Alton, Giada, Rachael: Before They Were Food Network Stars

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Alton, Giada, Rachael: Before They Were Food Network Stars

Since its humble beginnings more than 20 years ago, Food Network has become a cultural juggernaut. Every day, millions of viewers tune in to watch chefs and cooks that have become household names prepare dishes and travel the country seeking out great food. But where did these hosts start out? From Alton Brown to Geoffrey Zakarian, their backgrounds prove that with enough hard work, you can make it to the top.

Emeril Lagasse

Lagasse worked in a Portuguese bakery in Massachusetts as a teenager before attending Johnson & Wales University. In 1982, he took over for Paul Prudhomme as head chef at New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace, which won him plenty of local renown and an invitation to guest-host a couple episodes of the Food Network show How to Boil Water. That led to him getting his own show, The Essence of Emeril, and the rest is history. Bam!

Bobby Flay

After dropping out of high school, Bobby Flay took a job making salads at New York City’s Theater District standby Joe Allen. Allen took a shine to him and paid his tuition to the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center), and Flay ended up working his way up the culinary ladder, for a time under the wing of Jonathan Waxman. He then became executive chef at New York City’s Mesa Grill, where he caught the eye of Food Network executives who offered him a gig as host of his first show, Hot Off the Grill With Bobby Flay

Rachael Ray

Ray moved to New York in 1995 and worked at the candy counter at Macy’s as well as specialty food store Agata & Valentina before becoming a buyer for a gourmet shop in Albany. While there, she taught a class on how to cook meals in fewer than 30 minutes, which led to a weekly segment on a local newscast, radio appearances, and a book. Food Network executives took notice, and she signed her first contract with the network in 2001.  

Alton Brown

The Georgia native actually began his career as a cinematographer, working on music videos including REM’s The One I Love. He was unhappy with the current state of cooking shows, so he simply set out to make his own. He put himself through cooking school and made the pilot for Good Eats himself, which he sent around. Thankfully, it was noticed by an eager Food Network staffer who convinced his superiors to pick up the show. 

Giada De Laurentiis

De Laurentiis was born in Rome and spent a lot of time in her youth in the restaurant owned by her grandfather, producer Dino De Laurentiis. She studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and after graduating worked in several high-profile Los Angeles restaurants, including Spago. In 2002, her photo was featured in an issue of Food & Wine Magazine alongside some of her food styling, which caught the attention of the network. The next year, Everyday Italian premiered. 

Ina Garten

Garten always had a love of cooking but was never formally trained. She was actually a budget analyst for the Office of Management and Budget during the Ford and Carter administrations, and in her spare time she cooked for friends and “flipped” D.C. houses, turning a tidy profit. She left her government job in 1978 to purchase a specialty food store (which happened to be called Barefoot Contessa) that became incredibly successful. In 1985, she moved it to the Hamptons, and it attracted a client roster that included many celebrities. After the shop closed in 2004, Garten turned to writing cookbooks, which led to guest appearances on Martha Stewart’s cooking show and then led to the network offering her a show of her own. 

Guy Fieri

Fieri’s keen eye for food and business began in his early childhood when he set up a lucrative pretzel cart. He fell in love with food while studying in France, and after graduating college he managed several restaurants before opening his own in 1996, Johnny Garlic’s in Santa Rosa, California. Three more locations followed, along with two locations of a second restaurant, Tex Wasabi’s. Fieri had previously submitted a grilling show pilot to Food Network that didn’t make the cut, but as soon as the network saw his audition tape for season two of The Next Food Network Star, they knew they had a keeper on their hands. 

Robert Irvine

Irvine enlisted in the Royal Navy at age 15 and received enough culinary training while there to score a job cooking aboard Her Majesty's royal yacht Britannia, which lasted 10 years. He then served as a restaurant consultant in Asia before becoming executive chef for several cruise ships. In 2007, he published his first cookbook, Mission: Cook!, and later that year his first show, Dinner: Impossible, was picked up by Food Network after shooting a pilot with Marc Summers’ production company. 

Sunny Anderson

This New Orleans native grew up as an army brat, which gave her the opportunity to sample food from all over the world. She was in the Air Force from 1993 to 1997, and until 2001 she hosted radio shows in several markets. In 2003, she launched her own catering company, Sunny's Delicious Dishes, and a 2005 guest spot on Emeril Live led to her very own show.

Tyler Florence

Florence began working in restaurants at his native Greenville, South Carolina, at the age of 15, and he graduated from Johnson & Wales University in 1991. He then moved to New York City, where he got a job working in kitchens including Charlie Palmer’s Aureole, and in 1998, he struck out on his own, becoming head chef at Cibo before opening Cafeteria in Chelsea. Their success led to appearances on the network’s How to Boil Water, and the following year he got his own show, Food 911

Geoffrey Zakarian

This Worcester, Massachusetts, native got his start after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, and apprenticing under chef Daniel Boulud at New York’s legendary Le Cirque, where he served as chef de cuisine from 1982 to 1987. During the 1990s, he served as executive chef at lauded New York restaurants including 44 and Patroon, and in the 2000s, after a brief stint at Alain Passard’s renowned Arpege in Paris, he opened two new restaurants, Town and Country. Today he runs six restaurants, including Georgie in Los Angeles, The Lambs Club and The National in New York City, and a second location of The National in Greenwich, Connecticut, and appears on Food Network as a judge on Chopped and as co-host of The Kitchen and the new Cooks vs. Cons