I have watched Food Network more or less from its inception, when my cousin called me and told me “you need to watch this show, this guy is about to set himself on fire.” Emeril Lagasse never did, in fact, combust, to my eternal shock (go back and watch some of the older episodes before Emeril became Emeril (TM), it’s astonishing how close the man lets his chef’s whites get to an open flame, and that’s coming from someone with enough burns to look like a human Dalmatian. But I digress), but at some point I stopped watching out of ironic detachment and started legitimately enjoying the process of watching others cook.
That genuine love of cooking shows – which teach, give inspiration, and entertain – has led me to fall a bit out of love with Food Network and its reductio ad absurdum of what makes it great. The stable of familiar chef and cook personalities? Now are near caricatures of themselves. I LOVE Good Eats, but FN’s insistence on putting Alton Brown on 12 hours a day in shows like Cutthroat Kitchen is starting to grate. The quick cuts that give the shows a scripted-TV feel? Try to count how many cuts there are in an average episode of Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives: I guarantee you’ll give up after 30 seconds when you hit double digits and never be able to watch the show again.
This book succeeds most when exploring that – from its ramshackle days of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, to the overconfidence of those who challenged the format successfully, to the present state of Food Network being the establishment with early challengers like Top Chef and Master Chef and the like taking inspiration from its golden era. I had always wondered what happened to the quieter Food Network personalities like Sara Moulton, Jaques Torres, and Gail Gand, and the book doesn’t spare criticism for the network while not descending into a tell-all.
It fails somewhat by including as many behind-the-scenes executives as it does – I couldn’t keep them all straight, and especially in the tidal wave of familiar faces, the lesser knowns were going to suffer by comparison. Even so, there were too many, and only with distinct “narrative arcs” (for lack of a better non-fiction term). This is not a short book, and the inside-baseball stuff was interesting only in as much as you can follow it – fewer exec stories with more background to flesh out their perspective would have been helpful.
All in all, an interesting read, but not anything I’d recommend to anyone but Food Network junkies like myself.