NEW YORK -- So much to gain! So little to lose! That's the message at Food Network, which promotes cooking and eating as a source of rich reward with negligible risk.
So what, if your souffle falls? YOU'RE still standing! Or in the words of Food Network President Judy Girard: "Most dishes are hard to screw up, so have courage. It will probably turn out fine."
A few months into its second decade, the network has dined out with this recipe in genres that include how-to series along with travel ("FoodNation with Bobby Flay"), makeovers ("Ultimate Kitchens"), deconstructive analysis ("Good Eats"), Dweezil Zappa and Lisa Loeb just digging food while they hang out ("Dweezil & Lisa"), and even game shows.
The latter is represented this weekend by "Iron Chef America," a cooking duel that's campy, suspenseful - and mouth-watering. After a preview Friday at 9 p.m. EDT, the four bouts air Friday and Saturday at 10 p.m., then Sunday at 9 and 10 p.m.
Based on the Japanese classic, "Iron Chef America" will pit domestic chefs Flay, Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck against Iron Chef champs Masaharu Morimoto and Hiroyuki Sakai.
In Battle 1, can challenger Flay, whose specialty is Southwestern cuisine, lay a kitchen mitt on Sakai and his French fare? It's a 60-minute match to see which chef can whip up the better five-course feast - and do it just moments after learning the mandatory theme ingredient (in this case, live trout). When the clock runs out in Kitchen Stadium, celebrity judges pick the winner.
"Iron Chef America" displays the masters at the top of their game (especially their imaginations: would you believe someone coming up with trout ice cream?).
But in the Food Network studio on Manhattan's West Side recently, a different kind of cuisine-by-the-clock is under way.
In a coolly retro kitchen, casually clad Rachael Ray is taping a segment of her "30 Minute Meals" series. (It airs weekdays at 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.; weekends at 7 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.)
Goodness! Here's primavera orzo (10 minutes, then 15 more for cooking), and, for dessert, sorbet eggs (10 minutes). With just 20 minutes total prep time, that leaves 10 minutes to spare.
Meanwhile, Ray spares the pageantry.
"I don't wear a chef's coat, I don't wear an apron," she notes during a production break. "I don't do anything that separates people from thinking, 'Oh, I can so for sure do that!"'
Ray brought her dazzling smile and breezy style to Food Network three years ago. But she didn't take the job without misgivings.
"I'm not Wolfgang, I'm not Emeril! I really don't belong here," she protested. "I'm way too beer-out-of-the-bottle!"
Food Network execs weren't swallowing that argument - not when they were programming for every taste.
"Food is for everyone," Girard says. "No matter who you are, or where you're from, you have a relationship to it. Everyone eats."
Soon after bowing on Nov. 23, 1993, the network had won a core audience of foodies.
"But we wanted to broaden our audience, to include viewers who wanted to see more than cooking in a studio. So we upped the ante and introduced more entertaining programming in a variety of formats," says Girard, recently named president of Shop at Home, another Scripps-owned network.
Currently Food Network airs a technique-based "In the Kitchen" block during the day that includes such programs as "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee" and "$40 a Day." New entries arriving next month will include "Low Carb and Lovin' It" and "Calorie Commando."
In prime time, more personality-oriented fare includes "(Al) Roker on the Road" and "Emeril (Lagasse) Live."
And a slate of seven new prime-time series will include "The Secret Life of," which promises to take a lighthearted look at the history of favorite foods, and "What's Hot, What's Cool," focusing on trends in restaurants, cuisine, diets and even kitchen gadgetry. Both shows debut in June.
This varied menu seems to be working. Available in 85 million homes, Food Network in 2003 averaged 493,000 viewers in prime time, where it scored its highest rating to date in the fourth quarter (an average of 537,000 viewers - 17 percent over 2002).
"The implied promise of the network is that we'll teach you how to cook," says Girard. "But we try to have a show that caters to every interest in food, even if you don't cook at all."
And even if you don't cook but think you might, there's a show for you: "How to Boil Water." So have courage. It will probably turn out fine.
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