Former New York Times reporter Allen Salkin interviewed more than 200 people for “From Scratch: Inside the Food Network” (Penguin Group). The book, which was ranked among the top 10 of 2013 by NPR, makes juicy revelations about controversial stars such as Emeril Lagasse; Paula Deen, who cooked fatty foods without disclosing she had diabetes and then later fell from grace amid reports of racist comments; and Chef Robert Irvine, who was replaced for a season of “Restaurant Impossible” after questions emerged about his resumé.
Salkin, who has lived in Los Angeles and New York, dishes about his favorite kosher food, the Deen controversy and the Food Network’s reaction to his book. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: Of all the people you interviewed, who stood out the most?
A: Bobby Flay. He is just a classic kind of New York hustler who knows how to size people up with these cold blue eyes and seems to make the right decision and always comes out on top.
Which chef would you want to cook your last meal?
Of Food Network people, probably Emeril.
You describe in the book how people would go wild when Emeril threw garlic into a pan and yelled “Bam!” There has always been a connection between sensuality and food, but don’t you think such a reaction was surprising?
If you think about rock and roll, when Elvis shook his hips, it electrified people and it changed the world. When Emeril threw garlic, people remembered that food could be fun. It was liberating. It was a new art form and it was blowing people’s mind.
What’s your favorite kosher food?
My family wasn’t kosher but we would go to bar mitzvahs and kosher delis. To this day, I love matzah and butter.
Why not? It’s salty. It’s crunchy. I kept kosher for Passover and I used to love to make the Hillel sandwich and make my own charoset. You had the sweet and the sour. I didn’t like my mother’s brisket but I think she’s tired of me saying that in interviews. I used to go the 2nd Avenue Deli and later on I had a new appreciation for cholent. I loved rich and heavy foods.
Paula Deen got the boot when it surfaced that she had made racist comments. Did you think she deserved it?
No. I don’t want to defend her, but I think a lot of dominos fell against her starting with the diabetes mess. Food Network is so corporate and interested in turning its stars into products safe for consumption, they lost touch with humanity. [But] what she said was definitely wrong.
So is she racist?
In my time with her, she didn’t say anything that was racist or anti-Semitic. I don’t claim to be able to know what is in someone’s heart. But she connects with a lot of people.
Are the shows really real?
Shows like “Iron Chef” and “The Next Food Network Star” are honest competitions, but some other shows with hidden cameras are hiring actors. So that’s a new genre of fake reality shows. Producers are pushing to create tension.
You write about how the Food Network came up with “Chopped” to counter Bravo’s success with “Top Chef.” Which show is better?
“Chopped.” Once you start watching the episode you can’t stop watching. It’s a perfect formula. “Top Chef” is a great show. But I don’t have time to watch a whole season.
What made you want to write this book? What reaction have you gotten from the Network?
I saw there was a world with money and power, and it had never been written. I don’t write about World War II. I like to write about things that haven’t been explored. Basically I’m getting the silent treatment from the network. If I call them now about something, I barely hear from them. Having spent three years on this book and given my talent and my time, to get this reaction reveals their corporate culture.
It’s not like you exposed a sex scandal.
The point was not to show every chef who cheated on his wife. The point was to show the media empire. I told them I would write an honest book and I did.