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Dishing on the drama: Behind the scenes of the Food Network

Tuesday - 10/8/2013, 9:56am  ET

FoodNetworkBook.jpg
Allen Salkin's new book goes behind the scenes of the Food Network and tells the tales of its personalities and success. (AP)

WASHINGTON - New York Times journalist Allen Salkin got his first taste of Food Network frenzy while covering the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in 2008 -- and he was struck by the attention paid to the network's top chefs.

"These (Food Network) chefs had bodyguards and handlers and talent agents around them," Salkin says.

"And then the fans come out on crutches, you know from the hospital beds and everywhere, to pay $150 to catch a glimpse of Rachael Ray."

He asked himself how in the world this could happen: how food on television could turn into a celebrity ordeal so quickly. So he decided to explore the topic further.

In his new book, "From Scratch: Inside the Food Network," Salkin cuts right into the meat of the nearly $1 billion per year industry and takes readers on a behind- the-scenes tour of the drama of food TV.

But it didn't come easily.

"Writing a book like this is like giving birth to a sideways watermelon," says Salkin, who received access to the Food Network's executives while working on an article about the Cooking Channel, the Food Network's 2010 spinoff.

During that time, he sat in on several planning meetings and "got to know all of the characters."

"I'd learned so much about the Food Network at that point, just from the meetings and the tapings," says Salkin, who refers to the Food Network as "an American success story."

"It was a rag-to-riches kind of network that is now worth billions of dollars," he says.

But the book is not limited to the business side of the Food Network. It also explores the lives of those who make it so successful -- the chefs and hosts. And Salkin confirms chefs don't just bring their own knives to the kitchen. They bring plenty of personality.

Salkin dishes on one particularly rowdy night at Michael Symon's Lola Bistro in Cleveland. A handful of the network's stars gathered for dinner at the height of the Food Network's success.

"Mario Batali declared they would eat without utensils There was a lot of wine drinking and eventually they ended up at a strip club in Cleveland, Mario buying lap dances for Rachael Ray and sending 25 shots over before they were all tossed out of the place," Salkin says.

According to Salkin, the over-abundance of personality on the Food Network is what makes viewers connect with, and adore, the channel.

"If you go to the gym, what's on? It's ESPN and it's the Food Network. Why? Because when we're in pain, we want something comforting," says Salkin, who adds the network soared to success shortly after 9/11. "And I think the best shows and the best personalities are where we see somebody we really connect to."

Salkin describes Paula Deen, before the recent controversy, as the grandma we all wish we had, and Rachael Ray as a best friend, whispering kitchen tips in our ears.

"And Giada de Laurentiis may be the girlfriend you always wish you had, or maybe that's just me," Salkin says. "But that comfort food and soothing quality of the network is what's best about it."

So what's the future for the network that, before its success, used buckets to empty the sinks on the sets?

Despite its plans to expand internationally, Salkin predicts the Food Network will head back to its roots of creating comfort food for its viewers.

"They're not going to be the number six, seven network on cable, like they were at their peak, but they can have a nice, solid, profitable business selling stuff to people and providing us that warmth," Salkin says.

"There's always going to be trouble in life, and as long as the Food Network can give us something that we love, it's going to be fine."

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Allen Salkin will be at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center on Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival.

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