LOS ANGELES -- It's standing room only inside The Gorbals. The hip downtown Los Angeles eatery is filled to the brim with loud lookie-loos who've gathered to sip free-flowing beer and wine while watching a pair of professional chefs sizzle their way through a new televised cooking competition called "Knife Fight," the first series debuting on the new Esquire Network.
The boisterous room is momentarily interrupted by Drew Barrymore. Yes, that Drew Barrymore, the Drew Barrymore from the films "E.T." and "Never Been Kissed." She's one of the show's executive producers and is serving as a guest judge for tonight's battle. Without any provocation, Barrymore suddenly hoists herself atop a table and screams at the top of her lungs.
"I'VE ALWAYS WANTED TO JUDGE A (EXPLETIVE) COOKING SHOW!"
The crowd roars. The chefs keep working on their improvised dishes.
Yep, this is not one of those by-the-books cook-offs like "Chopped" or "Top Chef," and it certainly doesn't feel like the sort of series that would launch a channel inspired by -- and named after -- the slicker-than-slick Hearst men's magazine. That's the point, programming director Matt Hanna notes in a nearby ballroom serving as a makeshift control room.
"There's an integrity that you're gonna see with this show that will hopefully reflect what we want the network to be," Hanna said over the clamor from the restaurant next door. "Whether I'm talking about a great comedian, restaurant or TV show, it all comes down to honesty, and there's something really honest here. We're hoping to defy expectations."
The network kicks off Monday with a two-hour 80th anniversary retrospective about the network's namesake narrated by "Mad Men" star John Slattery. "Knife Fight," which is hosted by The Gorbals owner and second season "Top Chef" champ Ilan Hall, and a docu-series about Scottish beer aficionados James Watt and Martin Dickie titled "Brew Dogs" both debut Tuesday.
Other shows include "The Getaway," a travel series featuring celebrities like Joel McHale and Aziz Ansari trekking to new destinations, and "Boundless," which is about a pair of endurance athletes. The rest of the schedule will be filled with reruns of shows like "Parks and Recreation" and "Party Down," as well as delayed installments of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."
Despite the fact there's already a fistful of channels targeting guys -- Spike, Comedy Central and ESPN, to name a few -- Esquire Network general manager Adam Stotsky believes a particular class of upscale gentlemen interested in travel, food, booze and fashion have previously had to curate their own content. Esquire Network is providing them, in essence, one-stop shopping.
"There's this white space on the TV dial," said Stotsky. "Outside of sports and news, we don't see a single TV destination exploring the diverse passions men are about today. Our goal is to reach slightly more educated, upwardly mobile and perhaps urbane men that have a dynamic set of interests to serve as the backdrop for these interesting stories."
When the network was originally announced earlier this year by owner NBC-Universal, the channel was supposed to debut in April and take over G4, the geeky network catering to gamers. The launch was delayed to cook up more programming. Earlier this month, NBC-Universal decided that its Style Network would instead be the one reborn as Esquire Network.
The thinking was that NBC-Universal already owns several networks that serve mostly female audiences, including Bravo and Oxygen, so that means Style is out, Esquire is in and G4's game isn't totally over. Stotsky said the fate of popular Style Network series like "Tia and Tamera" and "Guilana and Bill" will be later decided after Esquire Network opens for business.
Other shows coming to the Esquire Network this fall and next year include: "Risky Listing," a reality series chronicling New York night life real estate; "White Collar Brawlers," which pits co-workers against each other in a boxing ring; and "Horseplayers," a docu-series about the world of professional horse race betting. At this point, Hanna said there's no plan to air any sports.
Esquire, which will be available in 75 million homes at launch, is among several cable network makeovers this year, joining the remodeled Current news network Al Jazeera America, FX offspring FXX and millennial-seeking outlets Pivot and Revolt TV, the upcoming passion project from Sean "Diddy" Combs. Launching a new network ain't easy. Just ask Oprah. Esquire isn't sweating it.
"One of the hallmarks of NBC-Universal is our ability to collaborate across a wide collection of assets and promote new initiatives like the Esquire Network," said Stotsky. "There have been a handful of new entries. For us, we're super-focused on Sept. 23 and what we're doing. Fortunately, we've got great partners both internally and externally to help get the word out."