As Food Network celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall, a lot of attention will be paid to the talent who have become household names since November 1993: Bobby, Mario, Rachael… even Paula. These are the people in the photos on the cover of my book, “From Scratch: Inside the Food Network.” But behind the scenes on food shows produced both internally and by a roster of outside production companies are folks with some weird jobs. You don’t know their names, but you might, if you watch closely, know their thermonuclear hot sauce. Here are five of the most thankless jobs at the Food Network.
1. Label maker
Rani Cheema’s job is to make new labels for commercial products that chefs use on camera. A chef can’t use a bottle labeled “Grey Poupon” on camera because a show could appear for years to come in any country on earth and who knows who the advertisers are going to be? If another mustard company wants to buy ad space, they don’t want themselves undermined when the star is show using a rival’s brand. What Rami does is make sure that every bottle of hot sauce, vinegar or wine, each can of tomatoes, corn or artichoke hearts, has its original label removed and a new one of her creation put on. She uses a product called Goo Gone for the removal. Rani is a one-woman branding company. One of her greatest hits was the time Sunny Andersen needed a hot sauce and Rani came up with the name “Nuke It” with a little mushroom cloud image on the label.
“There were a bazillion hot sauces out there with a bazillion names, so I was surprised ‘nuke it’ wasn’t taken,” she said.
2. Slop bucket emptier
They don’t need these as much anymore, but at the early Food Network studios, the sinks did not have plumbing. They flowed into buckets out of camera sight, which needed to be emptied at commercial breaks. Whether it be for David Rosengarten’s early groundbreaking show “Taste” or the 1990s stalwart “Chef du Jour,” the work of entry-level Food Network staffers was sometimes centered around lugging buckets of slop from kitchen sets to the bathrooms where they could be dumped. Food TV is not always pretty! But at least one former slop bucket boy went on to become a key member of the network’s programming staff for years.
3. Pantry stocker
Young San’s job on more than one Food Network show was to make shopping lists far in advance of the shooting and then to check-in the deliveries. One day as I watched her work, Young San walked to her seat at the back of a set carrying two raw steaks on a white platter. They were supposed to be for a show shooting the next day on porterhouse steaks and she wanted to discuss them with a producer a day before their close-up. Young had a suspicion that these might be T-bones, not porterhouses. The steaks certainly had big T-bones in them.
Wordlessly, Young brought the steaks back to the main Food Network kitchens, out the studio doors and across a hallway.
The producer meanwhile looked at her laptop screen, reading the Wikipedia entry for T-bone steak. A T-bone and a porterhouse are sort of the same thing except the classic T-bone is cut from farther forward in the short loin of a cow, containing a smaller section of tenderloin. Porterhouse has more tenderloin. But they both have a big T in the center, and culinary experts disagree about exactly how large the tenderloin must be for a T-bone to cross over into being a porterhouse. In other words, a porterhouse is always a T-bone but a T-bone isn’t always a porterhouse. Young returned from the kitchens with the two steaks on the platter. She trimmed two little bits of fat with a paring knife then silently carried them away again. “This show is about perfection,” she explained to me at one point, describing her job as she sees it. “I want as many perfect loaves of whatever as possible.”
4. Teleprompter typer
Not everyone is as perfect on camera as Rachael Ray. It sometimes falls to Leigh Rivers to keep everything on track and save the show. He sits in the control room and makes sure the script for a cooking show rolls out in front of a food personality’s eyes. Sometimes all that is on the prompter is part of a recipe: “1/2 cup of cream.” But this is TV. It’s more than just cooking. Sometimes it includes stage instructions, when to make a trip to the refrigerator, when to chop and when to go to commercial.
5. Plate chooser
For nearly two decades, Wendy Waxman created sets, chose utensils and thought about the color of food. Under nearly every Bolognese, roast and soup you ever saw on Food Network was Wendy’s work. She amassed a massive stockpile of platters, bowls, tureens and mugs from which TV cooks could help choose the proper palette on which to place their steaming–or freezing–creations. “Sometimes you have a color in mind,” Wendy said to me one day on the set of a cooking show, standing next to her stacks of dinnerware. “And the food just doesn’t–the broccoli doesn’t get as green as you would expect so another color looks better. You know, it’s just–you have to be playful with it and go with the flow. It’s like working with art materials, that’s how I consider it, the food is just another material that you’re working with.”
Allen Salkin has been a journalist for such publications as New York magazine, The Village Voice, and Details. As a reporter for The New York Times, he wrote nearly 200 features about food, culture, and media, including a well-known piece in which he persuaded world-famous chefs Ferran Adria and Jose Andres to come to his home and cook him dinner. He produces and stars in video interviews of food celebrities for a variety of websites. In addition, he launched the website New Books in Food, as part of the New Books Network, on which he has interviewed such authors as Gabrielle Hamilton. As an investigative reporter for The New York Post, he wrote hundreds of articles on everything from corrupt judges to emergency room ethics to troubled cults. He has also produced video interviews with celebrity chefs for a slew of food Web sites, appeared on the E! reality show #1 Single (with Lisa Loeb), True Hollywood Story: Chris Farley, and on numerous outlets to discuss his first book Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us (2005), about the Seinfeld-inspired celebration. His journalism has taken him to more than 40 countries: from the Beijing Olympics to the snorkel wakes of “Doom Tourists” in the Galapagos. He has also worked as a rubber ducky salesman and a casting agent for industrial films in Hong Kong, and taught journalism at New York University and Media Bistro. He lives in New York City.