Get the inside dish: How did the Food Network go sour?

“I would always rather go down fighting as who I am than try to change to meet some popular idea of what I’m supposed to be.” -Allen Salkin

Last week, I had the pleasure to chat with Allen Salkin, nationally-renowned investigative journalist and food critic whose latest book, “From Scratch: Inside the Food Network” will be featured this week at the TC Jewish Book Series. The book offers a fascinating and exhaustive history of what started as the “Television Food Network” and now flounders as the 24-hour Guy-Fieri-Heart-Attackathon Network.

Many will remember a golden age in programming for the network around the late 90’s/early 00’s: Molto Mario, East Meets WestGood EatsThe Naked ChefEmeril Live, and the dazzlingly mythic Iron Chef (Japan.)

Now, if you tune in to Food Network starting at 6pm, here’s your lineup for a Wednesday evening: four episodes of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives (6-8pm), two episodes of Mystery Diners (8-10), Restaurant: Impossible (10-10:30), then another two hours of “Triple-D” and Mystery Diners to round out your night. That’s a whole lot of Guy Fieri, diner-related content, and reality show nonsense.

So what happened?

“The heart of Food Network,” Salkin told me plainly, “is that there is no heart.”

Salkin’s story is of a network that began, in the early 1990’s, with good intentions: a 24-hour television channel devoted to good food and instructional cooking. Programming from those early days included the revered Frugal Gourmet, archived episodes of Julia Child, and a little-known but charismatic young chef named Emeril Lagasse. As the network grew in popularity, so too emerged the bold personalities of Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Jamie Oliver, Alton Brown and others.

With shows like Good Eats and Iron Chef, Food Network took creative risks that brought unique programming to what could have been the bland, run-of-the-mill “how-to” style content you’d be likely to see in five minute segments on Good Morning America.

But as quickly as ratings grew, so too did the sway of commercial interests.

For me, the shift for the network can be seen in the story of Mario Batali. Molto Mario was launched in 1997; here you had an authentic Italian chef, fat and ebullient, crafting mouth-watering Neapolitan recipes and clearly enjoying every last morsel of the fruits of his labor.

Suddenly, he was gone, and there appeared Giada De Laurentis, with Everyday Italian. Giada was beautiful, thin and elegant. Her cuisine was also Italian and certainly looked delicious. But I didn’t believe she actually ate any of what she cooked. What happened to Mario?

“Mario’s relationship with the network was very hot and cold,” Salkin told me. “The advertising department never liked him because he wasn’t getting female viewers. And that was whom they were selling ads for. TV business is about selling ads.

“He was in Rome and wanted to make a dish featuring tripe (cow intestines.) ‘No, no no,’ the network said. ‘You have to make chicken.’ That was the signal of the end. Giada was ‘everyday Italian’ in the post Rachael Ray era. All they wanted from Mario was to continue to be an Iron Chef.”

And so began the slow decline that has led us to actually wanting to Dive out a window if we have to watch Guy ambush another Diner or Drive-in. Sure, there have been bright spots: the television birth of Anthony Bourdain, the surprisingly fun reality competition Chopped, and a few others.

But the bastardization of Iron Chef America, the buttergasms of Paula Deen, and something called a “Kwanzaa Cake” by Sandra Lee are just a few examples of just how low Food Network has stooped for the purposes of satisfying the appetites of advertisers instead of viewers.

Is Food Network itself to blame? Or is it a victim of the “reality-show-ificiation” of television as a whole? After all, the days of MTV and VH1 playing music have been all but forgotten, the last vestiges swiftly blown away by the Axe Body Spray sea breezes of Jersey Shore.

“From Scratch” author Allen Salkin.

Yet our society’s obsession with the food business has never been stronger. Indeed, “foodie culture” and a strong spirit of experimentation abounds. Crowd sourcing, particularly in the form of restaurant review apps like Yelp and Open Table, have democratized the landscape, and new original programming should be ripe for a network that was once ahead of its time.

“Food Network has simply stopped taking chances,” Salkin lamented. “If someone walked in there now with the modern equivalent of a cross between a dubbed Japanese game show and American Gladiator (i.e. the original Iron Chef), they’d say no.”

With the proliferation of online media content, Food may soon face its day of reckoning. Increasingly, consumers are directly accessing the content they want, and by-passing traditional advertising-supported content from cable providers.

Will this sea-change force Food Network to, quite literally, go with it’s gut?

Will it, to paraphrase Salkin, go down fighting with tripe, or settle being the chicken it thinks the world wants it to be?

The Twin Cities Jewish Book Series presents “Inside Dish: Get Juicy with Allen Salkin and Andrew Zimmern,” Thursday February 26th at 7:30pm at the St. Paul JCC. Tickets are $25 and include a free copy of “From Scratch: Inside the Food Network.” I highly recommend the book not just as a history of the network, but as a document of the evolution of the television industry. Also, how could you miss a chance to see Andrew Zimmern?

This post was written by Max Leibowitz and originally published on TC Jewfolk. Follow TC Jewfolk on Twitter: @tcjewfolk.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 02/26/2015 - 11:23 am.

    food network

    Much like HGTV the network has sadly moved towards mainly reality tv.

  2. Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 02/26/2015 - 11:26 am.

    How is this different

    From what happened to other formally excellent cable channels that completely sold out – Bravo (formerly committed to high brow drama and arts), Discovery (formerly committed to just that), The Learning Channel (TLC), Arts and Entertainment, and so on. There was period of time in the 90’s where you could find thoughtful enlightening stuff any night of the week on cable. Sometime in the early 2000’s that all changed. Don’t really know why – I stopped watching that dreck long ago.

  3. Submitted by Andy Dunn on 02/26/2015 - 02:41 pm.

    Cooking Channel?

    What’s really sad is how quickly their spin-off Cooking Channel devolved into travelogues. They did have a few traditional stand-and-stir shows at the beginning with reruns of older FN shows such as “Good Eats” and “Unwrapped” to fill in the gaps, but now, about three years after its debut, it’s mostly TV personalities eating their way across the country. To avoid overlap, you have one show about barbecue, one about cookies and baked goods, one about pizza, etc. The old FN shows are now on later at night or have a “showcase” on Fridays.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 02/27/2015 - 08:50 am.

    “…at least Emeril can cook.”

    “Sure, there have been bright spots: the television birth of Anthony Bourdain,” writes the author. Indeed.

    In his seminal 2000 book, Bourdain (himself sounding like a biker/chef) derides the rise of television “chefs,” specifically Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay. He reduces the flame somewhat by admitting that a trusted friend assures him that “at least Emeril can cook.”

    Bourdain also hinted at discussions for a TV deal. He got his, stopped cooking and started traveling. At least Anthony is/was the “real deal,” CIA diploma and all.

  5. Submitted by Sean Darby on 04/24/2015 - 06:51 pm.

    Sadly, I still pay for this

    I don’t know why I even bother looking anymore at the listings. It’s always the same crap shows dominating the line-up (with shameless repitition). I started off with the network watching Laura Calder, Anna Olson, Michael Smith, Anthony Sedlak, Ina Garten, Bobby Flay, Ricardo Larrivee, the Iron Chefs and a little bit later Chuck Hughes (I watch Food Network Canada). There were always the shit shows on the side (mostly reality shows) and I probably watched the odd one but they were in the minority and the network was nothing without the real players. Some of these chefs still air but their viewings are few and far between. Top Chef ( and Top Chef Canada) are the only bright stars but like Christmas presents coming once a year. I understand that some of these chefs have probably moved on from Food Network but contract renewals or decent replacements have long since been non-existent opting for sub-par (and I think somewhat trashy) shows instead.

  6. Submitted by Chad Johnson on 10/23/2015 - 02:11 am.

    Cooking

    I have also read this book From Scratch: Inside the Food Network and its one of the best books which I have read related to cooking. I usually go through the blogs of Allen Salkin they keep me update with the cooking industry. Here is some useful information related to this at https://www.primecard.com/restaurant/moon-thai-japanese-weston .

  7. Submitted by David Hamel on 11/07/2015 - 07:25 am.

    food network

    If I have to see one more cupcake contest I am going to puke. Really sad. The channel is unwatchable!

  8. Submitted by Jacquelyn Tillison on 11/08/2015 - 07:03 pm.

    Programming Content

    I love to watch the Food Network and it always inspires me to create new dishes and appetizers. I do, however, get tired of DDD, Chopped( all versions), as well as the baking shows. It’s overkill. The informative cooking shows are always the ones that push me to run to the market and prepare something new. It’s exciting as well as satisfying when you’re able to create a tasty meal. I would like to see more informative as well as fun programming. Just this viewers personal opinion.

  9. Submitted by Roger Dalton on 01/11/2016 - 08:10 am.

    Food Nut-work

    Finally, I come across someone with my very same thoughts! Not only do I miss real instructional cooking shows in prime time, but nowhere do I see real people judging any of the cooking “contests, challenges” – whatever the nut-work calls them. All of the judges are “insiders” themselves – food writers, chefs, etc. WE consumers go to the restaurants, eat the food and pay for it. If FN is going to continue with Grocery games, Worst Cooks, Next Network Food Star (AKA next Grocery Games judge), then put the consumers who frequent your restaurants and pay the bills on as judges!!

  10. Submitted by Monique Smith on 11/17/2016 - 08:09 pm.

    Food Network Went South

    What happened to the Food Network is clear. Some genius replaced actual cooking shows with ridiculous competitions and bad hosts. The true chefs are no longer featured.

    Giada just recently learned to cook the 1st recipe she didn’t steal from someone else. Trisha Yearwood needs to stick with singing because I can find her “family” recipes in 1/2 dozen cookbooks at any given library in Atlanta. Does any adult paying for this channel actually care about the kid championships??

    I do enjoy Chopped but IMMEDIATELY move on when that Alex Guarnaschelli is a judge. I do believe she won an Iron Chef title by accident and now she knows she must tear up every contestant to validate herself in her own mind. Get rid of that hack. Maybe she should try an eating competition…

    What is the purpose of the Beat Bobby Flay? He’s a has-been. Maybe try to beat Ina Garten or Amanda Freitag. Makes more sense to me. It looks totally rigged to me.

    Good luck Food Network. Yaaaawwwnnn

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