The Food Network was quick to dismiss Paula Deen, the Dixieland chef who apparently may still have some antebellum attitudes. Two days after the publication of a court deposition in which Deen admits to having used a racial slur and seems insensitive about matters of race, the cable channel owned by Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI) said it would not renew her contract when it expires at the end of June. Then again, Food Network was also quick to walk away from Robert Irvine, host of Dinner: Impossible, in 2008, and Anne Thornton, host of Dessert First With Anne Thornton, last year. Yet Irvine is back on-air, and Thornton remains on Food Network’s website.
Irvine arrived in St. Petersburg in 2006 to launch Dinner: Impossible, which featured him creating meals under arduous conditions. The British navy veteran was tough and charismatic. He had biceps. He was also a good chef. And, according to him, he had cooked for presidents and helped make the wedding cake for Princess Diana. He was also a knight—with a castle.
After a St. Petersburg Times investigation in 2008, Irvine admitted to lying about some of the more fabulous credentials and apologized. The Food Network announced it would not renew his contract: “We appreciate Robert’s remorse about his actions … but for now we will be looking for a replacement host.”
Six months later, Irvine had a new contract. “Our audience has continued to demonstrate its interest in and support for Robert,” a spokesperson for Food Network said at the time. Today Irvine hosts two shows on the channel, Dinner: Impossible and Restaurant: Impossible.
Thornton’s show premièred on the Food Network in October 2010. She offered tips about how to make indulgences such as Fudgy Salty Peanut Butter Brownies. She also used a few recipes that were worryingly similar to those of some real kitchen divas, namely Martha Stewart and Ina “The Barefoot Contessa” Garten.
After the New York Post pointed out the similarities in February 2012, Thornton told the paper, “I get inspiration from all my heroes. … It’s chemistry; it’s not just cooking. So there are always going to be things that are the same.” The Food Network didn’t renew her contract, citing the show’s ratings. Yet some of her recipes are still on the channel’s website. Neither Irvine nor Thornton responded to requests for comment; the Food Network declined to comment for this story.
Whether Deen can make a comeback isn’t certain. “She had this persona, true or false, of being a warm grandmotherly figure,” says David Johnson, the chief executive officer of public relations firm Strategic Vision. “Now she comes across as the crazy aunt you want to keep in the attic.” During her appearance on the Today show on June 26, Deen was defiant and tearful and seemed to blame others for the trouble she’s found herself in. She began by saying, “There’s been some very hurtful lies said about me.” Toward the end of the 13-minute interview, she said, “I is what I is, and I’m not changing. There’s someone evil out there that saw what I worked for, and they wanted it.”
Deen has plenty of fans—and some business partners—who may take her at her word. When Today host Matt Lauer asked if she could survive with only the support of her “base,” she said, “We can never underestimate the power of those voices.” But in the hours after her appearance, Deen lost two more business partners: Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), which has been selling her cookware and other products, and Caesars Entertainment, which operated Paula Deen restaurants in four of its casinos. It looks as if the appetite for Deen’s Southern-fried brand is quickly diminishing.