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How Food Network Turned Big-city Chef Culture Into Middle-America Pop Culture

In celebration of New York Magazine’s 50th anniversary, this weekly series, which will continue through October 2018, tells the stories behind key moments that shaped the city’s culture.

In the early ’90s, a group of media experts had a crazy idea: Let’s launch a cable network, based in New York City, that’s entirely devoted to food, even though they had little interest in food, and even less money. What they soon discovered was that chefs were affordable and available — and a new generation of culinary talent was ready to jump in front of the cameras. Together, this small, scrappy group laid the foundation for celebrity chefs and (for better or worse) a wave of national foodieism. Here’s how it happened, told by the people who were there.

Trygve Myhren, president, the Providence Journal Company, co-founder of Food Network: In 1990, I was trying to grow the Providence Journal Company. I believed that basic-cable programming was where the most astonishing opportunities resided. I said, “Look, we need to develop basic-cable programming, but we’ve got to do it intelligently.” There were already, by then, a number of cable-television channels, so this had to be something that was different.

Joe Langhan, VP of production, co-founder of Food Network: Trygve said, “We’re entertaining ideas and proposals from everywhere and anybody, so if you come across anybody, or if you come up with an idea yourself.” I said sure.

Allen Salkin, author of From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network: Nobody ever associated cooking shows with making a lot of money. Even Julia Child’s show did not make a lot of money. People just thought, There are these kooky characters and they cook on PBS. Who watches PBS? People who want to watch classical music, ballet, and Masterpiece Theater. It was about French food, fancy things. Now, what you’re getting with this new network is a weird station coming in all over the country.

Robin Leach, host, Robin Leach Talking Food: To start an entire network from nothing is pretty miraculous. I mean, it’s not far away from what the good Lord did with Adam and Eve. Reese Schonfeld is probably one of two or three or four, but certainly not five men in the world who could pull it off.

Reese Schonfeld, co-founder of CNN, co-founder and former president of Food Network: I got a call from Trygve Myhren, and he wanted to know if I would be willing to help them start a food network. I laughed.

Pat O’Gorman, executive producer, wife of Reese Schonfeld: I remember when Reese came home and said that someone had come to him with the idea of starting a food network. I said that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Who in god’s name would watch food shows? I guess I was wrong.

Langhan: The people at the Providence Journal wanted to do it out of Providence. Their rationale was, “Well, you know, CNN’s in Atlanta. It doesn’t matter where you are.” Reese was very adamant that it had to be in New York, because that’s where all the action was at that time, at least about food.

Jack Clifford, co-founder, former CEO of Food Network: Somebody else had already had the idea of a “Food Network,” but adding to that name, we were able to get away with it and not have to pay any royalties.

Langhan: The working title for the whole thing right up until almost before it launched — in 1993 — was the Cooking Channel. That name was not available. The Food Network was not available, either. There was some guy who just had some newsletters or something about the food business, and he called it “The Food Network.” So Jack Clifford came up with the Television Food Network.

Salkin: All of a sudden, you had a network located in midtown Manhattan that desperately needed cheap content. At the same time, you had interesting young chefs cooking downtown who could reach this network by subway.

Langhan: As soon as the word got out that we were gonna do a food channel, Reese started getting inundated with tapes. Shows for sale, people who were on shows that wanted their own shows. I’m not exaggerating when I say I can remember 120, or 160, or 180 tapes. We got a VCR and spent three days watching tapes, taking very careful notes, categorizing and cross-indexing every talent, every program concept, everything that was on tape.

Donna Hanover, co-host, Food News and Views: Reese Schonfeld called me and he said he’s doing this new venture, and would I meet with him? He had the whole office set up in a hotel suite. When I first got to know about it, it was a bunch of Post-it notes on a wall. That was the Food Network. He said to me, “I want you to host one of the shows. We’re going to start with two shows and one of them is going to be a live show daily, an hour-long show, kind of like our basic news programming, like the CBS Evening News.” I had an audition a few days later.

Marcus Samuelsson, chef and host: I was the chef at Aquavit, and I’d just got three stars from Ruth Reichl in the New York Times. After that, the phone started to ring quickly for me. One of the first big shows we as chefs got invited on was the show with Donna Hanover, which was basically daily news about what’s happening in the restaurant industry. I was in midtown, so I could just run down with some fish or chicken and do a segment, and then run back up to serve it.

Leach: I could tell you horror stories about the television studio on the west side of Manhattan. It was so cold that the hookers who were on the street used to huddle in the doorway of our makeshift kitchen studio to keep warm during the winter nights, so everybody from our guests to our celebrity chefs to our on-air talent had to walk through the hookers nightly to go to work.

Schonfeld: Hookers up and down the street. They’d get on a truck and come back on another truck, having satisfied guys in each truck, going through the tunnel and then back from the tunnel.

Robin Leach (right) hosted one of the network’s very earliest shows.

Sara Moulton, chef and host: There was no oven. So I would pretend that I was putting things into the oven by putting them under the counter, and then somebody at my feet would either hand me the piping-hot thing or there would be a swap-out under the counter that looked vaguely hot.

Myhren: An early show we had was about the food business, and we thought people would be very interested in that. You’d find out, for example, what the corn crop is doing this year. I mean, this was the kind of thing that commodities brokers like to look at. You were learning about all of these things that were really important, and you would think that foodies would be interested in, but nobody watched the darn thing.

Clifford: One night, we had one of the feeds — the guy pushed the wrong connection. This guy was the overnight chief engineer, and he was watching pornography for his own entertainment, and he put that on the air by mistake. Oh my god, the uproar was huge. Actually, it paid off, because it showed the advertisers that there were a lot of people watching us. They were mad, but they were watching us.

Myhren: We realized after a period of time that we had to put in something more exciting.

Langhan: We couldn’t afford to produce a show and not show it, so that never happened. What we did was figure out after a while that we had to give people on-camera tests. I said, “What if we just brought these people in and had them produce four or five shows in a day? We know the first one’s gonna be terrible, but by the third or fourth show, we’ll kind of really know whether these people were gonna catch on.” We actually created a series, Chef Du Jour. The whole pitch of that series was really testing out potential talent.

Matt Stillman, programming executive: Part of my job was to go out and find chefs who might be able to be part of the network somehow, who we could plug into Chef du Jour.

Lou Ekus, media trainer: The biggest thing you have to teach most chefs is that it’s not about the food. It’s really about everything else that you want to say. The food is just the vehicle, and with chefs, they live and breathe the food. So you have to get them off the food, and you have to teach them that the food is just a crutch to help them do everything else they want to do.

Shep Gordon, agent: At that time, there wasn’t a chef in America making $100,000. They had no way to talk to their audience other than in their restaurants. Occasionally, they would do a local TV show, and occasionally they would do an off-site engagement. But in those places, they didn’t have their tools.

Emeril Lagasse, chef and host: I was contacted by a production company. They called me and they said, “How would you feel about doing television for a network that’s getting ready to start, all about food, and entertaining, and wine?” And I said, “Wow. A whole channel devoted to that? That’s pretty amazing.” I went to Nashville and I shot a pilot, and truthfully I didn’t really even know what a pilot was.

Alfred Portale, chef: Nobody in the industry really recognized at the time, or at least I didn’t really recognize, how powerful it was, honestly. I grew up watching Julia Child and Yan Can Cook and other television shows, but this was very, very different. I don’t think anybody really knew at the time how powerful it would be.

Lagasse: They wanted me to do a show called How to Boil Water. It was terrible. So I shot another pilot, Emeril & Friends. And that show was terrible. I got a call from Reese Schonfeld, and Reese said to me, “The shows that you’re producing for us right now are not good. You’re fired. But we think that you’re a great chef, and a great cook, and potentially could be a great teacher. Come to New York and let’s visit. You’re just not in the right environment.”

Schonfeld: It should be understood that no one had ever done this before, and no one knew how well it would work, and everything was experimental. And in that context, we tried to do the best we could.

Michael Lomonaco, chef and host: They had a big launch party for Emeril’s program at the Rainbow Room, and they invited New York chefs. Their focus in those years was really to be by, about, and for professional food people. Not just chefs, but just people who were professionally involved with food — they had great interest in getting the professional food world involved.

Lagasse: I went to New York, and after two days of meetings, it became obvious that, you know, I’m American schooled, I’m classically trained, why not just do a show about Emeril? Why not do the Essence of Emeril?

Langhan: I remember Reese just says, “Let him do whatever the hell he wants. What do we care? We don’t know anything about it.”

Marc Summers, producer and host: It was one of the few times that they were doing cooking as a regular feature on a network that wasn’t a highbrow sort of PBS-y kind of, “Let’s go to France, watch them make crêpes Suzette, and then come back and do it in our kitchen.” It was for the masses. It was general.

Clifford: It took off like crazy. It was amazing. Emeril really gave us glamour.

Ming Tsai, chef and host: Emeril put Food Network on the map. He did exactly what I was trying to do: He demystified food. Julia Child would make a coulibiac, which is poached salmon with bulgur wheat and mushrooms and brioche dough. Classic, and it’s delicious, but anyone watching that — which was usually my parents — was like, That looks awesome, I could never make that. Emeril made meat loaf. Emeril says, “Who’s had bad meat loaf? Let me show you how a chef makes meat loaf.” He brought in a band. There was no cooking show with a band, so now he has a band and somehow coins “Bam!” Can you imagine? Three letters almost solidify the entire Food Network. It was just crazy.

Lagasse: “Bam” came from the amount of shows that I was doing. I would go up to New York for one week each month and shoot eight shows a day, which is insane. Insane for the kitchen, and just insane for the crew. So “Bam” came from waking everybody up to finish the day, and that’s where it started.

Ruth Reichl, author: The way they shot in those days, I mean, they shot an entire season in a week; they did five shows a day. There were no retakes. It was like the crudest possible way to do TV. But it changed the world in a really dramatic way.

Behind the scenes at Emeril Live. Photo: Food Network / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Lomonaco: Nobody really knew what this thing was, right? There were not yet contests to try to find the next star. There weren’t people who were orienting their careers to being on TV, trying to reimagine what they did in order to be a “TV chef.” Food Network was taking people out of their kitchens and putting them in front of the camera. One appearance was like a screen test, the second appearance was the second test, and then you would go from there.

Langhan: What we found out was that a person’s potential success had a lot to do with their own passion. Viewers sense whether someone is doing this as a job, or whether they’re doing it because they love it. I’m not saying that’s 100 percent, but I still believe to this day that that was the most important difference between some people and others.

Tsai: They used to have a show called Dining Around where they went to a city or an area and interviewed three chefs. That was the first time I was ever on TV. I still remember what I said: “Hey, I’m Ming Tsai. I was born Chinese, I’m still Chinese, and today I’m going to actually cook a lamb dish.” It wasn’t really that funny, but it was an attempt at doing humor, which is better than apparently a lot of other chefs, who would say, “Hi. My name is Tom Jones. I like to cook lamb.” I had a little bit more personality than others, and because of that, they asked me to come back.

Reichl: When I first started writing about food, most of the chefs — generally, they were inarticulate. So you were thrilled when you got a Jacques Pépin or a Wolfgang Puck, who were so bright and articulate, but mostly, you’d go and try to interview these people, and they just didn’t have a lot to say. There was this change in the late ’70s, early ’80s, where suddenly you had young, college-educated, middle-class, very bright Americans going into the kitchen. Reese saw that, and saw that you could get a Mario Batali on the air, who could just spout extemporaneously brilliant stuff.

Schonfeld: It took one conversation to get Mario to agree to do this. Mario knew where the future was for him.

Mario Batali, chef and host: I didn’t really know a lot of people. I had just opened Pó. I met Jonathan Lynne, who worked there. He was a little guy and a bow tie. He looks, I don’t know, like a Hollywood kid. He said, “Listen, I would like you to come by and see about being on the Food Network.” And I said, “I don’t know, sure, whatever. I’ll come by.” I thought it was an interesting idea. I remember talking to Bobby Flay, and I said, “Bobby, what do you think about this ‘Food Network’?” He said, “I don’t think TV’s going to work out for food.” I think we both were like, maybe not, maybe, we’ll see.

Samuelsson: Mario knows so much about flavors, especially in the Italian space. And he articulates it in a very fun and funky way, so TV’s the perfect medium. He would be doing it whether a TV camera would be there or not, and I think that’s what separates the great ones. That’s why he’s perfect, why Bobby’s perfect.

Batali: At first, Molto Mario didn’t have guests at all. It was a silent room; you were trying not to crack up. They brought me back with a new producer and a new director and a new concept, which was with the three guests and the funny little kitchen with the fake fireplace. It was everybody I knew, from my restaurant staff to famous actors, people from the Sopranos, the Gyllenhaals, Michael Stipe — anybody I knew at that time that was coming to my restaurant. They were fun, they were telegenic, and most importantly, they had to be able to eat. You know, you start rolling that tape at 7:30 a.m., and whether you like it or not, if tripe’s going down, you’re going to put it in your mouth.

Reichl: I was on Mario’s show once, and I just couldn’t believe it, his mind goes a million miles an hour. I always thought he was very bright and personable, but it was like, with no notes, he could take any subject and just go off and give you the history of risotto or whatever. I think that one of the things that was really remarkable about that show was his respect for the audience. He did not talk down at all. He just talked to that audience as if he were talking to any friend. I just thought, there probably aren’t ten people on earth who could do this the way he’s doing it.

Batali: We were fast. We didn’t make a lot of mistakes. At one point, we were doing seven shows in one day, half-hour each. Started rolling the tape at 8 a.m., and we were done by 2 o’clock. I think I was the fastest guy there. When I was done, I would go to my restaurant and we would open for dinner, and I would work every night on the line.

Langhan: There were times when we used to finish taping a show in the studio and somebody from master control would be standing there waiting for the tape, and they would literally take it out and walk it down the hall and say, “Okay, this goes on in half an hour!”

Batali: Everyone wanted to be on Food Network. Bobby and I had good shows, and it was putting us on a national platform in a way that nothing else was for chefs. All the cooks wanted to be on it, particularly the New York chefs, because they saw it as an opportunity to promote their restaurants.

Lomonaco: Everyone had to create their own niche, and find that thing. Mine was like I was your next-door neighbor: “Michael lives next door, and let’s go to his house and see what he’s making tonight.”

Portale: Certainly, there were a lot of people who wanted to get on television and pitched shows and ideas because, you know, it’s very powerful. It sells books; it fills seats in restaurants. I also think some chefs thought of it like, “Oh, they’re not real chefs; they’re just TV chefs.” I think it might have gone either way with some people.

Bill Telepan, chef: I would do a little bit on the Today show and somebody would come into my restaurant and want to meet me because they saw me on the Today show. You could only imagine what that’s like if somebody is a regular on a TV show on the Food Network.

Salkin: Who really loved it best and first were kids. It’s what their mothers did.

Reichl: I don’t think Reese had anticipated that, but what he tapped into was the whole notion of the kitchen as a hearth and children being soothed by it.

Batali: The joke at Pó was when lunch customers would come in, our staff would come back with a certain amount of glee and say, “Your TV fans are here!” They knew because the people were either under 6 or over 80. At that point, who was watching TV at noon on a weekday? It was little tiny kids who hadn’t gone to school yet and their grandparents.

Lagasse: In the fourth or fifth season of Essence of Emeril, I was walking with Shep Gordon, and we were walking down Park Avenue together to have lunch, and all of a sudden, there was attention, there were cab drivers yelling out of the window, “Bam,” and there were people like, “Hey, kick it up a notch!” And we looked at each other and we said, “Holy smoke, I mean, what’s going on here? Something’s happening.”

Telepan: When I graduated CIA, it was 1987, so there was none of this at all. We didn’t know that we could all become TV stars. My goal coming out was to be like André Soltner and have one restaurant like Lutèce. When I finally had Telepan, it wasn’t enough. You needed to open more restaurants. You needed to be on television.

Tsai: I hate the term “celebrity chef” because Brad Pitt is not a “celebrity actor” and Tom Brady’s not a “celebrity quarterback.” He’s a quarterback! I’m a chef.

Batali: The customers that were coming into my restaurant, and certainly the customers that were going into Bobby’s, became more fan-y, which meant they were a little more touristy. But the ones that were fans of my show were also very much informed, like they were aware of the regional variations between southern and northern Veneto. They knew what prosciutto was; they knew what mortadella was; they knew what culatello could be. It was a more sophisticated way of looking at it. I mean, Food Network was New York.

In 1997, the E.W. Scripps Company agreed to take over a controlling interest in the TV Food Network. For many people, it marked the unofficial end of the network’s scrappy, start-up days.

Salkin: The network really was rooted in New York, at that time. These people felt that they had built something from scratch. And, in that period before the money, and before everything else, they took chances. What happens later is ultimately, around the late ‘90’s, Scripps comes in and becomes the majority owner, and moves a lot of the kind of administration and stuff to Knoxville. And the network becomes less rooted in New York. There was a real culture clash.

Schonfeld: They bought me out. And I left.

Salkin: Basically, the people in Tennessee thought the network was a joke run by urban imbeciles. They just thought this was a bunch of crazy urban people who did not understand the television business. These were just kooky food people who had been allowed to run wild with their little idea. Now, the television adults were coming in.

Stillman: People who were more seasoned television people saw the writing on the wall sooner than I did. Scripps was very conservative. Not in a political way, but they’re very conservative for television, and they are interested in making straightforward shows.

Lagasse: What happened is, they got off course, in my opinion. Management-wise, corporate philosophy–wise, and programming-wise, most importantly.

Summers: Chefs, all of a sudden, who basically, back in the day, were people who actually didn’t even graduate from high school or who had just come out of prison, were in the kitchen cooking your food, with the exception of a few fine-dining kind of places. Now, all of a sudden, it was the coolest thing in the world to be a chef.

Batali: Basically what was going to happen is that food programming was so popular, it was going to be even on the Syfy channel, so Food Network, instead of owning all the food programming, kind of chose their path. So the move was away from me and Bobby and Emeril and toward Rachael Ray, and more women not in chef coats, like Ina Garten. And it was a good move.

Tsai: It made the American palate and the American appreciation of food better. Like I said, people now know how to make a better meat loaf because of Emeril. And it has forced chefs, in a good way, to cook even more authentically. You have to cook better because people know.

Lagasse: The country has evolved from a gastronomic perspective. Now, who has made it evolve? I’m not gonna take the credit. But there’s a collaboration of people and writers who have elevated where we are in America with food and wine. I think that Food Network was part of that.

Order Highbrow, Lowbrow, Brilliant, Despicable: 50 Years of New York, a celebratory book chronicling the magazine’s history with powerful images and behind-the-scenes stories from staff and subjects.

Samuelsson has been the chef at Aquavit, as well as his own restaurants, including Red Rooster Harlem. He has also become a staple of food television. Moulton cooked in numerous restaurants before eventually working at Gourmet magazine. Lagasse was the chef at the iconic New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace before opening his own restaurant, Emeril’s, in 1990. Portale has been the chef at Manhattan’s Gotham Bar and Grill for more than three decades. Lomonaco has run some of New York City’s most prestigious kitchens, including 21 Club, Windows on the World, and currently, Porter House Bar and Grill. He hosted Michael’s Place from 1997 until 2000. In addition to hosting shows such as Unwrapped, Summers has also produced numerous shows on the Food Network. Tsai operated Blue Ginger restaurant in Boston for nearly 20 years, and has made numerous television appearances. Reichl is one of America’s most important food writers. In addition to her own books, she has served as the New York Times restaurant critic and as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. Batali and his business partners operate scores of restaurants around the country. Since hosting Molto Mario, he has become one of the country’s most prolific celebrity chefs. Telepan is one of the most respected “chefs’ chefs” in New York City. A pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, he has previously operated Judson Grill in midtown and Telepan on the Upper West Side.
How Food Network Turned Chef Culture Into Pop Culture