For 12 years, Kathleen Finch was a producer at CBS News, the kind who kept a packed suitcase in her office and had her share of horror stories, like nearly being attacked during the riots after the Rodney King verdict. "It was nothing for me to rent a Learjet on my credit card," she says. So it was not surprising that her flair for drama caught the eye of Eric Ober when he was president of the network's news operation. But then Ober left CBS for the Food Network, and it was quite a shocker when he called Finch in the spring of 1999 to lure her there. Insists the mother of three: "I'm not a foodie."
Ober wanted to move the channel away from the "dump and stir" studio-chef programs. The Food Network has plenty of those, including such personality-rich star chefs as Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay. And though Finch didn't know food, she did know how to make great television. So she took Ming Tsai, already a star of his own studio cooking show, and created Ming's Quest, sending the handsome, athletic Tsai on rollicking adventures--a sort of extreme-cooking show. On a journey to the Everglades, he fried a gator on a set rigged together in the swamp. He did that, of course, only after hunting alligator eggs and roping a 9-ft.-long monster.
"You don't have to be a foodie to love this," explains Finch. "Food is a connective tissue. It's memories and experiences, going places and doing things. It's not just going into the kitchen and doing a recipe." Finch's nongourmet sensibilities helped her tap the fact that food is adored not only when it captivates but also when it comforts. So rather than another take on truffles and pate, Finch created Unwrapped, a series focused on the fun stuff--like candy, French fries, Champagne--so beloved by most people. Her Best of...has quirky categories--the best places for homemade desserts, the best pickles, the best places to take the kids. Does she miss "hard news"? "People who in all those years were never knocked out by what I did now come up to me at cocktail parties," Finch says, laughing. "They want to know, 'Can I get a ticket to Emeril? What is Bobby Flay like?'" Not bad for a nonfoodie who says her favorite foods are still broccoli and macaroni and cheese.
--By Tamala Edwards/New York