NEW YORK — 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 Food Network has morphed beyond a television station that teaches us how to cook (more about that in a moment). It has become a lifestyle, a marketing behemoth turning chefs — and home cooks — into household names even, if not especially, with people who never cook.
“It surprised me at first. But I think now, it doesn’t surprise me,” longtime network star Bobby Flay said Thursday 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, spawning the likes of Flay, Rachael Ray, Tyler Florence and Emeril Lagasse, 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 9/11 and the nesting instinct it triggered in so many Americans.