Fired by the Food Network: ‘A Final Toast to Emeril Live’ by Allen Salkin

A couple of weeks’ ago, I celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Food Network at a party in Manhattan’s trendy Flatiron district.

Perched on a $20,000 sofa,  I took in the room.

There was Joe Langhan, the Food Network visionary, with Reese Schonfeld, the founding president. Reese had also launched CNN for Ted Turner. 

The party doubled as the book launch for Allen Salkin who was busy signing copies of his absorbing new work, “From Scratch: Inside the Food Network.” 

At the beginning, a channel dedicated to cooking was widely seen as a folly. Nuts!

  • It was implausibly backed by the #1 media company in the smallest U.S. state, Rhode Island.

Food is now a Top 10 cable channel:

  • It reaches 102 million US subs.
  • Annual ad revenues round up to $1 billion!

Like no other book in the expanding ‘network launch’ genre, Salkin captures the massive odds overcome by a cast of imperfect but dedicated characters as they set about creating what became a worldwide programming franchise.

The most memorable Food Network character was Emeril Lagasse.

  • Joe Langhan says that of all the on air talent who he assembled to launch the channel, based on low ratings for his first two shows Emeril was the one who he judged as the least likely to become one of America’s most beloved TV personalities. 
  • But the initial focus groups indicated that people liked him, so he was given another show called “Essence of Emeril.”
  • I met Emeril several times when I was consulting on Food’s first international forays.
  • He was gracious and warm, and incredibly hard-working. He deserved every bit of his rocketing fame.

But then, like dozens of the talent and suppliers who had transformed long-shot cable channel start ups into billion-dollar enterprises, Emeril just was not cutting it any more. It was time to go, thank you so much Emeril.

Allen Salkin captures the sadness of that moment in this extract, which can be read in full here. And then go buy the book!

Emeril Lagasse and Martha Stewart
Emeril Lagasse and Martha Stewart

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A Final Toast to Emeril Live
by Allen Salkin,
Author From Scratch: Inside the Food Network (Putnam)

“I have never met another guy who could walk into a room with, like, two hundred people and somehow find the one person that needed the hug the most,” says a tearful Susie Fogelson as she raises a champagne glass to Emeril Lagasse.

The head of marketing for Food Network, Susie pauses to avoid choking up in front of thirty executives and staffers gathered in the network’s central kitchen in New York City. “He would be able to find the person, like a magician. ‘Someone told me it’s your birthday. How old are you, twenty-seven?’ And she’s like ninety-two.”

Emeril could have used a hug himself. After a ten-year run, Food Network had just killed Emeril Live, his cooking show that had debuted in 1997 with a band and a live audience. It was a genre-bending formula that quickly made Emeril a household name and his kitchen catch-phrases “Bam!” and “Let’s kick it up a notch!” a part of pop culture.

But now, a few weeks before Christmas 2007, the cameras have been switched off in the sixth-floor studio and the last burner extinguished. The executives are trying to honor his accomplishments, but Emeril’s shock is setting in, his mind wheeling between disjointed thoughts: “Why are they doing this? Budget? Ken’s not here? He didn’t even call me? How can this be real?”

Ken Lowe, the chief executive of Scripps, the parent company of Food Network, has been a dinner guest at Emeril’s home. But today Ken has not made the trip to New York from corporate headquarters in Cincinnati.

The network president, Brooke Johnson, stands near Susie amid the orange cabinets and cutting boards. Brooke takes a small sip of champagne, and her calm feline eyes betray little.

Susie, tall with curly chestnut hair, is having a hard time. By tradition, each on-air talent at Food Network has one executive he or she is closest to, the person they call for inside information. For Emeril it is Susie. When the head of marketing, who’d hired Susie, left three years ago, Emeril had phoned Brooke and insisted that Susie take his place.

As she sees the famous chef’s heavy bulldog face, she flashes back to seven years earlier, when she moved to Food Network from Nickelodeon. Back then, most viewers thought Food was the Emeril Network. His show was on every weeknight at 8 p.m. and he overshadowed all the other stars. When the network, marginally profitable in 2000, wanted to raise its profile, it didn’t trot out Bobby Flay or Mario Batali. Emeril was its million-dollar man in chef’s whites, the first food TV star to be signed to a seven-figure contract. It was actually only around $333,334 a year for three years, but the network wanted to impress affiliates with its financial health and commitment to its ratings star, and trumpeted it as a million-dollar deal.

Susie had gone on a forty-day promotional tour with him doing dinners and cooking demonstrations — Emeril Salutes L.A., Emeril Salutes San Francisco, Boston, etc. He would rush out to a kitchen station in a ballroom or convention center and the gathered advertisers, local cable company executives, and fans who had either bought or won tickets would stand and whoop with glee. He’d give a quick talk about what he loved about the city’s food, demonstrate one of his recipes, and then pose for photos with admirers.

Emeril had friends everywhere. After each event, he would take Susie and his entourage to dinner. She had known his bombastic TV shows where a chef stood behind a counter demonstrating how to make personality from watching him for years at home, but at the dinners, Emeril showed a sweetness and gentleness she had not imagined, his big soft hands gesturing slowly as he spoke, his Antaeus cologne radiating a warm, embracing scent. He had a sly twinkle in his eye and radiated the deep confidence of someone who knew who he was in the world. On Emeril Live, all he had to say was “let’s add some more gah-lic,” and the audience — his audience, the people who lined up week after week to fill his bleachers — would burst into applause and cheers. Before commercial breaks, Emeril would set down his spatula, rush over to the band, and grab a pair of drumsticks, showing skills on the skins he’d learned as a musical prodigy on the high school drum team. Everything had come together and he was on top.

But now, as he is toasted in the Food Network kitchens in 2007, Emeril acknowledges the good wishes as his heart grows heavier and his anger percolates. How did this day come? he asks himself.

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Reprinted by arrangement with G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright 2013 by Allen Salkin.
Audio copyright 2013 Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. This recording may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without permission from Penguin Audio.

FROM SCRATCH -COVER-PR-Materials-by Allen Salkin

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Speaking Engagement

New York Television Festival

Developing Unscripted Series
The demand for original, attention-grabbing unscripted formats and series has reached an all-time high.
This panel will provide insight on the buyers, the players, the rules of the game, and, most importantly, how non-fiction and documentary storytellers can find long-term artistic success in the industry.

Dave Mace, Vice President of Non-Fiction and Alternative Programming, A&E
Meghan O’Hara, Co-Founder and Executive Producer, HonestEngineTV
Ethan Goldman, Executive Vice President, Development, Warrior Poets
Peter Hamilton, Moderator

Saturday, October 26th, 3:45 PM
Tribeca Cinemas, 54 Varick Street, Manhattan

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