‘From Scratch’: the creation of an unlikely cable TV/food empire

fromscratch1You don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy Allen Salkin’s new book — “From Scratch” (Putnam) — about the creation of The Food Network 20 years ago, and its turbulent but highly successful history since then.

Salkin researched and writes the story so well that it has the energy of a great show business novel, with enough interesting elements to attract a large audience.

It’s a TV business story, it’s a tale of the rise of the food and restaurant cultures over the past two decades, and it’s a look at a wide array of fascinating personalities who flourished (and fell) after the creation of a cable channel devoted to food.

“From Scratch” shows how talk of an impending 500 channel cable universe in the early 1990s had media people scrambling for ideas that could support new channels in the vein of CNN and MTV and Lifetime.

Salkin introduces us to a pizza-eating, hard-working cable TV executive in Rhode Island — Joe Langhan — who came up with the idea of a food network after a meeting with the director of new business at Johnson & Wales in Providence.

fromscratch2Combining the proven popularity of long-running PBS cooking shows, with the food/lifestyle explosion brought about by Martha Stewart, Langhan and company soon found themselves cranking out cheap 24/7 programming in rundown studio/office space in Manhattan.

The new network tapped into a pool of popular TV personalities (Robin Leach), falling stars (Bill Boggs) and Manhattan foodies who quickly proved the viability of the idea.

“From Scratch” goes on to show us the corporate intrigue that repeatedly shook-up the management of the cable channel, as well as the arrival of then-unknown chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali who quickly became stars who were able to parlay their cable fame into food empires.

The book opens very dramatically with the decision to fire Emeril in 2007 after a decade in which he and the Food Network rose to prominence. It was a turning point when the company weighed the value of an aging “star” dedicated to food and restaurant culture with his escalating salary demands.

The numbers-crunching executives decided to go in a different direction.

Salkin takes us through the transition from serious food people to personalities like Rachael Ray and Paula Deen who had a much more down to earth approach to cooking and who had the charisma to make fans out of viewers who rarely used their kitchens.

Near the end of the book, Salkin writes about Lagasse’s central misunderstanding of the TV business which had made him a star: “It was not the network’s job to teach or to have a conscience or a memory or to always put something beautiful on a plate. The network’s prime directive was to sell as many Ginsu knives, boxes of detergent, Corollas, and breath mints as it could for paying advertisers. Ken Levy, the Johnson & Wales administrator who planted the seed of an idea in Joe Langhan’s mind that became (the Food Network), had backed his school out of the deal in the early days because he recognized that it was not going to fulfill his institution’s core mission: to educate.”

The line from Julia Child to Guy Fieri is expertly traced in “From Scratch” and the result is a rare non-fiction book with the narrative pace of the juiciest fiction.

Joe Meyers