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Food Network Grills, Chills and Thrills

Jun 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

The Food Network has perfected a winning recipe: Mix lifestyle, personality and food, and millions of viewers—90 million subscribers at last count—will flock to the table.
That formula has made for thousands of charismatic hosts, easy-to-follow recipes and tasty meals since the network’s Nov. 23, 1993, launch. It also has brought seven nominations for this year’s Daytime Emmys, including two for lifestyle host for Emeril Lagasse and Paula Deen, and two for lifestyle program for “The Barefoot Contessa” and “Paula’s Home Cooking.”
Reinventing the cooking show is at the core of what has made the network so successful, said Bob Tuschman, Food Network senior VP of programming and production. “What we’ve tried to do is bring cooking shows and food into the 21st century,” he said. In the “old-school” cooking show, two cameras were trained on a chef, who put together a meal out of previously prepared ingredients in a studio kitchen. “It used to be, ‘Today I’m making chicken, tomorrow meatloaf,'” Mr. Tuschman said. “It never evolved stylistically.”
Tune into any of the Food Network’s daytime cooking shows and the changes are evident: the look and feel of the environments, the camerawork and editing, the music and, yes, the storylines. “The cooking shows didn’t used to have storylines,” Mr. Tuschman said. “Now, with ‘Barefoot Contessa,’ it’s cinematic. It’s a slice of life that weaves together her family, friends and real life in the Hamptons. You get her amazing recipes—also about a beautifully presented slice of life. You can enjoy it for the pure inspiration of how to live a great life.”
“Barefoot Contessa,” which debuted in 2002, is named after a food emporium once owned by Chef Ina Garten. Ms. Garten wrote “The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook” in 1999 and it quickly became a culinary best seller. “She’s not a formally trained chef, but one of the most respected cookbook authors in the country,” Mr. Tuschman said. “With her great recipes and relaxed, radiant style, she was an instant hit.”
Charismatic chefs are nothing new on the Food Network; one of its first on-air hosts was Mr. Lagasse, who is no slouch either in the kitchen or as a memorable personality.
The network’s executives quickly learned what worked. “We’re a host-based network,” said Mr. Tuschman. “People watch our shows because of the personalities.”
Chef Paula Deen and her “Paula’s Home Cooking,” which began airing in 2001, represent the same winning criteria. Another self-taught chef who, in this case, learned to cook Southern comfort food from her grandmother, Ms. Deen also spent many years cooking for people, first via a catering service called the Bag Lady and later, with her sons, via a restaurant named the Lady and Sons.
Like all the hosts on the Food Network, Ms. Deen’s show is rooted in her own background and personality. “Actually, it was 9/11 that gave me my chance,” she said. “Our country was so frightened. We were all scared to death. We were craving comfort and not being scared, that feeling of comfort and safety that we got at our mother’s and grandmother’s table. My show is really representative of the woman in the home — whether she lives in Florida or Washington state — ;being in the heart of the home and cooking things that make our families feel good.”
Feeling passionately about food is a leitmotif among Food Network chefs, and Ms. Deen is on a mission to make the family meal a possibility for today’s two-income, frenzied lives. “The food must be doable,” she said. “When we go out to work, it’s hard out there. When you come back into the place where you feel the most safe, we should make that very easy and keep it simple.”
Even though the network was host-driven from the beginning, it has evolved over time. Mr. Tuschman pointed to 2001 as a crucial year in the network’s development. “That’s when we launched ’30-Minute Meals With Rachael Ray,'” he said. “She was the first non-restaurant-trained chef we put on the air. She’d done a lot of cooking, but she wasn’t a French-trained chef. She was self-trained. But she is an amazing cook, using real ingredients, with people’s real budgets and time frames, and people instantly responded to her.”
Other milestones include the launch of FoodTV.com in 1997, and memorable shows including “Two Fat Ladies” (1997), “Hot Off the Grill With Bobby Flay” (1998), “Iron Chef” (1999), “Wolfgang Puck and the Naked Chef” (2000) and many others.
The Food Network currently boasts dozens of celebrity host/chefs, and an equally voluminous number of shows, from “How to Boil Water” and “The Hungry Detective” to “Feasting on Asphalt.”
The Food Network’s original network partners were president/founder Reese Schoenfeld, Colony Communications, Continental Cablevision, Landmark Communications, Scripps-Howard Cable Co., Tribune Broadcasting, Times Mirror Cable Television, Adelphia Communications, Cablevision Industries and C-TEC Cable Systems. Currently, E.W. Scripps holds a 64 percent interest in the network, Tribune holds 29 percent and minority shareholders own the rest.
Finding charismatic chefs has been key to the Food Network’s success. Ms. Deen was discovered after being introduced to Food Network executive producer Gordon Elliot via a mutual friend. Ms. Deen recalled Mr. Elliot suggested she try her hand at a TV cooking show.
That Ms. Deen was “discovered” by a Food Network executive is no fluke. “We’re constantly scouring the country,” Mr. Tuschman said. “Our producers are constantly looking for chefs we think would have broad television appeal. We’re always looking for hosts who can become stars.”
The Food Network continues to grow its roster of chefs and genres of food. “We actually cover every type of cuisine and every type of life,” Mr. Tuschman said. To be added in the near future is “Simply Delicioso,” hosted by Ingrid Hoffman, a Colombian who lives in Miami and has a culinary grounding in both American and Latin-flavored foods.
Cooking shows will always be the staple of the daytime slots but, Mr. Tuschman said, the network doesn’t rule out other formats. He pointed to “Good Eats,” a highly cinematic, funny and inventive show that debuted in 1999; although it’s a prime-time show, it also has aired in daytime.
“We’re examining other formats that we think could work,” he said. “We always want to present great food information, and we’re always looking for new talent and new formats.”
For food aficionados, however, the jury is already in on how the Food Network has done—and that’s not counting the Emmy nominations.
“They have done an amazing job, honey,” Ms. Deen said. “They’ve given people options. We’d almost lost a generation to fast foods. This is making children very aware of what a comfort that kitchen can bring to us, and how therapeutic it is for the family to get in there and prepare something that they’ll ingest together.”

31 Comments

  1. tuschman is a moron and has ruined food tv with what is being televised now!!! They have cloned these non chefs with the same animated movements and dialog (with the exception of Paula…who had become a comic caricature of herself, with the continual use of ya’ll until I almost vomit) AND, for the most part, they are non cooking shows, with no recipes and no talent.
    It’s time for a new cooking channel…one that will be manned by talented chefs, with cooking and recipes, on the line of PBS cooking shows.

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