NEW YORK — Talk about an unlikely recipe for success — a cable network dedicated to... food?
It may not seem even a little preposterous today, but when Food Network launched 20 years ago America was sitting at a very different dinner table. After all, this was before we’d learned to fetishize cupcakes, before Instagram made our every mouthful a shared experience, before vegetables had cult followings.
And yet this backwater network launched, plunking cameras in front of chefs — many of them truly not ready for prime time — and hoping for the best.
The gamble paid off. Two decades on, the Food Network has morphed beyond a television station that teaches us how to cook (more about that in a moment). It has become a lifestyle, a marketing behemoth turning chefs — and home cooks — into household names even, if not especially, with people who never cook.
“It surprised me at first. But I think now, it doesn’t surprise me,” longtime network star Bobby Flay said Thursday at a party to celebrate the 20-year milestone during the New York Wine and Food Festival.
When the network launched, Americans didn’t take food seriously. Less than a decade later, a culinary awakening — fueled in part by the network itself — allowed Food Network to succeed, Flay said.
Food Network didn’t invent the food celebrity — the fame of James Beard, Julia Child and others predate it by decades — but it codified it into an industry. And it did so with such efficiency, spawning the likes of Flay, Rachael Ray, Tyler Florence and Emeril Lagasse, that other networks were left scrambling.
In many ways, the network was in the right place at the right time. To Giada De Laurentiis, star of “Giada at Home” among other shows, the right time was 9/11 and the nesting instinct it triggered in so many Americans.
“I truly believe my success is because of 9/11. Had it not been for 9/11, I don’t know that I would be here,” she said. “It made them think twice about what was important in life.”
Today, of course, food television is a crowded field. Bravo helped redefine the reality segment with “Top Chef” and its various spinoffs. Gordon Ramsay spouts fire on Fox. ABC gave food a golden hour of daytime chat with “The Chew.” Even CNN and Travel Channel have pulled up a chair, snatching up Food Network alum Anthony Bourdain.
Still, Food Network — one of many lifestyle brands owned by Scripps Networks Interactive — touts enviable numbers, reaching some 100 million U.S. households, never mind programming in more than 150 countries around the world. It has its own magazine, its own lines of cookware and kitchen gear. Want Food Network wine or tablecloths? There’s a product for that.
Of course, that’s broad strokes history. There’s also plenty in those 20 years the network would rather forget. Paula Deen (conspicuously absent from the party) speaking her mind, anyone? Or not minding her diabetes. And there’s Robert Irvine’s little resume flub (the “Dinner: Impossible” star was fired for fabricating some of the more fantastic parts of his resume, but later returned with “Restaurant: Impossible"). Meanwhile, lower-tier talent love to grumble about stranglehold contracts that give the network near complete control over budding careers.
And then there’s the profitability algorithm, which goes something like: less cooking equals more viewers and sizzling ad dollars. It actually took years for the network to get profitable. And many say it did so by turning its back on some if its own fans and stars.
In those early red ink years, the network was known mostly for food television with a how-to attitude aimed at people who cook. But on television, personality trumps talent, entertainment trounces know-how. That spelled the demise of shows with chefs offering teachable moments at the stove.
To Irvine, it was a smart — and necessary — choice.
“We’ve all got choices now. And our choices are very, very different from what they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” he said. “The television world has become so cutthroat, they’ve got to continue coming up with better programing.”
So shows like Sara Moulton’s easy paced “Cooking Live” gave way to frenetic competitions like “Iron Chef,” ‘’Chopped” and “Rachael vs. Guy.” The switch from chefs to personalities, from information to entertainment, got ratings and advertisers, but triggered an MTV-style backlash.
Just as the music network was ridiculed for letting videos die, Food Network was ribbed for favoring reality TV over real cooking. Bourdain practically launched his post-Food Network career by bashing it — as well as some of its less pedigreed stars.
In response, much as MTV launched sister networks to recover its lost ground, Food Network in 2010 created The Cooking Channel, a back-to-basics, edgier sibling.
What about the next 20 years? It’s hard to imagine Americans tuning out food-as-entertainment. But that doesn’t mean Food Network gets an easy ride. Some of their biggest properties are feeling stale, have been shown the door (Lagasse, for example), or in Deen’s case simply imploded on their own.
Meanwhile, Food Network hasn’t launched a major celebrity since Guy Fieri won “The Next Food Network Star” in 2006, a lifetime ago in TV years.
“I think that Food Network is trying desperately to evolve,” said De Laurentiis. “They cannot stay the same. There is so much competition that there wasn’t 20 years ago when they started.
“They’re trying to evolve into something. They just are not sure what the next step is yet. They’ll get there.”