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WEST CHESTER – It's a Sunday afternoon, and David Venable is in his element: on the air, in one of the kitchens at the QVC home shopping network, chatting a mile a minute about bakeware on his popular show, "In the Kitchen with David."
As ubiquitous computer monitors track sales of the product on display, a vendor walks on with a dish, hot and steaming. "Oh, wow," Venable says with a smile. "Is that the mac and cheese from my cookbook?"
The gregarious Venable, a bear of a man at 6-foot 6 inches who's known to break into a "happy dance" when he tastes something good -- especially if it contains bacon, which he calls the "Divine Swine" -- has extra reason to be smiling these days. Skilled at selling the cookbooks of other chefs, not to mention countless other products, he's spent the last four months promoting his own cookbook, too -- a collection of comfort food recipes called, naturally, "In the Kitchen with David."
If you're not a QVC viewer, you've likely never heard of him, and may even scoff at the notion of cheeseburger dumplings (just what they sound like) or mac and cheese with Velveeta and bacon. Yet Venable can boast numbers absolutely nobody would scoff at: Pre-orders for the book on QVC alone have reached a whopping 245,000 copies ahead of its Tuesday launch -- one of the top-selling cookbooks in the network's history.
"That's a huge number, not just for a cookbook but even for a hot general-interest novel," Jim Milliot, co-editorial director of Publisher's Weekly, says of pre-orders for Venable's book, which is published by Ballantine, an imprint of Random House Inc.
To put the numbers in perspective, only a few cookbooks a year -- by anyone -- sell over 200,000 copies, says Ballantine's executive editor, Pamela Cannon, "and I could count those on one hand." She adds that when a cookbook does not come from a celebrity chef, "in today's marketplace and economy, anything over 50,000 copies is considered a success." (For another bit of context, the first week of sales for J.K. Rowling's new adult novel were at 375,000 after its first week, a figure that includes e-books and audio books, making it among the fastest selling new releases of the year -- though nowhere near "Harry Potter.")
Clearly the cookbook's early success says much about the power of QVC, where authors vie to get one of those eight-to-10 minute segments on Venable's show, often selling thousands in one go. In the forward to Venable's book, celebrity chef Paula Deen writes of her first appearance with Venable, in 1998: "I was so thrilled and surprised when my book sold out in mere minutes!"
It's still an open question if Venable's book will sell outside the QVC universe, where the 47-year-old host draws a weekly viewership of some 3.5 million, according to the network. In a recent interview at QVC's headquarters in West Chester, Pa., a sprawling complex with 58,000 square feet of studio space and 17 different sets, the host expresses confidence that it will.
"I think the recipes are going to speak for themselves," he says. "Like the mac and cheese -- people are going to see it has bacon on it! And look at these pictures," he adds, flipping through the book. "I mean, if this doesn't make you hungry, your eyes are closed."
Spread out on a nearby table are some of Venable's favorite dishes: his southern fried chicken; green beans with garlic and bacon; cheeseburger dumplings with steak sauce, Mom's mayonnaise drop biscuits, and what he calls "God's most perfect dish": macaroni and cheese.
"We tested this 11 times," Venable notes. The dish has five types of cheese: cheddar, mozzarella, Monterey Jack, Parmesan, and eight ounces of cubed Velveeta. "It just didn't taste as good without the Velveeta," he says. It comes topped with six slices of, yes, smoky bacon.
The spread raised the obvious question of fat content. Given the emphasis these days on healthier eating, with chefs like Deen addressing their own health problems, has Venable made any concessions in his recipes? Not really.
"I knew these questions would come up," he says. "We don't necessarily speak to that per se. But the recipes are adaptable to lightening. I mean, you could leave the bacon off the mac and cheese. It would be sacrilege, but you could do it! But this is the kind of food you make when you long for it. I know people won't eat this way every night."
Venable himself did eat this way growing up in Charlotte, N.C. -- at least every Sunday after church, when his mother, who raised three kids alone, would make traditional Sunday dinner.
"My mom taught us all to cook out of necessity, but I was the one who always gravitated back to the kitchen," Venable says. "I was popping casseroles into the oven at 11 or 12."
Not that this young boy was on the path to becoming a chef. After graduating college he turned to TV news, working in Oak Hill, W. Va., and at the CBS affiliate in Altoona, Pa., where he was midday anchor. After six years in that business, he made his way to QVC in 1993. He sees himself as still "a TV guy" -- not a chef.
"I'm a home cook," he says. "An accomplished one, but a home cook. Someone comes on to make a radish rose in three cuts -- I'm learning along with everyone else."
While not everyone might relish -- or be able to manage -- three straight hours of food talk, twice a week, without breaking a sweat, Venable appears to love it. On a fall Sunday we find him at full speed, going from bakeware to blenders to French croissants on a show dedicated to Christmas shopping.
Throughout the show, sales numbers come pouring in. Brian Martin, a line producer, speaks to Venable in his earpiece, letting him know if a certain color, for example, is running low. "OK, we have sold out the Temp-tations mugs," Venable announces at one point.
Meanwhile, another QVC staffer is monitoring the social networks, noting consumer questions on Facebook or Twitter. Another staffer vets customer calls for the on-air testimonial line. "I bought croissants once but they were really doughy," says a caller named Betty. "Well, don't worry, Betty, this is the authentic croissant, from France," Venable replies.
It's easy to see why even Justin Bieber and Sheryl Crow have stopped by to sell their music. And though books in general aren't big for QVC, cookbooks tend to be. This summer, author Chris Chamberlain wrote a blog post on Food Republic entitled, "What It Feels Like to Sell 1,000 Cookbooks A Minute on QVC. My Cookbook."
Now, Venable gets to benefit from his own platform. "This is a very happy story," says Doug Howe, QVC's executive vice president of merchandising. "We're very excited about this." He attributes the book's success in pre-sales to the personality of the host.
"He's somebody you'd like to be your neighbor," he said. "He doesn't talk down to you." Also, of course, there's the draw of comfort food, which has a huge appeal to QVC viewers, he adds.
Venable echoes that. "I want to give people joy in the foods they love," he says in the interview. Almost on cue, a chocolate peanut butter pie arrives.
"Yes, it has everything it in that you'd imagine," he says with grin.