@FoodNetwork, Troy Johnson rocks from print to broadcast with Crave – mediabistro.com

November 15, 2011

Hey, How’d You Land a Show on the Food Network, Troy Johnson? – mediabistro.com Content.

What happens when you take a witty, music journalist-turned-food writer and place him in front of Food Network cameras?
You get Crave, a food road show with a sense of humor — something normally absent from the network catered to stay-at-home mothers and aspiring chefs. Hosted by San Diego native Troy Johnson, the Riviera Magazine senior editor spent eight weeks traveling the country and providing viewers with a variety of 30-minute food biographies.

Johnson is no stranger to the TV camera. He hosted a local award-winning music show for six years called Fox Rox and was the host of the San Diego Padres pregame show. Until his boss at Riviera assigned him the beat, food was the last thing on Johnson’s radar; at the time, he jokingly said it’s “for people that are one Ambien away from death.”

Yet, his transition was a smooth one, as he won multiple writing awards in San Diego and Orange County and proved that great writers can adapt to any environment.

How does a music writer land a TV show on the Food Network?
I sent them gold bouillons, uncorrupted DNA and first rights to my first-born child with the contingent that she wasn’t ugly. I switched to food about five years ago and I didn’t want to do it at first, at all. I came out of the music scene and wrote a little bit for Rolling Stone, mostly online. Did more stuff for Spin magazine. I hosted an underground TV show; it went for six years. We won a couple of Emmys and we did a pretty good job. We got canned after six years because of the economy.

I took a real job at a magazine that said you’re going to handle arts, culture and music, but we also need somebody to handle food. I thought, “Food? Screw food.” That’s for people that are one Ambien away from death. Since I didn’t like it, but had an acute sense of self-preservation, I studied it. And studied it. And studied it. I made flash cards and read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen from cover-to-cover, almost twice. I read everything I possibly could and discovered that I really loved this. There’s history; there’s science; there’s culture. I thought nobody was writing about it with edge. I brought that semi-punk rock view towards food. I made a tape for Food Network and they said we think you’re OK, why don’t you come to New York? I said “Absolutely!”

“There’s nothing natural about TV. You just have to hopefully put a little bit of humanity in it.”
When did you first discover your passion for food?
It wasn’t too far into it. To caveat that, I’ve always been a home cook and I’ve been interested in cooking since I was 18. I make my own béchamel and I get really inventive and I grow my own food. But I had no interest in writing about it. I thought it wasn’t edgy enough or exciting enough. About six months into it, I was actually editing a guy who wrote about food for The New York Times. I was helping him hone on these stories but also learning from him at the same time. About six months in, it was love from familiarity. I started going around town and really getting to source the chefs and philosophizing on why certain foods became huge. And plus, it just tastes good in your mouth.

What chefs or writers have influenced you along the way?
Most of the writers have been music writers like Lester Bangs, who was a psychotic meth-addled rock ‘n’ roll guy… David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs for just the pure humor of it all. In terms of chefs and writers, I like [Anthony] Bourdain, Bill Buford, Gael Greene, M.F.K. Fisher, but I mostly get my real drive for writing from humorists and people who appreciate the darkly, funny side of life.

How does hosting a TV show about food compare to writing about it?
Hosting a TV show, you have 22 minutes to get in as much information as possible with a minimum amount of exposition. You have to fit what you thought in a paragraph in one line that you have to deliver on camera. It’s tough, to be honest with you. The camera points at you, you’re with a chef, and you have to get in a certain amount of information. You have two more shoots that day, and you have a limited amount of time to get all the information you need. It doesn’t always lead to the most natural conversations. There’s nothing natural about TV. You just have to hopefully put a little bit of humanity in it.

Humor is something Food Network shows normally lack. How do you balance the humor with information hardcore foodies are craving?
That’s what I’ve done in my writing. I wrote a book about growing up with a gay parent, and I got information across, and I talked about news about gays and AIDS, but I also threw humor into it. “Mother Teresa Has an Active Vagina” is the title of one of the chapters and “God Hates Fags” is another chapter. I’ve just always been able to throw humor into real, factual writing about whatever I do. Again, this sounds kind of pretentious. I’m not saying I’m the funniest dude on earth. Some of my jokes suck, but I always liked writers who can get real information across, give you the nuts, the bolts, the history, but also perspectives. I respect food, but I also think we treat it too preciously sometimes. Have fun with it. It’s still food.

You mentioned the writing was awful for Crave. How much input did you have during the rewrites of the show?
All of that writing is mine. I was told ‘don’t go this certain direction.’ There was one time where I said, “Pork butt is the Jesus of meat. It’s all forgiving.” They said you can’t compare pork butt to Jesus because we will offend three-quarters of our audience. I realize that some people don’t have as loose as a personality about religion like I do, but they did give me guidance. I wrote every single scrap in there.

“I respect food, but I also think we treat it too preciously sometimes. Have fun with it. It’s still food.”
Jonathan Gold was the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. As a fellow food critic, is that something you strive to accomplish one day?
Oh God, I mean it would be amazing. If the Pulitzers call, I definitely won’t block their number. At the end of the day, my knowledge about food — even though I’ve studied it for five years and I’ve eaten out three times a day for five years — my knowledge of food is still dwarfed by someone like Alton Brown or Michael Simon. I’m still learning this craft. A half-decade of studying does not make you a master. I want to bring that David Sedaris/Mark Twain kind of humor to food. I think a real sense of humor has been lacking in the food genre. If that lends itself to some sort of award down the road, well shit, I have a really dusty mantle for it to fit on.

How much weight did you gain during your eight weeks on the road?
We did three trips — two three-week trips and one two-week trip. I gained seven pounds every single time. My philosophy on this is you have to eat two bites. The only way to have my body not eclipse the sun is if I’m eating two bites and then I’m done. I know there are six more courses coming or I have to taste four more things that day. It’s the only way to survive. It’s not that I’m trying to be precious about my body image or be Kate Moss’ boyfriend, because gout I heard is not pleasant. I’ve heard about people using spit buckets on shows like that because at the end of the day, you have to eat so many burgers from so many different angles. I never used a spit bucket, although at some point on my trip, I did painfully pine for one.

Troy Johnson’s tips for transitioning from print to TV:
1. Free for All. It’s not unlike what drug dealers do (note: I hate drugs. Don’t do drugs). Give it away for free. Then charge them for it once they’re addicted. Every writer has three minutes of valuable content/research/information that would be valuable to viewers, and local TV has a lot of air time and little budget to fill it. If you do well in that spot, you’ll grow.

2. Talking Heads. If you’re a sports columnist, read national headlines every day. Then, if there’s a local angle to that national story, pitch it to the producer of a local news station. They’re always looking for voices/experts/pundits to talk on stories, especially if you can detail your perspective and make it unique/weird/different.

3. YouTube, Dude. Learn the basics of FinalCut and make a three-minute story package. Even if one person in the world sees it and they leave you a comment about how much you suck, it doesn’t matter. The real value in that is learning to film a story visually, writing for video, speaking the copy into the camera, etc.

4. Trial by Teleprompter. There are a few [software programs] out there, but learning to sound natural on teleprompter is a long process. My first year on TV, my producer put me in a chair for hours at a time and ran the teleprompter. He also made me wear headphones where he’d play bird noises, sex noises, TV clips, bad German techno, some sexy dude saying something in French. He taught me to read prompter even through distractions.

NEXT >> Hey, How’d You Use Social Media to Crowdsource A Cookbook, Food52?

Marcus Vanderberg is co-editor of FishbowlLA.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2011. All Rights Reserved.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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