- Bob Tuschman
- "Younger than Harrison Ford, older than Brad Pitt."
- Grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio…” moved to Chelsea and a short while later Food Network moved its offices about 5 blocks away, but I SWEAR I had nothing to with it. “
- Senior Vice President, Programming and Production, Food Network
Your background is not in food. What led you to the Food Network?
What led me to Food Network? Getting hit by a car, actually. Though I've since come to think of it as destiny hitting me upside my head. I had been a TV producer for a decade, much of it spent at ABC News. I liked what I did, but always wanted to try other types of television. Early one morning, while biking up West End Ave, I got hit head-on by a car, flipped in the air, and landed flat on my back on the concrete. I don't actually recommend this.
When I came to, my first thought was that I was paralyzed. My second thought was thank goodness for being in shock or this would hurt like a $&($*_@. For some unknowable reason, I escaped having permanent damage. But it did impress on me that life might be much shorter than I had planned, and I better find a job I loved.
While recovering a few weeks later, a friend from ABC told me she had just recommended me for a job at Food Network. This was seven years ago, and Food Network was a radically different place. Then in only 30 million homes, and before Scripps invested heavily in the channel, the network had miniscule budgets and rather anemic looking shows. I took the interview, but wrestled with whether I could give up a career in network news for (at that time) for a low budget cooking show channel. But I always loved food and cooking, and in light of my post-accident outlook on life, I said "what the hell," and took the job.
The channel recently moved from midtown to a new studio in Chelsea Market. Were any other locations ever under consideration?
Yes, we looked at numerous locations in all areas of the city. We had always been in love with Chelsea Market, but originally they couldn't accomodate all our space needs. At the last minute, they came through with a plan that worked beautifully for us, and here we are.
How are you getting along with your neighbors? Are they clamoring to be featured in shows?
Having some of the best food purveyors in New York as our neighbors is a Food Network dream come true. We can hop downstairs to tape segments anytime day or night. Obviously, they're happy to be on our air, but they've just been fantastic about working with us. We love 'em.
How hard is it to find fresh (pun intended) programming for Food Network? How is developing your channels' series different from developing other television, especially since there isn't a narrative arc?
Even though our subject is food, our mission is the same as other networks: make compelling television. A successful show here has to have all the same elements as elsewhere: vibrant stars, absorbing stories, clear narrative, stylish production values.
On our cooking shows, there are several challenges. The most crucial, and most difficult, is finding a star. Our shows' success is totally driven by the level of the public's embrace of the star. While they have to be an expert, that's just the minimum price of entry. They also have to be a passionate, charismatic teacher. But most importantly, they have to have that unquantifiable "X" factor that elevates someone to star level. Once we have all that, we start to build a show around them that is the perfect stage for that talent. We work closely with all our producers on production values, "plot points," culinary talking points ... though its a cooking show, it's plotted out, and shot like a feature film.
You were featured on Next Food Network Star. How realistic was the depiction of the process?
The actual process you saw on air was designed to give viewers a taste of the complexities and challenges involved in being a star on our network. Obviously, we don't usually invite a block of contestants in, put them through four weeks of competitions and vote one off each week. Though maybe we should, it was kinda fun.
Our usual process involves constantly scouring the landscape for chefs, cookbook authors, cooks, etc. If we're interested in someone, we bring them in to meet with a small group of programming executives. It mostly involves us firing questions at them and staring at them for uncomfortably long periods of time. Then if we really think they have potential, we may tape either a talent test or commission a pilot episode to see how they are on camera.
You had a marketing person judging The Next Food Network Star as well. Is that just the reality of the biz?
In the age of the celebrity chef, food has become a mass media business. Our stars have big businesses in books, merchandise and media, not to mention restaurants. So, yes, having Susie Fogelson, one of our marketing gurus, as a judge was an essential part of evaluating a person's potential in the business.
Is the goal of your programming to provide information? Entertainment? Two of your more popular shows are Semi-Homemade Cooking and 30 Minute Meals. How sophisticated in the kitchen is the average viewer?
We always want to provide information in an entertaining way. Our programming varies by daypart.
Our weekend and afternoon "In the Kitchen" shows are primarily designed to teach you to cook in a fun, accessible way. This includes hit shows like 30 Minute Meals Barefoot Contessa and Everyday Italian. Since our viewer base has grown so much (we're now in nearly 88 million homes), our viewers have a broad range of cooking skills. So while our shows have a range of cooking styles, all feature accessible, "do-able" recipes that an average home cook can do -- easy-to-follow techniques, no hard to find equipment or ingredients, and most are filled with tips about saving time, money, and energy.
Our primetime programming is a little heavier on entertainment, though our viewers always want to learn as they're watching. We don't focus on cooking, but rather explore competitions, travel, reality and pop culture. Shows like Iron Chef America and Challenge are two shows that feature food as over-the-top Olympic style competition. Shows like $40 a Day and Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels are travel guides, Unwrapped and The Secret Life of … are pop cultural histories of our favorite foods. The challenge is to always balance compelling, entertaining narratives, with interesting takeaway. Our viewers like to learn while they're being entertained. So it's always a challenge to find formats that can be strong enough entertainment to work in the highly competitive landscape of primetime, but still allow viewers to do some learning along the way.
What do you say in response to hardcore foodies (e.g. Jeffrey Steingarten) that dismiss the celebrity success of your stars?
If the goal is to make food and cooking accessible, interesting and celebrated by as many people as possible, I'd say we're succeeding. On the other hand if the goal is to keep the food world limited to a small group of elite chefs and eaters, we're failing miserably.
What do you think is the future of food programming? Is it more than finding new personalities?
I think food programming will take a lot of forms in the future. There's a rich potential to do a lot of storytelling in the world of food that isn't necessarily about learning how to cook. We're launching a new show next month called Restaurant Makeover. It features small restaurateurs whose businesses are on the brink of ruin, and offers them a chef and designer to totally makeover their restaurant, and hopefully save the family business.
For more instructional cooking programs, I think they will always revolve around finding personalities who can bring the world of food to life. Because, if you've noticed, you can only stare at an eggplant so long -- they're not so interesting.
With health and weight consciousness on everybody's mind, how important is it to the network to promote healthy eating?
We're not the food police. We always want to give viewers a broad menu of programs around all the types of food that they love. We know that healthy cooking is one of the subjects on viewers' minds. So we're launching a program in early 2006 called Healthy Appetite with Ellie Krieger about how to cook healthy dishes that are quick, easy and delicious. But we'll never stop showing viewers how to make the richest, densest, fudgiest brownies you can imagine. Now I have to go find one ...
How much cooking do you do yourself?
I love to cook, but don't have the time or patience to make anything time consuming or complicated. (What can I say? I have a TV brain.) But I love to have friends over on Sunday nights, so I usually cook up things I can make in advance and have lots of. It's always very casual, homey food. On Saturday night people expect a grand party, which is why I never have dinner parties on a Saturday. Too much pressure. On Sunday everyone's grateful for good home cookin'. And I always make everyone bring something as the price of entry (bread, wine, dessert).
Are your shelves groaning with cookbooks?
I get sent virtually every cookbook that's ever published. I love reading them, but my apartment is too small to keep many on hand. Truthfully, I find myself cooking mostly out of a dozen of my favorite cookbooks. I hate to sound like a shill for the network, but I really do use most of our talent's cookbooks.
What's your ultimate comfort food?
A steaming bowl of pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe ...
Given your relationship with so many local chefs, how hard is it for you to get reservations at popular restaurants? Where do you like to dine?
The first rule of my job is I don't ever use my Food Network connection to
get a reservation: a) it's just not right and b)if I say I'm from Food
Network, I have every chef, waiter and busboy telling me why they should have their own show.
Personally, I love Bobby Flay's Bar American and Mario Batali's Casa Mono. Mostly, I tend to stick close to my Chelsea neighborhood since I both work and live there. There's a charming, small tapas place called Tia Pol which is fantastic on a cold winter's night. Rocking Horse for an icy margarita, some spicy food and a raucous time. Red Cat is a perfect dinner spot when I'm taking chefs out. Vento is a great spot for a relaxing lunch where you can actually talk. And I dream about dishes from Spice Market.
Do you watch other food programming like Hell's Kitchen? Do you expect to be tuning into Kitchen Confidential?
I check out almost all food programming everywhere. I think Gordon Ramsey is a brilliant, fascinating TV personality, but I didn't personally respond to the meanness in Hell's Kitchen. I'll definitely check out Kitchen Confidential. If ever there was a book less likely to be turned into a sitcom, I couldn't tell name it.
Things to know about Bob:
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
A humongous mega-calorie slice of the banana cake from Billy's Bakery. Unfortunately, it's on my way home from work and I succumb to its siren call all too often.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
I sit at the docks at Chelsea Piers staring at the yachts, pretending I own them.
What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
Being a personal assistant to Diana Ross, one of my first jobs out of college.
Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
An indoor swimming pool. I did have a huge leak from an upstairs terrace recently that almost granted my wish.
For more information about Food Network and its programming, including recipes and other kitchen tips, please visit www.foodnetwork.com.
-- Interview by Lily Oei and Aaron Dobbs