Food University: Education for the Food Network Generation

By Corey Griffin

There is a group of people who “know” food – call it the Food Network Generation — thanks to a network that took food culture out of the Michelin Star restaurants and made it accessible. There is no age range to this generation, only an insatiable desire to eat the next best thing and tell everyone they know about it.

Rich Gore, one of the network’s key figures in its early days, is well aware of the generation. As one of the pioneers behind the revolutionary Food Network Live tour and the former President of Live Events for the network, Gore fashioned an enviable legacy in the food business.

But Gore now seeks to educate that generation beyond what they saw someone else do on TV or what they read on Yelp, Grub Street and Eater. He wants to give people food knowledge they can use and he wants them to learn it from the very best chefs in the industry. There’s just that tiny matter of getting over what people think they “know.”

“You have to break down people so they admit it to themselves they don’t know everything,” Gore said. “Everybody wants to say they know the best new restaurant. Everybody wants to say that. When you sit down with somebody, ‘Oh! I ate at the best new restaurant.’ Well, odds are it’s not the best new restaurant. People wanna say it’s the best new restaurant, but how about really understanding that, ‘Hey, I ate at Cheesecake Factory, right? I think that their meat, the meat’s actually not that bad. It’s pretty good.’ “

So Gore started Food University, a live cooking demonstration meant to educate and entertain while sending the viewer home with something they can actually show off to their friends. Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked out.

After people left the show, the knowledge didn’t leave with them. The viewers weren’t involved enough. The lessons weren’t completely hands-on. Gore decided he needed a permanent venue in a destination city with a lesson plan that would engage, entertain and educate the generation he helped raise.

For Gore, there was only one place he could possibly stage it: Las Vegas.

“That was the only place I felt an over-the-top food concept could sit,” Gore said. “ … I tested it in Chicago three years ago with TV chefs. Basically, I realized it was a cool concept, but after doing it I realized how cool it was and I just spent three years trying to get it into Vegas. I felt that Vegas, being the adult playground, was the natural course for it.”

The premise alone was exciting enough to excite food nerds everywhere, but Gore was careful to warn: You won’t find Guy Fieri or any other celebri-chef at Food U – at least not at the first one – and that’s not a bad thing.

Instead, Gore has compiled a host of chefs and organizers who truly want to help people understand food and wine and a host city more than happy to oblige.

“You’re actually cooking in these ballrooms with some of the great chefs,” Gore said, particularly pointing to Food University instructor and James Beard Award winner Michel Richard as an example. “[Richard is] the person who’s actually teaching the person, ‘No, this is how you cut [with] a knife’ and puts his hand on the person and says, ‘No, this is how you do it.’ And then that person goes home and says I learned how to cook, how to cut tomatoes from Michel Richard. That’s the experience.”

It’s not just hands-on experience that Gore values. Over and over in our talk, he stressed the value of educating the Food Network generation about something as simple as the different kinds and different uses of tomatoes.

“You go into your supermarkets, there’s five, 10 different types of tomato. Most people don’t even know what the difference is,” Gore said. “There are differences and you have to be able to provide the information, give them the information so they can go do [something]. … It’s just food. We’re just giving you the information, making it fun so you go do something.”

Fun. It’s something the Food Network generation loses in its quest for the perfect hamburger or the best kimchi and it’s something Gore is making sure is woven throughout the fabric of Food U, despite the 8 a.m. breakfast call.

“We’ll have some wine in the mornings, Bloody Marys,” Gore joked. “I think, having lived it, having tested it already, I see the enthusiasm of the crowd. … There’s an excitement of learning, there’s something here. It probably is the food culture in America. It probably is a timely event in the food culture – that this person’s gonna get to do their thing with a chef. I think there’s an excitement. It’s not labor. It’s just more in the enthusiasm. It’s like you’re in these cooking shows.”

As for the timing of the event, Gore initially expected to roll out a soft opening in mid-December with three more events scheduled for 2013. After the storm derailed both the organizers and the sponsors, Gore pushed it back to March 27-29.

Tickets for that event are on sale now and Gore’s vision includes two more sessions later in the calendar year and eventually hopes to expand Food U to six and then eight events per year.

“I think what we’re trying to do and we’re doing it on a very small scale … we’ll be able to reach people and say, ‘Hey, wait a second, take a look at our site, here’s how you buy tomatoes, here’s how you buy good meat. You can get good meat in [Peter] Luger’s [Steakhouse] … or you can get good meat at your house for 15 bucks and feed your family,’ “ Gore explained. “You don’t have to go to Luger’s. You can go home with a great cut of meat and know how to cook it, and it’ll be great.”