Allen Salkin Digs Up Dirt on Food Network Stars

By Kelly Dobkin  |  October 3, 2013
Credit: Jonathan Bloom

Allen Salkin, a former reporter for the New York Times released a meticulously researched tell-all of sorts on The Food Network this week, called From Scatch: Inside the Food Network. In this 400-odd-page tome, he traces the history of the channel and uncovers some surprising facts and, of course, scandal. In the process, he turns up a fair amount of dirt on many Food Network stars - including peripheral influences like Martha Stewart and Julia Child. And how Emeril Lagasse, the man who essentially created the Network's early fanbase, was unceremoniously fired for refusing to change his winning formula. We caught up with Salkin to dish all about the book and the juicy backstories of some of the most famous food TV celebs.

Zagat: What made you want to write this book?

AS: When I was working at the New York Times, I went down to SOBE Wine & Food Festival in February in 2008. I was amazed to see all these chefs with their handlers and talent agents and bodyguards - the fans come out, on crutches some of them, to pay $150 to catch a glimpse of Rachael Ray from a distance. I said, "How the hell did this happen that these chefs became stars?" When I left the Times I realized that the task might fall to me to tell the story of how that happened. I saw a great big part of pop culture that had not been properly chronicled. So what I do is I collect information, and I turn it into stories that people like to read. It’s like that SNL thing with John Malkovich and he’s like “I find pieces of driftwood and I sell them.” And that’s it. I think it's something people want to read about.

Zagat: You revealed some interesting facts about many major food celebrities including Rachael Ray, Ina Garten, Bobby Flay. Any negative feedback thus far from these stars?

AS: I tried to tell what I think is a great American business story covered in the candy of juicy tidbits about stars that we love. To answer your question directly, I think chefs have gotten used to way too much fawning press coverage. There are too many food bloggers writing breathlessly about the brilliance of the latest meatball. So, yes, I’ve gotten some feedback form food stars who are surprised by how they’re portrayed. They’re used to nothing but hagiography. This is how it is though - unvarnished. It’s an ongoing wonderful soap opera. These are all the players. My job as a journalist is to get people to spill. Hopefully people see that I handled it with some grace. And by the way, there’s stuff I didn’t put in.

Zagat: Oh, I’m sure.

AS: Not every philandering chef or cocaine-snorting food celebrity had their secrets revealed here.

Zagat: Food TV stars are so deitized in this country these days, but as you and I know, many of these chefs have very dark pasts, and personalities to go with them.

AS: Chefs got into the business because they love the adrenaline and the chaos and the heat of the kitchen. These are not goody two shoes. They are not your A-students in high school. It’s always been a challenge for the Food Network, this conservative Midwestern company, to try to make these crazy chefs safe for mass consumption. In so many cases, it has backfired. From Robert Irvine’s inaccurate resume to Paula Deen.

Zagat: Which food celebrity in your research did you find had the most surprising backstory, the most dirt?

AS: Let’s put it this way, if you asked Bobby Flay where he went to college, he went to UCLA, which is the University of the corner of Lexington Avenue. When I signed his copy of his book I told him he is the hero of the book. He's the one guy that's managed to survive, and basically he’s just a New York street kid who was able to suss out who’s got the power. He’s got those cold calculating blue eyes and he just figures it out. Sometimes I ask myself, what would Bobby Flay do? He’s the least neurotic person I’ve ever met. Also chicks dig him.

Zagat: You talk a lot about Emeril’s plight in the book and his unceremonious firing. Does what happened to Emeril in some way reflect a change that happened in TV on a larger scale?

AS: Food Network is not in the business of teaching people to cook or improving our knowledge about kale. Food Network is in the business of getting people to watch more Food Network. It’s always been about selling advertising to a target demographic, and advertisers tend to like young people. I’m not going to say that they wanted to find the next Real Housewives, but the network saw that the television food pie was having a lot of other bites taken out by challenges on other networks, especially Top Chef. And the network felt they were way too tied to a show that was taking an hour every night of prime time. Scripps is not a company that likes spending heavily on programming.

In order to take the gamble to open up the schedule to new kinds of shows, they felt that they had to get rid of Emeril Live as his audience got older. They felt that he was not going to be able to change to appeal to a younger demographic. They tried to convince him to go on Iron Chef America, believing that would rebrand him. But he was treated shabbily. I know television is a brutal business, but there was a way. They could have made that show an 11 PM show or a half-hour or make it one night a week or something other than just, “Oh, thanks so much for your service, see you later.”

Zagat: What I noticed also is that a lot of the early stars of the Food Network were men and most of the megastars (Giada, Rachael Ray, e.g.) that came out of early aughts were women. Was this due to some kind of “Mommy effect” of everyone wanting to see friendly comforting women post 9/11?

AS: Absolutely - I think that’s 100% right. Most chefs were males for the entire history of chefs. Yeah, but after 9/11 the network made a conscious decision that it needed to deliver more comfort food. Rachael Ray was the prototype. Her show debuted in November of 2011. After that, just one after another, they developed what they now call the “wonder woman.” Giada, if not mommy, she’s your ideal best friend if you were a woman. As a man, she’s the girlfriend that you always wish you had. Ina Garten - kind of that comfortable nervous giggling aunt. Paula - the indulgent grandma. And even Sandra Lee showing how to please your man and still be a career woman. She’s definitely the most reviled of the stars. 

Zagat: I think it was a shock to many people to see a cooking show that involved opening a packet of McCormick seasoning.

It’s crazy to us, because we know better but these were like breadcrumbs leading some people back to the kitchen who had lost the way.

Zagat: Then you have people like Mario Batali on his show Molto Mario in the ‘90s, so ahead of his time, telling people how to make their own pasta like an Umbrian grandmother. Then cut to commercial and you’ve got ads for Progresso Soup.

AS: The advertising department hated him. He was delivering the wrong demographic to them. They want to be able to sell Progresso soup. He was telling people to make pasta like some hill town in Umbria. There was always pressure from the ad dept to get rid of Mario. The marketing people said, "No, he’s a big star, he turns out fans at food festivals. He gets us pop culture notice - we need him."

Zagat: Do you think Paula Deen will eventually return to TV?

AS: Yes, not on Food Network. But maybe more important to her and her team: even if she’s back on TV, even if she’s making successful food festival demo appearances, she’s never going to be the billion dollar brand they thought she was going to be. They thought this was the next Sara Lee or Betty Crocker (even though she’s a fictional character). She’s tarnished.