The Food Network, which launched twenty years ago this week, was the Starbucks of TV networks. To wit: It has been argued there have been three waves of American coffee consumption: (1) Supermarket brands like Maxwell House and Folgers. (2) Chains of decent quality, like Starbucks, that taught consumers that there is something better out there. (3) Increasingly discriminating and artisanal coffee vendors like Stumptown who treat beans as proper ingredients, not commodities, subsequently attracting more discriminating consumers. Much in the same way, Food Network was Wave No. 2 for cooking: It took an American public that largely didn’t know or care about cooking and turned them into foodies — which gave them the knowledge and skills to eventually turn their noses up at the network and move on. I was one of these viewers, my culinary obsession shaped from studying Mario Batali and Bobby Flay in middle school, and I later abandoned Food Network for blogs and Bravo’s Top Chef. But ironically, as the network has taken an aspirational step backwards and completely Folgers-ized itself, à la Wave No. 1, I — a man who spent an entire recent trip to Spain Instagramming photos of razor clams and thin-sliced hams — find myself watching it again.
I started watching the network in 1996, at age 11. I was probably partly attracted to it because, as a growing and still pudgy kid, I was hungry all the time. But more crucially, I bonded with my father over food, going with him to his work in Queens on Saturdays just to get lunch in Chinatown afterwards. I deeply wanted to be able to help him cook; sometimes he’d let me cut vegetables for gazpacho, but I sensed that when he complimented my meticulousness, it was really another way of saying I was slow at chopping. So I studied the Food Network, where Flay showed me how to properly dice an onion, Ming Tsai taught me about blanching, Batali explained the correct texture of pasta and the value of the leftover pasta water, and Emeril taught me that if you say “Bam!” when you cook, people will find it charming for a limited amount of time.
Food Network was the center of my culinary universe. Emeril’s Delmonico Steakhouse was the first fancy restaurant I ever went to, and my second was Flay’s Mesa Grill. Even as the network became more comfort-focused and less about chefs and more about cooks, with the post-9/11 ascension of Rachael Ray and Paula Deen, I was sustained by the network’s remaining quirky shows: Good Eats, Iron Chef, and Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour.
In college, when I was actually cooking for myself, I became a regular visitor to the Food Network’s website for their library of recipes — but I spent less and less time watching the actual channel. The lighter, emptier programming didn’t fill me up the same way, with the exception of Iron Chef America, which I watched religiously and analyzed later over the phone with my dad, like postgame commentators. (“Can you believe Ming Tsai blew up his duck’s skin with an air compressor, Dad!?” “It was the type of bold move that separates winners from losers, son.”)
In 2008, I stopped watching the Food Network entirely. Mario Batali, who I believe was cooking the best food in the history of the network, left Iron Chef America (to get nerdy, I’d argue his Parmigiano-Reggiano battle against Andrew Carmellini was the channel’s single best hour of programming ever. Batali served pasta in a wheel of cheese!), and I preferred the culinary shows on other networks, like Bravo’s Top Chef and Bourdain’s Travel Channel series, No Reservations. Most important, I had graduated college and was living in Brooklyn, in the middle of what would become a culinary revolution. I wanted to eat at and learn about the city’s restaurants, and the New York–based Food Network, despite its proximity, was indifferent. Blogs weren’t. Food Network didn’t care about Momofuku’s fried chicken, but Grub Street offered me this very important blog post on the matter that I remember reading and rereading and eventually reciting to anyone who would listen. Food Network preferred to show Guy Fieri screaming at yet another old man making boiled beef on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
Allen Salkin’s recent history of the network, From Scratch, explains that Food Network’s veering away from quality meals was a reaction to being “nibbled to death,” as execs called it internally: With other networks and the Internet taking little bites out of Food Network’s market share of foodies, the network turned into the skid, going after not those who loved food, but those who didn’t especially care about it. They made blatant rip-offs of popular reality and competition shows that just happened to be about food: The Next Food Network Star was their American Idol; Restaurant Stakeout was their Undercover Boss; Chopped was a cheaper Top Chef; Restaurant: Impossible is Kitchen Nightmares; The Great Food Truck Race was such a carbon copy of The Amazing Race that you almost have to admire it. (Executive 1: “The Amazing Race is crushing it and I heard food trucks are a thing.” Executive 2: “Okay, let’s make the title as close to The Amazing Race as possible, but maybe temper the excitement a little.”) And it all worked.
By 2010, Food Network was a top-ten cable network; 2011 was even bigger, hitting its peak as the seventh-ranked cable network in prime time on the back of Chopped All-Stars and a massive season of The Next Food Network Star (whose finale brought in 4.2 million viewers, winning the night on cable among adults 24 to 54). And then, suddenly, viewers lost their taste for it. In the first half of 2013, according to the New York Post, the network saw a 16 percent decline in total viewers from the year before. The third quarter showed less of a drop — it was only down 6 percent year-to-year in total viewers — but in the 18 to 34 demo, it was down 13 percent, indicating that they’re losing mostly young viewers, which is not where a network wants to be. By doing away with prime-time cooking shows, which they traditionally used as a talent incubator, in favor of reality shows or Diners, Drive-In, and Dives marathons, Food Network has failed to break a new star in seven years. The biggest new personality is Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, but she had already built a large following online before her TV show and even she isn’t at the household name level that Fieri, Ray, Deen, or Emeril once were. (Emeril got a freaking network sitcom! It was terrible. But he got it!) All trends die, and the Food Network has no backup plan.
What’s odd is that while my peers seem to be abandoning the network, I’ve been watching more Food Network than at any time since high school. Not because I no longer care about food — I care about it more than ever. (This past Saturday, I served twenty friends a seven-pound cured then braised then brûléed pork belly that I had to start cooking four days ahead of time.) Rather, the network has become my audio-visual comfort food: I turn it on when I want to watch TV but not watch TV. Like a diner meal, I forget each bite as soon as it’s chewed; the sustenance comes simply from being in a setting at which I can zone out and then leave feeling strangely relaxed, even if I’m not sure why. As I’ve accepted the network on this level, I’ve become more appreciative of its programming: The TV show I now most hope is on when I get home is Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. The show has gotten better, focusing less on generic diners and more on quirky, highly individual, and often ethnic restaurants. (I also learned how to tune out Fieri and focus more on how honored these restaurant owners are to share their life’s work with him.) And I welcome the hypnotic embrace of a Chopped marathon; as a simplified Top Chef that refreshes its contestants every episode, I get the same victory-defeat pathos with none of the burden of having to follow a story line.
Establishing yourself as a zone-out destination is not a terrible business plan: The ratings for HGTV — another network that many people spend hours on with little memory of — are only climbing. Food Network doesn’t have to veer back into giving advanced culinary insight, it just needs to come up with some new, remotely well-produced series to strengthen its spell. There may be no place for a chef like Ming Tsai on the network anymore, but there is always a place for something satisfyingly filling that you don’t ever plan for, you’re just happy it’s there. After all, Folgers is still the top-selling ground coffee in the U.S.