Article — From the October 2005 issue

Debbie Does Salad

The Food Network at the frontiers of pornography

debbiesaladFrom the June 1865 Harper’s

Greedily she ingorg’d without restraint,
And knew not eating Death
—John Milton

They would shoot the beauties at the end, as if the food were the rapture, or the apocalypse. In the meantime, there was choreography. “I will add butter and shortening,” said Sara Moulton, who has hosted dump-and-stir television shows for nine years and taped more than a thousand segments. She stood in the middle of her mise en scène, a setup very much like the classic stove and counter of her mentor, Julia Child. “I will give a few pulses of the food processor,” Moulton continued, “add cheese, give four more pulses. I will then go to the fridge. I will get the apples . . .”

More than a dozen people huddled around the star. There were the executive, assistant, associate, and culinary producers; the director and technical director; and the camera operators, production assistants, and food stylists. And there was Sara Moultonguest, southern-food scholar John T. Edge, in blue jeans and a chartreuse shirt, who could hardly wait to get on camera and show the world his apple pie.

Early this morning the team had gathered at the Food Network’s new 13,000-square-foot studios on Manhattan’s West Side and proceeded to shoot three episodes of Moulton’s show, Sara’s Secrets. Now it was late in the day, and fatigue had set in. No one was listening to Moulton. “Folks,” said Jeff Kay, the director. “One more show. Let’s keep it quiet and get home safely.”

Kay knew he could not afford to waste time on this soundstage. He had two weeks to tape twenty-seven episodes, after which Moulton’s cutting boards and burners would head to storage, someone else’s kitchen would arise, and an entirely new stream of roasted and broiled evanescence would materialize.

When the huddle around Sara Moulton broke, the stylists buffed plush white buns and molded mustard while someone from makeup touched up the star’s face and repainted her lips. Moulton’s hair, which hung straight and blonde, had been sprayed into compliance. Behind Moulton, kitchen windows opened to a faux outdoors, and a side door had been left ajar to reveal the overburdened shelves of a glowing pantry. No matter how much Moulton cooked, the pantry stayed full.

“Cameras, please!” called Jeff Kay. Before he was a director, Kay worked with a succession of CBS bigs—Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Don Hewitt, Diane Sawyer. He got his food-media break directing remotes for a CBS correspondent named Martha Stewart. 

While Kay pragmatically assessed cheese-grating and onion-cutting contingencies, a more spiritual presence hovered upstairs. Bob Tuschman, the Food Network’s senior vice president for programming and production, sat in his office, contemplating a dry-erase-board calendar on which he had filled in the shooting schedule for every hour of every day for the upcoming year. Even as they aligned the ground chuck downstairs, Sara Moulton and Jeff Kay and everyone else knew that Tuschman was monitoring ratings, watching videos of new talent, and obsessing over the recondite desires of that choice prime-time dem ographic, the eighteen- to thirty-five-year-old male can’t-cook-won’t-cook crowd—the men who like to watch. As people cook less and less, they ogle cooking shows more and more. (“Watching food TV is like taking an Ativan,” Kay said to me later.)

Alone onstage, Sara Moulton rehearsed by mumbling into the cameras, which around the set are known by their numbers. One and two are pedestal cams with TelePrompTers in front. Ped two, devoted to very tight shots, is what food TV insiders call “the hands camera,” whereas three is a Steadicam. “It can get closer into Sara,” explained one of the associate producers. “When you zoom a camera, the shot gets bumpier. This one you can walk in, get closer, get right up to her.” The last camera, four, hung from a jib ten feet in the air, the better to focus on the depths of pots and pans. “The jib is great for overhead shots of processing,” the associate producer said. “It lets us get inside the bowl.”

“We’re bumping in at three,” Jeff Kay told Moulton, “and you’re talking to two the whole way.” She nodded, the camera operators nodded, Kay headed upstairs to the soundproof booth, and Food Network staff in Food Network shirts stenciled with the Food Network’s orange logo scrubbed the graters and the peelers and the whisks and the serrated knives. Unlike home cooking, TV cooking builds to an unending succession of physical ecstasies, never a pile of dirty dishes.

“Stand by,” announced Jen, the stage manager in charge of minutes and seconds. The Steadicam approached Moulton, who was sipping herbal tea through a straw so as not to smudge her lipstick. “Thirty seconds!” called Jen, glaring at an over-diligent food stylist who was still pomading the mustard. “Clear the set!”

“Okay,” Jeff Kay’s amplified voice boomed from the control room through the public-address system. “Here we go, folks. Tight shot. Rolling tape.”

“Go ahead,” the Steadicam operator murmured to Moulton. “Cook.”

“Ten seconds . . .”

Kay’s voice engulfed the soundstage. “Quiet on the set!”

Theme music welled up, the monitors flashed to life, and everything else receded into darkness and silence, all except the flat, sweet, Midwestern accent of a solitary voice.

“Hi. I’m Sara Moulton, executive chef of Gourmet magazine. Today we’ll explore the great American hamburger . . .”

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