Food Network Is Serving Up Chefs

Feb 7, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In its latest move to embrace a personality-driven programming strategy, Food Network has begun production on “All-Star Kitchen Makeover,” a four-episode series slated for a summer premiere that will call on the network’s top chefs-Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Alton Brown and Paula Deen-to help four viewers make over their kitchens.

The summer special, to borrow a phrase from the network’s best-known chef, Mr. Lagasse, kicks up the Food Network’s programming philosophy a notch. “The personalities have become more and more popular,” said Brooke Johnson, president of the network. “We are more aware of that and looking for team or family experiences and bringing them together, so outside of their individual shows they would additionally do things as a group.”

The network has assembled top chefs in one-time specials before, such as holiday shows and high-profile stunts, and is now expanding that tactic to multiple episodes. In that vein, earlier this year the network debuted “Iron Chef America,” an English-language version of the popular Japanese import “Iron Chef.” The U.S. version features Food Network stars Mr. Flay, Mario Batali and Masaharu Morimoto as the iron chefs, while Mr. Brown serves as commentator. The network ordered 10 episodes initially.

In addition to the personality push behind multichef specials and limited series, Food Network tries to leverage its talent in other ways. That includes cross-pollinating stars in its daytime programming, which contains more traditional how-to-cook-this-dish fare, with the prime-time emphasis on entertainment.

Rachael Ray, for instance, became a star through her daytime show “30 Minute Meals” and then landed a prime-time spot in 2002 for the show “$40 a Day,” in which she travels to various locales and eats well on a budget. Ms. Ray, who was discovered doing a radio show in Albany, N.Y., is now a bona fide star in her own right and had five cookbooks on the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list the last week of December.

As chefs rise in prominence, it becomes important to lock them in to long-term deals, especially as other networks explore chef-related shows. While Food Network declined to disclose specific deals, when the network commits to a chef, it seeks long-term deals done in stages with options for additional seasons, said Bob Tuschman, senior VP of programming and production for Food Network.

That’s because finding talent is the single-hardest thing, Mr. Tuschman said. The ideal on-air personality needs to be down-to-earth and relatable and at the same time possess star power and expertise in a food area. The network searches through food magazines and food sections of the newspapers and regularly brings in people for screen tests.

In fact, it is conducting a talent search now for “The Next Food Network Star.” The winner gets a six-episode show commitment for a September debut in the weekend “In the Kitchen” programming block. “We hope we like them so much to do a much longer-term contract with them,” Mr. Tuschman said.

As for the “All-Star Kitchen Makeover,” viewers submitted tapes last fall on why their homes should be chosen for the redo.

One makeover recipient is a grammar school in Harlem called the Children’s Storefront that includes cooking in its curriculum, said Kathleen Finch, senior VP of prime-time programming. Other winners are a young couple in Las Vegas, a pair of newlyweds moving into a 100-year-old home and a woman who’s attending culinary school in the evenings.

The chefs will infuse their unique cooking styles into the redone kitchens: Mr. Flay will create an outdoor grilling kitchen, Mr. Brown a high-tech functional one, Ms. Deen a southern country kitchen and Mr. Lagasse a New Orleans-themed cooking center.