the Hallmark Channel.

“We know it when we see it,” he said.

Easy now, dirty minds. Lots of cable channels are known for making some pretty dramatic switcheroos in their programming to pull a rating, but Hallmark isn’t one of them. David was talking specifically about original Hallmark movies, all of which are absolutely family-friendly. Most of them generally fall into the categories of romances, holiday tales, mysteries, Westerns and traditional dramas. There’s even some room for science fiction, he said.

Whatever the category, David has developed an approach for movies that click with ever-growing audiences without abandoning the wholesome Hallmark brand.

“We can deal with any situation or subject,” he said. “It’s how you do it.”

By talking about the consequences of less-than-exemplary behavior, while aiming to not be preachy about it, Hallmark can explore contemporary subjects in virtually all areas.

Just because the network’s programs aren’t edgy, don’t be fooled into thinking David himself doesn’t have an edge.

It has taken bravery and shrewdness to do what he has done for the Crown Media-owned outlet, which rewarded him with a rich contract extension this summer that keeps him around through 2009.

The veteran exec, who previously was president of CBS Sports and a honcho at USA Networks, arrived at Hallmark Channel soon after its August 2001 launch and quickly helped build up its ratings from what he calls the “flatline” he found when he arrived.

David put the first gun on Hallmark’s air (more on that in a moment), acquired “M*A*S*H” with a sneak-attack offer (no competitors at the time expected Hallmark to be a bidder) and has continued to build a distinctive original-movie business. More than 30 original pics are scheduled to air next year, marking the channel’s largest slate yet. If the sky were the financial limit, David would do 50 movies a year in order to premiere a fresh one each week, he said at lunch.

Hallmark is now a consistent top-10 player in prime-time viewership among basic-cable networks. The channel’s total audience rose 14 percent during the first quarter of 2007.

The programming strategy consists of family-oriented original movies in prime time, combined with classic television series at other hours. Hallmark also has rebroadcast rights to CBS’ “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movie franchise.

Hallmark wants to provide a place to go on TV that can be depended on for quality, positive content aimed at adults that wouldn’t pose a problem if kids were to walk into the room, David said.

“I’m not a prude, but I know a lot of audiences like to have one place you can go that is safe and secure,” he said, adding that much of the material on TV today would have gotten the perpetrators’ mouths washed out with soap when he was a kid.

Hallmark and its audience take its standards seriously. Any violence on the air is stylized, and the network is very careful about sexual content.

Among the classics Hallmark airs are a number of Westerns, a genre David introduced in one of his first programming moves.

When he got to the network in January 2002, he noticed “The Rifleman” on the shelf in the library. David thought it might be an issue for the family-oriented net, but he felt it also might connect with viewers.

So he put it on the air at 11 at night.

“I got a call from a colleague asking, ‘Who gave you the authority to put that on?’” he said.

When the ratings for that show came in, a 0.4 appeared where once had been zeros, he said.

Armed with those numbers, he told his boss about his colleague’s complaint, called it ridiculous and said he didn’t plan to listen, adding, “If I fail, fire me.”

The strategy worked.

David went on to double-run “Rifleman” at 11 and 11:30 p.m. It started doing well, they moved it to the afternoon, and a classic-genres-in-daytime strategy was born.

“Meanwhile, people were still saying we don’t allow guns on the air,” he said. “But we came to the conclusion that Westerns had a role. We realized, yes, we can put a gun in the programming because it can be in the context of right and wrong.”

Hallmark then acquired “Rawhide” and “Bonanza.”

While we were having lunch, David was in the midst of hammering out a new acquisition, which he declined to give details on. He also was anticipating a visit from his new-ish New York-based boss, Henry Schleiff, president and chief executive officer of Crown Media.

The “gun” battle was one of many tricky situations David had to navigate while developing Hallmark’s family-friendly strategy. Even his addition of “M*A*S*H,” one of television’s most popular and lauded series, was controversial, given some of the show’s colorful characters and its implicit commentaries on war.

More recently, David took a phone call from a viewer complaining about a scene in an original movie in which a 17-year-old girl asks her dad about sex.

David defended the programming, suggesting that a conversation at home with parents is the best place and way to get that information.

Sounded like a great answer to me, but the viewer remained incensed.

“A small part of our audience is very conservative,” he said. “That movie did very well.”

Dined On: It’s nice to eat where Jane Fonda eats. I’m just saying.

The icon was having lunch at the next table over at Hotel Bel-Air, adding to the already glamorous, airy ambience on the terrace.

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I actually didn’t spot her until well into our meal, which is kind of embarrassing considering I am a humongous fan.

Admittedly, I was distracted.

For one thing, I was absorbed in conversation with David. In addition to talking Hallmark strategy, of course, David captivated me with dishy, off-the-record (sorry!) stories about his memorable times on the restaurant’s terrace. Officially he says he loves this spot for the food, service and the outdoor setting—sans nearby traffic and exhaust.

The beauteous bougainvillea peeking through a white canopy above the patio provided atmosphere and another pleasant distraction.

I know: Excuses, excuses. So I’d be a lousy paparazzo! (Then again, I later noticed Jane’s blond do was in the background of nearly every pic I snapped of David. Beginner’s luck, I guess.)

Still, upon spotting Jane, I decided not to think twice about ordering dessert. I know, again with the excuses. But Jane Fonda eats here. And look at her—unbelievable. I mean, if I truly overindulged I could always go “feel the burn” later at the gym to make up for it, right?

So following a very nice lunch—a Mediterranean plate for me, tortilla soup and beef carpaccio for David and a chopped Cobb for corporate communications expert Nancy Carr—we went for it with dessert, a chocolate tart and peach pie, which we narrowly chose over a cherry concoction.

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So I’d be a lousy famous fitness icon, too. At least one dessert had fruit in it…

Mel's Diner: Devin Alexander

August 17, 2007 12:09 PM

Who: Devin Alexander, host of Discovery Health Channel's "Healthy Decadence With Devin Alexander" and author of "The Biggest Loser Cookbook" and "Fast Food Fix"
When: Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007
Where: Devin's home kitchen, Brentwood, Calif.

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Dined On: Lots!

Do you ever watch cooking on TV and just wish someone would invent taste-o-vision already? Well, I got as close to it as you can Wednesday afternoon.

Devin Alexander, who is building a multimedia healthy eating empire, says tasting is believing.

After sampling an array of her signature dishes from her TV show (go here for video from her Discovery Health Channel show "Healthy Decadence") and books, including a reduced-fat-and-calorie version of the Big Mac (hers saves 174 calories and 19 grams of fat compared with the McDonald's original) and five different desserts, let's just say I'm a believer. And I will not have to eat again until about a week from now.

From a seat at the end of the home kitchen where she works with three assistants, I quickly found myself eating up all she had to say and serve.

The proof was in the Thai peanut noodle salad; it was in the manicotti; the Big Mac; and especially in the two different kinds of brownies. (I am aware that eating all of this and more in a single sitting is not necessarily healthy; it was research, people, research.)

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"There's such a bad stereotype about healthy food," she said.

The assumption, of course, is that if food is good for you, it tastes nasty. If it tastes good, it's got something weird and unnatural going on.

She often travels with a delicately balanced platter in her car to disprove the stereotype. She brings treats to virtually every media appearance.

It's a convincing strategy. The first bite I had at her house was of the Thai salad from "Healthy Decadence." Unbelievable. When she rattled off all the good-for-me stats about it, all I could say (mouth full) was, "Nooooh!" And, "Yummmm."

She told me she got a call from a magazine once saying that the staff was concerned. They had eaten her brownies. They saw the calorie count. And they wanted to make sure there wasn't a catch.

"They asked if they were going to get diarrhea," she said. That healthy-food stereotype again—some artificial fat substitutes and sweeteners will wreak a little lower GI havoc like that.

But Devin sticks to natural ingredients, subbing things like oat flour in only as far as the flavor is not compromised. If it tastes not right in the least, it gets yanked.

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And let me tell you, it tastes right. The Big Mac? The slightly oozy cheese and special sauce were bang-on. In fact, it gives me reason to go on the record right here in agreement with Star Jones.

When Devin appeared on "The View" a while back, Star said Devin's burger was better than Mickey D's. And in this case, Star, I couldn't agree with you more.

The Dish: To get her recipes just so, Devin works like a mad scientist. Often she spends a good nine hours daily in the kitchen working on tedious, detail-oriented processes, such as dissecting famous sinful favorites and measuring to minute detail alternatives and original recipes, too.

When she is out, she "reads every word on every menu."

"Mad scientist, it's kind of true," she said.

Mad busy magician is more like it.

The day I visited her, she faced a deadline for her third book, "The Most Decadent Diet Ever," due out in April. She also was anticipating the fall debut of new episodes of "Healthy Decadence" and the January premiere of Discovery Health's "National Body Challenge."

In addition, she's slated to appear on a new teen weight-loss show next summer, she writes a column in Women's Health magazine, makes frequent appearances on various media and does a bunch of product development and consulting.

She was a cheerful and energetic hostess nonetheless.

Among the products, she just consulted for Smart Ones. She also is in some super-secret talks about packaging and selling her 112-calorie, 1-gram-of-fat fudge mint iced brownies.

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On her wish list: Creating a healthy room-service menu for hotels.

Devin came to Los Angeles 14 years ago to be a TV writer. She was in a program at the TV Academy when friends and colleagues noticed she lost and kept off more than 50 pounds by cooking healthy. People kept asking her to cook for them (she has cooked for Reba McEntire and once, at a charity event where she'd cooked, heard Lisa Rinna running saying Devin's meatballs were the best she'd ever eaten). She figured she'd better go to culinary school if she was going to keep taking cooking requests.

Her big break came after meeting a "Good Morning America" producer who needed help with a healthy New Year's Eve segment in 2004 and hired Devin.

Everything Devin has done since and will continue to do is aimed at her close-to-the-heart mission: battling childhood and teen obesity.

The philosophies she shares are pretty simple. You don't need to deprive yourself to be healthy, and 20 minutes in the kitchen is a lot easier than three hours on the treadmill.

Living by those ideas pay off for her constantly.

"I was 55 pounds heavier as a teen. I was the girl sitting on the couch eating cookies in a small town in Pennsylvania watching 'Dallas' with her gay best friend who couldn't admit he was gay," she said. "Now, not only am I healthy, I'm around food all day. And when I get letters from people who relate to that, I love it.”

Mel's Diner: Phil Rosenthal

August 3, 2007 9:53 AM

Who: Phil Rosenthal, media columnist, Chicago Tribune
When: Friday, July 20, dinner
Where: Simon L.A., Sofitel Hotel

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Dined On: This time I picked the restaurant, along with TelevisionWeek Design Director Jennifer Ciminillo, who introduced me to Phil Rosenthal, media columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

I was a little nervous about it. I don't know Phil too well, but Jen said he knows a better restaurant from a not-better restaurant.

And geez, turns out I and Simon L.A. had a tough act to follow: Phil told us over dinner that the previous weekend, his wife took him to the famed Charlie Trotter's back home in Chicago for a multicourse birthday dinner. Trotters is a restaurant-or, perhaps more aptly, dining destination-known as one of the best in the world. Once while traveling in Australia, Phil told a chef that he was from Chicago. The first thing the chef said: "Oooh, Chicago. Charlie Trotter's."

Jen and I are fans of Simon L.A.'s dessert platter, which features cotton candy as the centerpiece. But I'm certain it's not revered halfway around the globe a la Trotter's. Still, the place is stylish, serves inventive drinks such as a grapefruit-basil martini and is centrally located, adjacent to the Beverly Center mall. They also serve a nice mac and cheese.

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Phil was in town for the Television Critics Association's semi-annual press tour. He's covered around 35 of the gatherings, having worked for 11 years as a journalist in Los Angeles before returning to his hometown 11 years ago.

We sat on the Simon L.A. patio. It's pleasantly lit and heated, but there was one slightly weird thing about the atmosphere: A marathon of sentimental songs piping all evening. Not bad songs, just noticeably on the sad side. If I was a girl on a date, I'd have been bracing to be dumped romantic comedy-style.

I e-mailed Phil a couple days later to ask what he thought of the restaurant.

"It was lovely on the terrace, despite all those sad songs, and the company was good," he wrote. "Comfort food is comfort food. I mean, mac and cheese, little Hostess-style cupcakes, meatloaf. All that was missing from my childhood was a TV dinner tray with peas and carrots sauteed in the syrup that spilled over from the dessert next to it and a 'Partridge Family' rerun."

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Phil, who lived on the other side of the hill when he was an L.A. resident, seems still to be perfectly at home in Southern California. But personally, going back to Chicago was great for him, he said.

"My wife, whom I met after she returned to Chicago, told me we probably wouldn't have dated if we had met when she was still living in L.A. because she didn't go out with guys who lived in the Valley," he said. "Now we have two variable-rate kids and a lovely mortgage."

He's also got the claim to being half of the first married couple covered in Mel's Diner. His wife, Jennie Rosenthal, introduced me to the magnificence of Michael Mina's lobster pot pie during NATPE in January.

The Dish: Call him the real Dr. Phil.

As far as I know Phil and his work, he's always got a wise way of looking at things. An insight or two I hadn't thought of, whether the topic is media, careers or personal stuff.

While at press tour, he was doing a lot of background and brain-bending for stories and columns down the line.

"I'm looking for trends and new ways of looking at what's happening to the media business in the digital age," he said.

The biggest story for Phil lately has been following Rupert Murdoch as he gunned for Dow Jones & Co.

"The implications of that and discerning his strategies to take that company forward in the 21st century, like Sam Zell's efforts to turn around Tribune, could tell us a lot about where all media businesses are headed," he said.

Tribune, of course, owns the Chicago Tribune, so that's got to be one of the trickiest companies for him to cover.

"Apart from noting Tribune Co. owns the Chicago Tribune in stories, you have to set aside the fact it's your own company in your approach and dig in as tenaciously as you would in covering any story," Phil said. "After all, that's what you're paid to do."

One challenge is that the folks at Tribune treat him no differently than anyone else covering them, and some people outside the company view him warily, he said.

He's not in completely uncharted territory, though.

When he worked at the L.A. Daily News and was in his mid-20s, he had to write a story that mentioned Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the paper.

"I was sent to see him by an editor who thought he should have an opportunity to comment," Phil said. "The result was a terrifying experience in his office that ended with him telling me he thought I did very good work but I needed to work on my deportment. Oh, and no comment."

The state of the newspaper biz continues to be a hot media topic, especially when critics from papers across the country are gathered for press tour.

"I wonder how long press tour will continue, but I've been wondering that for a while and it endures," Phil said. "It's no secret newspapers are re-examining the role of television critics and eliminating the TV books that once were filled with stories banked from TCA interview sessions.

"Blogging has changed things too, especially with wireless Internet access in the rooms," he added. "Maybe that helps. Maybe not. I don't know. What do I look like, Kreskin? You know the old saying: He who lives by the crystal ball learns to eat broken glass."

Top that, McGraw!