Journalist Allen Salkin’s book, From Scratch: Inside the Food Network (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013) made major waves in the food community. Detailing the 20-year history of the network, Salkin explores the good, bad and ugly. Saturday, Salkin will talk straight with several celebrity chefs about the Food Network at the Enjoy Arts & Tastes festival in St. Petersburg. Speaking to Creative Loafing from Houston, Salkin spoke about the Food Network’s identity crisis, how Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations almost never happened, and who’s leading the next-gen of food TV.
CL: This weekend, you’ll be leading a discussion about the Food Network with Scott Conant, Masaharu Morimoto, and Donatella Arpaia. What are you hoping to explore?
Allen Salkin: Most of the people at the Food Network aren’t saying a word about the book and wish it would go away. They don’t like their secrets being told. I’m hoping to get feedback, maybe prod them a little in the side with a fork.
What are some of the responses you’ve gotten to the book?
When I attended their New York Food & Wine Festival a few weeks ago, they didn’t want to give me an official press badge because they didn’t want me officially affiliated with the event.
Obviously you’ve slaughtered a sacred cow, Allen.
It’s a rags-to-riches success story. I told it in a sensitive way. I thought they’d be thrilled; it was an overall positive story. But they’re so squeamish about secrets being revealed.
Do you think that some of this backlash is because the food community isn’t used to dealing with journalists?
They’re not used to anything but fawning coverage. They’re used to questions from bobbleheads, they aren’t used to critical coverage. They didn’t realize whom they’d let into the hen’s nest.
Who did you talk to for the project? What kind of resources did you have access to?
Ex-employees are a great source. I talked to a lot of people who are no longer at the network. In 20 years of history, there are a lot of ex-employees. I did what I always do, and did what I promised when I first contacted the Food Network.
Do you think part of that reaction is because the Food Network seems to be in the middle of an identity crisis?
Absolutely. They’re 20 years old and don’t know who they are anymore. I’m hoping they can reinvent themselves again. But right now they’re artistically bankrupt, paranoid and scared for their jobs.
So what’s the new face of food television?
I think Yelp is the new face of food television. People don’t care about the best meatball on TV. They care about the best meatball in their town. Food television is sort of what rock ’n’ roll was in 1980; its best days may be behind it.
Who are some people in the food television arena that are doing progressive and groundbreaking work?
I love Nadia G from Bitchin Kitchen; she’s cooking up some new ideas. I’d place a big bet on what she’s got coming up; she’s the Elvira of cooking. … People are really into David Chang’s Mind of a Chef.
Yeah, and Anthony Bourdain has been involved with that.
You know the Food Network had Anthony Bourdain and couldn’t handle it. Two seasons of A Cook’s Tour and they told him that his best ratings were when he visited BBQ joints in the South, rather than for him to travel internationally. He left, did the pilot for No Reservations and they never got him back.
Do you think you’ll ever write another book?
I would do it again. It’s like giving birth sideways to a watermelon out of your ass, but I think it’s a delightful gumbo to consume.
See Allen Salkin lead a panel on the Food Network, Sat., Nov. 16, 10-10:45 a.m. at the Enjoy Arts & Tastes festival in St. Petersburg. $50, enjoyartsandtastes.com.