Humor Is the Key Ingredient At Lively TV Food Network

If poaching salmon in a dishwasher or frying up ice-cream omelets sounds like your idea of a good time in the kitchen, stay tuned for "The Surreal Gourmet," part of the wild and wacky lineup this fall on the Television Food Network (TVFN).

And get ready for "Two Fat Ladies," the adventures of a pair of portly chefs who roam the English countryside on a Triumph motorcycle and sidecar. Or how about a cooking show for pets, "Three Dog Bakery," where canine lovers learn to make dog-friendly meatloaf and "Scotty Biscotti."

Julia Child and Graham Kerr never cooked like this - but that's the point.

America's only network devoted to food is redefining the genre of cooking on television - and recasting its audience. "We're not the network for people who cook. We're the network for everyone who loves to eat," says Erica Gruen, TVFN's president.

Launched in 1993, the network is home to 21 on-air chefs baking and braising their way through game shows, travel programs, and even a daily newscast - all devoted to food.

If TVFN's shows sometimes seem more like theater of the absurd, it's because its programs aren't driven by recipes but by personalities. Every chef is an entertainer; every kitchen, a stage.

The formula has made the channel one of the nation's fastest-growing cable networks, now available in 25 million television homes. Last year its prime-time audience jumped 53 percent, according to TVFN.

Kicking it up a notch

Like game shows and soap operas, cooking programs are one of the oldest genres on television. Yet even at the height of their popularity in the 1960s and '70s, says Ms. Gruen, "Cooking With Julia" and "The Galloping Gourmet" appealed to an elite audience, mostly women age 55 and over. By contrast, nearly half of TVFN's prime-time viewers are men. "Our average viewer is married with kids, college-educated, and affluent," Gruen says.

Ruth Reichl, chief food critic for The New York Times, likens the network to a cooking fan club. Although she rarely watches the channel, she says, "People want to know who these chefs are, just like people want to know more about their favorite movie stars."

The network's first bona fide celebrity is Emeril Lagasse, host of "Emeril Live," a one-hour "cooking concert" airing nightly.

Launched last January, "Emeril Live" is TVFN's highest-rated program, taped before a studio audience with an opening monologue, Cajun musicians, and occasional celebrity guests like Deborah Norville and Harvey Fierstein.

Stocky and bushy-browed, the Massachusetts-born Mr. Lagasse speaks with a New England accent but cops a Brooklyn attitude in the kitchen, pacing about like a boxer looking for his opponent.

"Bam!" yells Lagasse as he slam-dunks a pinch of seasoning into a pot of simmering etoufe. The audience erupts in wolf whistles and thunderous applause. "Now we need, like, at least a hundred cloves of gah-lic for this. Hey, we're not building rocket ships, right?" he asks.

At a recent taping, Lagasse pitched deep-fried hush puppies to fans in the back row. Another night he held arm-wrestling contests with a group of jocks.

Heidi Diamond, TVFN's senior vice president for marketing, says it's no coincidence that the food network seems to be morphing into an entertainment channel. She says, "A lot of people watch the network not to learn how to make a salad, but simply to be entertained."

Ratings vs. recipes

Not everyone in the culinary world believes today's answer to Julia Child should be cooks who fling their food or parboil fish in a dishwasher.

One former TVFN executive worries that the channel "lacks food credibility"; another thinks the network's quest for ratings has made its recipes incidental.

Zanne Stewart, Gourmet magazine's executive food editor, says, " 'The Surreal Gourmet' leaves me cold. I love the reality of food. I don't need it to be surreal."

Gruen responds, "We're not trying to be the Gourmet magazine of the airwaves. Our shows are chock-full of recipes but reinterpreted in television terms for our audience, which is young, urban, and more interested in food as part of their lifestyle. It's up to us to be bold."

Gruen points out that both Mr. Kerr and Mrs. Child delivered their own brand of entertainment with their lemon souffls.

The Galloping Gourmet agrees. "Julia and I, in our own way, made entertainment a strong factor in our shows," Kerr says. "Television is an entertainment medium, and that's the first line you have to cross before you can do anything else."

"Unfortunately, it's entertainment programs that bring in the money," Child says. At the same time, "You have to make teaching an entertaining thing to watch. It has to be lively and fascinating."

Ultimately, it's a question of balance, says chef Mary Sue Milliken, one of the "Too Hot Tamales," a TVFN show devoted to Latin recipes. The difference between entertainment and information is "a fine line" the food network must walk, she says.

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