Notes From the Road ... Hawaii
By Anthony Bourdain
I was sitting poolside in Waikiki, after a hard days shoot, taking a brief break from my club sandwich and boat drink to check on my e-mail. Michael Ruhlman had cut and pasted something for me and sent it along for my "immediate attention". It indicated under "subject" that it had originated from the Food Network and it looked like a press release, so I assumed it would be of about as much interest to me as Guy Fieri's hair styling tips or Carrot Top's breakfast preferences. But I read a few lines and immediately almost spit up my Mai Tai:
"Why? Why that old show? And why now?"
This was like being unexpectedly groped and publicly slipped the tongue by the ugliest girl at the prom. You're flattered by the attention - but frankly ... embarrassed. And the timing seemed suspicious. As I ordered two more and then a third Mai Tai, paranoia began to set in.
"They're not putting the show back on because they like it. They're trying to destroy me!" I theorized. People will surely comment on the striking - even horrifying - decline in my appearance since those few years ago - and will wonder why they would still watch someone who is clearly dying of some hideous hair whitening, skin puffing, tropical bloating disease. Or maybe they're putting it back on as a deliberate strategy to break off and confuse a segment of potential audience who might otherwise be tuning in to the exciting new season of NO RESERVATIONS (the vastly superior and more expensive series on TRAVEL CHANNEL)! Maybe ... maybe it's vengeance for some of the Rachael Ray cracks. In fact...MAYBE it's part of some secret deal to keep her on the network ... some ultra hush-hush rider to her contract! I've been trying to buy those old shows back for ages - to make DVDs. They've refused to sell, sitting on them year after year. Until now. Coincidence? Or conspiracy?
Or, I pondered, is this an ill considered scheme to buy my silence? Perhaps the reasoning goes that with my old shows running on the network again ( a development which, to be perfectly honest, will be very good for my book sales), I'll shut up - as one chef at a time, the Old Guard of Food Network stars are dragged off to the slaughter house and "disappeared"... that with newly restored vested interest in Food Network's good will, I might be less inclined to make mention of the look of sheer ... terror ... I recognized in Paula Deen's eyes as she laughed and guffawed dutifully on Iron Chef America's holiday sugar challenge. If you watched closely, the mouth moved as ordered. But the eyes ...The EYES. They had seen things. Terrible things. Kruschev had the same expression on his face early in his career - when he had to laugh at the Boss's jokes.
I finished my Hawaii shoot in a state of agitation, dreading the FN promos to come, figuring it'll be like being publicly identified as a Milwaukee Brewer long after having moved to the Yankees.The rest of the week, I rode the wild, North Shore surf at Banzai Pipeline and Sunset (in a jet ski), hovered over boiling magma on the Big Island, was offered every variety of unexpectedly wonderful local food - but my mind was elsewhere.
Finally, back in New York, I opened the New York Times - and reading closely between the lines, got to the heart of the matter:
"All good things come to an end and it was time to do something new'" network pres, Brooke Johnson is quoted as saying - describing the net's inexplicable decision to piss on their biggest star and founding father, Emeril Lagasse by cancelling "Emeril Live". " RIGHT NOW, WE'RE FIGURING OUT WHAT THAT SOMETHING NEW IS," (emphasis mine).
I gotta tell you, by the way; if I were a Scripps stockholder, I wouldn't want to hear my network press talking any shit about "figuring stuff out" I'd want to hear "We KNOW what we're doing." "Floundering around trying a buncha different shit - kind of a scattershot approach. Throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks kindofathing" doesn't sound like a business plan I want to invest in. But maybe that's just me.
Watching that very public and very painful process of "figuring out" has provided some pretty hilariously embarrassing viewing over the past year of declining audience share for Food Net( Down 36,000 total day ratings and 15% for its weekend bloc according to the Times). There's last year's Great Hope, Guy Fieri, who reminds me of the "Poochie" character in the classic Simpson's episode where it is decided that Itchy and Scratchy need a "hip, in-your-face, pro-active" new sidekick to bring in a younger demographic. Poochie (and seemingly Guy) is created by committee and an assemblage of compiled stats from focus groups: "Twenty percent more rasta" "needs more surfer" ...Then there's the shockingly offensive nitwit on "Have Fork Will Travel" a comedian (we are assured) who appears to have been hired so that he can travel the world making fun of other people's accents.
There was the gruesome public spectacle of "Next Food Network Star" which Ms. Johnson, in yet another in a series of transparent howlers, suggests is the prototype for "Top Chef". If you missed the scandal, the subsequent show-trial and 'confession' of front running 'Jag' and the last minute switcheroo where 'fired' contestant Amy ended up winning a seemingly botched call-in audience vote, you missed one of the most entertainingly screwed up, colossal clusterfucks ever. The Times article goes on to describe the "way more onerous" new deals being offered the on-air personalities; contracts where the net would grab a piece of book deals, merchandise, licensing and outside activities. Ms. Johnson, sounding not unlike Carlo Gambino, is quoted as responding with, "we like to be in partnership with our talent in a variety of venues." After this blood-chilling remark she adds, "TO MY KNOWLEDGE, the talent is happy with the deals we have with them." This last is notable for two things: First, the lawyerly use of "to my knowledge" which generally means "when you present me with the inevitable evidence to the contrary, at least I can say, I didn't lie." And the unconscious use of the word "talent." As anyone who has ever worked in front of a camera can tell you - when the producers or camera people or crew refer to you as "the talent?" They mean "asshole."
Continuing my research, I found the last of a staggering series of Tourettes-like diplomatic blunders when Johnson responded to Eater.com's question about the new Rachael Ray deal that "Rachael is the quintessential example of the homegrown stars we create at Food Network." Now ... however true it might be that Food Network grew Rachael from a culture in a petri dish, I doubt very much whether the bestselling newly, superpowerful Oprah-charged Ms. Ray would like to think of herself as "created by" anybody - much less Ms. Johnson and her cohorts.
On reflection, I think I'll enjoy being - once again - the turd in the Food Network punchbowl. I shall tune in, for sure. Squeezed between "Follow That Fudge" and "America's Ultimate Deep Fryers," my younger, thinner, darker-haired self will stare back at me, still unknowing, blundering through my first adventures in television, my first, eye opening trips to Asia, Africa and South America. Two short years. The suggestions of dude ranches, tailgate parties, chili cook-offs and barbeque, barbeque, barbeque would begin soon - like a gathering storm. And I would be gone - to toil in happier, more productive fields.