Cooking Channel Exec Talks Appetite for Variety

Programming takes food from just meals to a lifestyle

Smith

Cable veteran Michael Smith has worked at the Scripps Network for 10 years, specifically at the Food Network where, as a senior executive, he focused on branding and marketing. Smith is now the general manager of their recently launched Cooking Channel and took a few minutes to talk with Black Enterprise about growing interest in culinary shows, branding challenges, and what he likes to prepare in the kitchen.

What has caused this insatiable appetite for cooking shows?
People are more sophisticated about where things come from, more concerned about what they’re putting in their bodies and what they’re feeding their families. They are traveling more so they’re more exposed to different kinds of cuisines. The average American in 1920 had never been out of their state; now, most Americans have been to different places. The country is also becoming more ethnically diverse. People are not just in their little bubble. They may have an African American friend or a Latino friend and they’re exposed to those cuisines and cultures. The average 18-year-old has had sushi, southern food, Mexican food, Ethiopian. Whereas 50 years ago the average person would have only had their own cuisine their whole life. Also, the recession has driven people back into the kitchen because of the high cost of going out to eat. People have decided to eat at home and have to improve their skills in order to get back in the kitchen.

Has the network been challenged by audience demands?
At Food Network we went through a business challenge [where the network] was perceived as a channel that only did cooking programming. As nonfiction television started to morph into more entertainment and other [networks] became more popular and began to grow, Food Network lagged behind because people thought of us as still being a network that had what you call ‘stand and stir’ cooking shows. And although Food Network was starting to do more entertainment shows like Iron Chef, people weren’t watching us because they had the [wrong] perception. We had to work hard to break those perceptions. Although we’re called the Food Network, food means everything. It means entertainment and information and instruction. That was a big challenge at one point, but we were successful. We were able to redefine the Food Network brand.

Do you cook?
I don’t cook as much in New York as I did when I lived in California because I think, in New York, there are so many great restaurants and so much amazing food available inexpensively. You come home from a long day and think ‘Do I want to spend an hour in the kitchen cooking or do I want to pick up the phone and call the place across the street for some fantastic food for very little cost?’

What’s your favorite dish?
[I have] multiple dishes depending on [my] mood. I love crème brulee for dessert but I also like lemon cake – very different textures, but they’re both very good. I like to cook penne bolognese with spicy Italian sausage and a crème vodka sauce. When I do cook, I like to make things that are interesting and really, really delicious and unique. I love pastas and spicy foods — spicy Asian food like Thai fried rices and basil pork. I also like simple things like nachos, but if you make them interesting –  like cut filet mignon into little cubes and sprinkle that over the nachos with some really nice aged Swiss cheese and a jerk barbecue sauce on top – all of a sudden the nachos become very interesting. Now you’ve got a West Indian flavor [with] a higher quality meat, not just nachos with salsa.

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