TV offers chefs a helping of fame

Food Network marks 10 years

October 29, 2003|By Kristin Eddy | Kristin Eddy,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - Chef Mario Batali was back in the kitchen on a Monday morning. The heat was on under a pan of polenta, the comforting smell of cooking onions perfumed the air over the stove and Batali, his gingery hair pulled back in a ponytail, sported his unconventional outfit of chef's jacket, frayed shorts, purple socks and orange clogs.

He might have been in any one of his acclaimed restaurants in this city, but instead he was on a set in one of the Food Network's studios, taping an episode of Molto Mario.

His line of sight, as he looked away from the artificial sunniness of the kitchen, met a darkened room lined with cables, prop carts and a slew of people there to help him entice an audience of millions, none of whom could taste or smell what he was making.

Batali's success was already evident even before his show debuted on television. But now his fame extends across the country, thanks to a regular spot on the Food Network, the cable channel that celebrates 10 years on the air next month.

As a network, it now reaches a considerable audience of more than 79 million subscribers from the United States to as far away as Polynesia. It still is not a powerhouse in terms of viewership. Nielsen Media Research reports that this year, Food Network has averaged 621,000 viewers, while another cable network, Lifetime, averaged 1.8 million. And CBS has averaged an audience of close to 11 million.

But the Food Network has, perhaps more than the other media, changed the way Americans have come to regard chefs, the food industry and the possibility of becoming good cooks themselves. It is safe to say that the network has added a new dimension to the idea of "TV dinners."

A show such as Food Finds takes viewers on a hunt for specialty foods and long-lost favorites. Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals appeals to home cooks who want family meals fast. And chefs like Batali have found that appearing on the network gives them a far greater level of fame than previously.

Karen Page, co-author with husband Andrew Dornenburg of Becoming a Chef, said the couple were frequent visitors to Batali's first restaurant, Po, when it was a "tiny little place." Yet the chef "wasn't even on our radar screen then," as someone to feature in the book, said Page. Batali is now on the back cover of the newest edition.

"Once his show came out, there were lines around the block for the restaurant," she said. The Food Network "had a huge national impact."

Other careers also took off on the network. Pastry chef Gale Gand of Tru restaurant in Chicago saw her fame explode once her show, Sweet Dreams, hit the airwaves three years ago.

The channel has helped promote dozens more chefs during the past decade, and offered programs on food history, food products and home-cook-oriented recipes and techniques. The lineup evolves regularly; four new shows debuted in March, including Roker on the Road, with television anchor Al Roker, and Lighten Up! which focuses on recipe makeovers.

Perhaps no show host has reaped more benefits from exposure on the network, as well as typified what a show there can do, than Emeril Lagasse. The chef, who made his reputation in New Orleans, delivered entertainment along with his cooking skills to a nationwide audience.

Along the way, his shows led to a line of products, from spices to cookware; took a charmed path to eager cookbook publishers; and introduced "Bam!" to millions of devoted viewers.

In an industry better known for producing food than talking about it, Lagasse brought a personable style to the subject and a playfulness that some food professionals have criticized as lacking dignity, despite its appeal for viewers.

It is possible that those involved in the network, when it launched in November 1993 as the Television Food Network, could not forecast how popular the idea would be.

That's not to say there wasn't a precedent for the little start-up network; the founder, Reese Schoenfeld, was co-creator of CNN. (The Tribune Co., owner of The Baltimore Sun, was an early investor and now owns 31 percent of the network.) It also helped that in the 1990s, cable service became a standard in homes, rather than a luxury.

But the early shows stumbled a bit along the way. For one thing, not everyone involved had a food background.

The network has gone through "radical changes, which is good and bad," said cookbook author and food writer James Villas. "To a certain extent, the network has been dumbed down."

While he admires the pioneering efforts of the network, likes a number of the program hosts, such as Sara Moulton, and has "tremendous admiration for the chances they took putting on the Two Fat Ladies," Villas said he is bothered by the network's tendency toward what he calls "childishness." A prime example, he said, is Lagasse, "who is one of the most gifted and brilliant chefs in this country. The world doesn't know he is a keenly intelligent, quiet, shy, gentleman.

"I would love to see more adult, serious programs," Villas said.

The Food Network's original lineup was small enough that it repeated six hours of shows four times a day and reached about 6 million cable subscribers. Some of the shows were reruns of programs from Julia Child and another television star, Dione Lucas, whose show featured classic recipes of the Cordon Bleu cooking school in the 1950s.

Now the network offers about 60 shows and is moving into new - and more elegant - quarters at a building complex that houses about two dozen food retailers along with other businesses.

Eileen Opatut, senior vice president for programming and production, attributes the network's success to helping viewers become "less intimidated in the kitchen."

"We are all for people getting back in the kitchen," she said. "Food is a positive force, and we have been part of the process."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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