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Originally published Sunday, December 29, 2013 at 3:03 AM

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Allen Salkin’s ‘From Scratch’ boils down the Food Network

“From Scratch: Inside the Food Network” by Allen Salkin is an insider’s look at the television channel that helped launch the age of the celebrity chef.


Special to The Seattle Times

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“From Scratch: Inside the Food Network”

by Allen Salkin

Putnam, 434 pp., $27.95

Emeril. Rachael. Paula. Anthony. Giada. Mario. Jamie. Guy. Ina. Bobby. Tyler. For some readers, those first names need no further explanation. Those are the readers who will feast on “From Scratch: Inside the Food Network,” by veteran New York journalist Allen Salkin.

For many television viewers, including my gourmet-cook wife, the first names signify idols who show up daily on her kitchen television screen.

For readers who have never viewed the cooking shows on the Food Network cable-television channel, those first names might mean little, or absolutely nothing.

Some of those readers might find the saga of the channel’s creation and growth interesting as a business narrative, if not a cooking narrative. But others among those readers will probably feel as if they are drowning in a sea of unfamiliar personalities, pushed under the water’s surface in part by Salkin’s unwise decision to refer to all the celebrity cooks throughout the book by first name only after being introduced. (The author explains his decision to employ first names only by saying “that’s how it’s generally done at Food Network…”)

The Food Network made its debut during November 1993, the brainchild primarily of Joe Langhan, an introverted media executive employed by the company based in Rhode Island that owned the Providence newspaper, commercial-television stations and a small cable-television operation.

Langhan was not a foodie; he survived primarily on his nightly serving of pizza. But he conceived of a round-the-clock food channel to break new ground and perhaps earn a profit for his employer.

Huge portions of the book chronicle the struggle Langhan and other Food Network executives faced to find investors and advertisers and studio space and experienced backstage production crews and — most of all — actual cooks with the charisma to shine on television.

Salkin punctuates the roller-coaster business narrative with anecdotes — sometimes sober, sometimes gossipy — about the program hosts who became celebrities. (such as Mario Batali, who got his start in Seattle.)

Emeril Lagasse became the new network’s initial celebrity-chef/show host. A Portuguese American from Rhode Island who had become a successful New Orleans restaurateur, Lagasse did not adapt easily to performing on television. Eventually, though, he cast off his inhibitions in front of the cameras and became a memorable entertainer as well as a first-rate cook.

In my opinion, he is the best developed real-life character in the book, and the most fascinating. His eventual demise at the Food Network, after a good run of a decade, is sad because he adapted poorly to changing viewer interests.

Paula Deen joined the lineup, and the book benefits from the flexibility of the publisher, which allowed a cost overrun so that Salkin could add a section about her downfall earlier this year.

That downfall began with seemingly racist remarks Deen made in a lawsuit against her unrelated to her Food Network program. In the just-added section, Salkin concentrates on how Deen herself and her advisers threw oil on an already smoldering stovetop by making just about every public-relations mistake imaginable.

Salkin concedes that, “It Iwasn’t easy to resist food metaphors while writing this book!” It also was not easy resisting them while writing this review: “From Scratch” will constitute a delicious multicourse meal for some readers and equate to an overcooked slab of meat for other readers.

Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books. He is currently researching a biography of Garry Trudeau.



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