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Food Network: 20 years of changing food culture

  • Rachael Ray attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Rachael Ray attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Emeril Lagasse attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Emeril Lagasse attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Giada De Laurentiis attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Giada De Laurentiis attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Guy Fieri, right, and Trisha Yearwood attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Guy Fieri, right, and Trisha Yearwood attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Masaharu Morimoto attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Masaharu Morimoto attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Ted Allen, left, and Guy Fieri attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Ted Allen, left, and Guy Fieri attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Katie Lee attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Katie Lee attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Trisha Yearwood attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Trisha Yearwood attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Guy Fieri attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Guy Fieri attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Emeril Lagasse, left, and Alden Lovelace attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Emeril Lagasse, left, and Alden Lovelace attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Nadia Giosia attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Nadia Giosia attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Eden Grinshpan attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Eden Grinshpan attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Rachael Ray and her husband John Cusimano attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Rachael Ray and her husband John Cusimano attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Debi Mazar attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Debi Mazar attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Robin Leach attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

    Robin Leach attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

  • Rachael Ray attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Emeril Lagasse attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Giada De Laurentiis attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Guy Fieri, right, and Trisha Yearwood attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Masaharu Morimoto attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Ted Allen, left, and Guy Fieri attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Katie Lee attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Trisha Yearwood attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Guy Fieri attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Emeril Lagasse, left, and Alden Lovelace attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Nadia Giosia attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Eden Grinshpan attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Rachael Ray and her husband John Cusimano attend the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Debi Mazar attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
  • Robin Leach attends the Food Network's 20th birthday party on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Talk about an unlikely recipe for success – a cable network dedicated to . . . food?

It may not seem even a little preposterous today, but when Food Network launched 20 years ago America was sitting at a very different dinner table. After all, this was before we’d learned to fetishize cupcakes, before Instagram made our every mouthful a shared experience, before vegetables had cult followings.

And yet this backwater network launched, plunking cameras in front of chefs – many of them truly not ready for prime time – and hoping for the best.

The gamble paid off. Two decades on, the network has morphed beyond a television station that teaches us how to cook. It has become a lifestyle, a marketing behemoth turning chefs – and home cooks – into household names.

“It surprised me at first. But I think now, it doesn’t surprise me,” longtime network star Bobby Flay said at a party to celebrate the 20-year milestone during the New York Wine and Food Festival.

When the network launched, Americans didn’t take food seriously. Less than a decade later, a culinary awakening – fueled in part by the network itself – allowed Food Network to succeed, Flay said.

Food Network didn’t invent the food celebrity – the fame of James Beard, Julia Child and others predate it by decades – but it codified it into an industry. And it did so with such efficiency that other networks were left scrambling.

In many ways, the network was in the right place at the right time. To Giada De Laurentiis, star of Giada at Home among other shows, the right time was Sept. 11, 2001, and the nesting instinct it triggered in so many Americans.

“I truly believe my success is because of 9/11. Had it not been for 9/11, I don’t know that I would be here,” she said. “It made them think twice about what was important in life.”

Today, of course, food television is a crowded field. Bravo helped redefine the reality segment with Top Chef and its various spinoffs. Gordon Ramsay spouts fire on Fox. ABC gave food a golden hour of daytime chat with The Chew. Even CNN and Travel Channel have pulled up a chair, snatching up Food Network alum Anthony Bourdain.

Still, Food Network – one of many lifestyle brands owned by Scripps Networks Interactive – touts enviable numbers, reaching some 100 million U.S. households, never mind programming in more than 150 countries around the world. It has its own magazine, its own lines of cookware and kitchen gear.

Of course, that’s broad strokes history. There’s also plenty in those 20 years the network would rather forget. Paula Deen (conspicuously absent from the party) speaking her mind, anyone? Or not minding her diabetes. And there’s Robert Irvine’s little resume flub (the Dinner: Impossible star was fired for fabricating some of the more fantastic parts of his resume, but later returned with Restaurant: Impossible).

And then there’s the profitability algorithm, which goes something like: less cooking equals more viewers and sizzling ad dollars. It actually took years for the network to get profitable. And many say it did so by turning its back on some if its own fans and stars.

In those early red ink years, the network was known mostly for food television with a how-to attitude aimed at people who cook. But on television, personality trumps talent, entertainment trounces know-how. That spelled the demise of shows with chefs offering teachable moments at the stove.

To Irvine, it was a smart – and necessary – choice.

“We’ve all got choices now. And our choices are very, very different from what they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” he said. “The television world has become so cutthroat, they’ve got to continue coming up with better programing.”

So shows like Sara Moulton’s easy paced Cooking Live gave way to frenetic competitions like Iron Chef, Chopped and Rachael vs. Guy. The switch from chefs to personalities, from information to entertainment, got ratings and advertisers, but triggered an MTV-style backlash.

Just as the music network was ridiculed for letting videos die, Food Network was ribbed for favoring reality TV over real cooking.

In response, Food Network created The Cooking Channel, a back-to-basics, edgier sibling.

What about the next 20 years? It’s hard to imagine Americans tuning out food-as-entertainment. But that doesn’t mean Food Network gets an easy ride. Some of their biggest properties are feeling stale, have been shown the door (Lagasse, for example), or in Deen’s case simply imploded on their own.

Meanwhile, Food Network hasn’t launched a major celebrity since Guy Fieri won The Next Food Network Star in 2006, a lifetime ago in TV years.

“I think that Food Network is trying desperately to evolve,” said De Laurentiis. “They cannot stay the same. There is so much competition that there wasn’t 20 years ago when they started.

“They’re trying to evolve into something. They just are not sure what the next step is yet. They’ll get there.”

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