As Food Network’s director of culinary production, one day Dave Mechlowicz ’04 is sweet talking airport security into letting him check a cleaver and the next he’s basting turkeys with supermodel Chrissy Teigen. (He’s not complaining.)
When Dave Mechlowicz '04 was in his early teens, his uncle introduced him to the Food Network. At the time, the network, which launched in 1993, was just getting its footing, and on-camera personalities like the quirky and charismatic chef Emeril Lagasse ’78, ’90 Hon. hadn’t yet become superstars. Mechlowicz, a budding chef with an interest in the entertainment industry, was fascinated. He remembers thinking “it would be really cool to work for that company.”
Fast-forward to 2017. The Food Network is a juggernaut with programming in 150 countries, distribution to 100 million US households and annual revenues topping $850 million. Emeril — who no longer needs a last name to be recognized — is one of the most famous chefs in the world. And the 35-year-old Mechlowicz, the Food Network’s director of culinary production, is one of the channel’s star employees. In his 11 years at the company, he has worked at the White House and Super Bowl, traveled to almost every state in the US as a producer on dozens of shows, and, on one memorable work trip to Japan, sampled freshly-sliced, top-grade Bluefin tuna at a pre-dawn visit to one of the world’s biggest fish markets. “I love my job,” he says.
And he wouldn’t be there without Johnson & Wales University.
THAT STORY BEGINS in Providence, in the early 2000s, when Mechlowicz was a sophomore exploring internship options. He had narrowed the choices down to an old-school, trial-by-fire experience working in the kitchen of a French restaurant in New York City, or a similarly hands-on experience at the Food Network. He chose the latter, and started out as one of the many behind-the-scenes prep cooks who peel the shrimp, caramelize the onions, and prep the sauces and cocktails that ultimately appear onscreen. If an on-camera chef was shown putting a chicken into the oven, “we would be making the finished chicken that would be swapped out,” Mechlowicz says.
I like that every day is a brand new job. I’m not sitting at a desk more than an hour of my day, ever.”
After a few weeks, though, he was feeling under-stimulated and asked his boss if there was anything else he could do. He was shifted to the network’s purchasing department, where he joined the team of folks who scurry around New York and other locations to buy ingredients for the shows. It was like casting, but for food, Mechlowicz says; the tomatoes, fish, and anything else appearing onscreen needed to look perfect, and tracking down those items was a fast-paced daily scavenger hunt. Mechlowicz was hooked. Hustling from spice stores to seafood suppliers to farmer’s markets meant he was never stuck in an office. “I was interacting with a lot of people, building relationships,” he says. Each new ingredient was a learning experience.
The internship ended, and Mechlowicz went back to school. But during summers, he would return to freelance for the purchasing department. And when he graduated, after completing a year as an assistant manager for Morgan Stanley’s corporate- headquarters’ dining program in New York, he called the network to see if there were any openings. As it turned out, there was one in the purchasing department.
Career Breakthrough: ‘How to Boil Water’
FOR A RECAP of what happened over the next 10 years, you could go to Mechlowicz’s LinkedIn page, which charts his rise to a remarkable range of responsibilities, including “produce and assist with award-winning culinary programming including 6 of the highest rated television shows in the Food Network’s history (including “Iron Chef,” “Next Iron Chef,” and “Next Food Network Star”),” “travel to locations to observe shows especially in pilot and beginning episodes,” “manage logistics of food events for Food Network and Cooking Channel,” “oversee content for digital packages and recipe testing for digital and publication,” and “oversee all food and beverage planning and purchasing needs for entire company.”
A Google search also yields colorful details about his day-to-day life during that time. In 2006, Mechlowicz appeared on the cover of the Food Network’s cookbook, “How to Boil Water: Life Beyond Takeout.” In a 2008 article in the network’s magazine, Mechlowicz is described as standing guard over the secret ingredient for “Iron Chef” so competing chefs can’t sneak a glimpse. (“I don’t sleep at all during the weeks we’re shooting,” he said.)
In 2010, the New York Post described him as “the man who makes sure Paula Deen’s pantry is always stocked.” In 2012, MarthaStewart.com published a clip from “Emeril Live!” in which Mechlowicz guides viewers on a trip to a Manhattan farmer’s market. That same year, the supermodel Chrissy Teigen tweeted a photo from Food Network headquarters of glistening, fresh-from-the-oven turkeys, with the caption, “How am I supposed to work when @dmechlowicz has 5 turkeys within arm’s length?”
Mechlowicz attributes his success and longevity at the network in part to being at the right place at the right time. When he arrived, the channel was about to launch into the stratosphere on the strength of “American Idol”-style competition shows, and the ever-growing star power of chefs like Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray. (Mechlowicz has worked with both of them.) He says the channel was also well-suited to weather the post-2008 economic downturn. Even while the country was struggling, food and food-related TV programming were soothing, he says. “We showcase something that is involved in every single person’s life, regardless of age or ethnicity,” he says. “Everyone eats — you have to eat — and it’s a comfort zone for people. It brings people together; it brings people memories … stories come out of food.”
Being in a kitchen, or learning to become a chef, you have to be very disciplined, organized and focused. There’s a lot of different things going on at once.”
Dave Mechlowicz, TV Network Fixer
HE’S ALSO GRATEFUL for a skillset gained during his time at Johnson & Wales. The first course he ever took at JWU — a dining room class — was an “amazing tool” that helped him hone front-of-the-house skills like public speaking and interacting with guests. Later, a restaurant-stocking class introduced him to new varieties of ingredients (20 different types of stone fruits, as opposed to just knowing about peaches and plums) and the behind-the-scenes logistics that make food service possible. It’s not hard to connect the dots between these courses and what Mechlowicz does now. But he says Johnson & Wales also imbued him with a mindset that prepared him for a variety of high-pressure and chaotic situations. “Being in a kitchen, or learning to become a chef, you have to be very disciplined, organized and focused,” he says. “In a kitchen there’s a lot of different things going on at once.”
These skills can relate to any job, he says, but particularly the life of a self-described TV-network “fixer.” One day, Mechlowicz might be helping expedite meals at a major network-affiliated event. Another day, he’s pre-selecting items from the menus of restaurants that a show’s host — say, Anthony Anderson of “Eating America with Anthony Anderson” — is scheduled to visit.
Once, while working on a show shooting a Halloween-themed pumpkin-carving competition in Florida in May, he had to track down pumpkins within 24 hours. After phone calls with farmers around the country, he ultimately reached the head of agriculture at Disneyland’s EPCOT Center, which has a lab that grows various kinds of produce year-round. The result? He got the pumpkins.
Talk to him about his job and other quirky stories emerge. There was the time he asked a butcher to make a 400-pound mortadella sausage for a photo shoot, or when he was on Skype at 3am with a vendor in Hawaii, ordering bigeye tuna for the secret ingredient on “Iron Chef,” or the time he and his team had to “pretty much change a whole show on the fly” when certain ingredients were held up in customs after an international trip. Truffles are tricky to move across borders, he says. And “traveling with knives is always an interesting situation.”
Next Stop: Taking on Big Challenges
OVER TIME, Mechlowicz’s cool head and creativity in such situations made him the go-to guy for a variety of Food Network ventures. “Not to sound bigheaded, but whenever there’s a very, very large project and it’s something new, I’m always on it,” he says. And that’s just how he likes it. He lovingly calls the job “controlled chaos” and adds, “I like that every day is a brand new job. I’m not sitting at a desk more than an hour of my day, ever.” At this point, the busier things are, the happier he is. “I’d rather have 50 things going on at once,” he says. “The more stuff I do, the more productive I am.”
He isn’t exaggerating. When Johnson & Wales visited him at Food Network’s headquarters in Manhattan’s famed food-hub, Chelsea Market, he had just returned from a six-week jaunt with the show “Burgers, Brew and ’Que” that included stops in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Traverse City and Detroit. The following month would bring work trips to Minnesota, Oregon, North Carolina, Montana, Texas and New Mexico. “Everything becomes a blur,” he says.
Even with that blur, though, certain moments stick out. During the final weeks of “Emeril Live!” in 2007, Mechlowicz was prepared to go onscreen for a short segment to talk about ingredients he had bought for the show. Then, unexpectedly, Lagasse told him to stick around, and, as cameras rolled, the two chefs cooked side-by-side for half an hour.
With stories like this, it’s safe to confirm what Mechlowicz suspected as a teenager: The Food Network is, indeed, a cool place to work.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of JWU Magazine.
FOOD NETWORK DIRECTOR OF CULINARY PRODUCTION DAVE MECHLOWICZ '04 AT CHELSEA MARKET IN MANHATTAN. PHOTO: MIKE COHEA