Formerly starved for an audience, the growing network is adding personality to its menu

”Please understand that we have a very large audience and many people will not get food.”

It’s lunchtime at a Manhattan soundstage, and everyone in the studio is salivating. Despite the panic-inducing sign in the entranceway (and the aroma of sauteed garlic), no one is particularly hungry. This group, some 120 strong, craves something more than a free lunch. When a producer announces it’s 10 minutes to show time, women squeal and men whoop. Then — BAM! — out charges Emeril Lagasse, and you are witness to what may be TV’s weirdest cult. This flock worships…a chef.

The audience goes berserk. Em-er-il!Em-er-il!! Em-er-il!!! They’re so frantic that the 37-year-old Massachusetts-born New Orleans transplant blushes. Such rabid reactions may explain why, according to Nielsen, the Food Network has become the second-most-requested cable channel in the country.

Though hardly the first to distill tasty TV from charismatic cooks (The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child’s The French Chef date back to the 1960s), the Food Network seems to have sniffed something aboil in the culture. ”I’ve never seen anything like it,” admits Child. ”People are cooking more than ever; they’re eating better. Grocery stores are chockful of gourmet foods. I don’t think the country’s ever been so mad about eating.”

Food Network president and CEO Erica Gruen agrees: ”For the boomer generation, food has become sex, drugs, and rock & roll.”

Which would make Emeril Lagasse the gastronomic equivalent of Elvis Presley.

Strapping on an apron and stepping behind his crescent-shaped kitchen-cum-pulpit, Lagasse approaches cooking with a thrust as provocative as the King’s pelvis. At today’s Emeril Live! taping, devoted to Venetian cuisine, he tells the delirious audience that since Venetian food isn’t particularly spicy, he plans to ”Kick it up a notch!”; this, like his other oft-used expressions — ”BAM!” and ”Pork fat rules!” — has permanently altered the American vocabulary.

In fact, Emeril’s larger-than-life, regular-guy persona, a strange mix of I-don’t-need-no-measuring-cup confidence and spice-obsessed sex appeal, has grown so ubiquitous, he recently endured pop culture’s finest rite of passage: a parody on SNL.

Five years ago, The Food Network was barely worth skewering. With its undercooked ratings and starchy programming, it virtually parodied itself. When former Bravo exec Gruen, 47, arrived in 1996, it was time to clean out the fridge. ”We decided to shift our emphasis from people who like to cook to people who love to eat,” she explains, drawing inspiration from a Must See role model. ”We needed to make the shows more personality driven. [Take] Seinfeld. It wasn’t about being a comedian or writing a pilot, it was about personalities — and that’s what drives the bulk of our programming.”

In the past year, Gruen has made this conceit her main course, pushing fare like Two Fat Ladies (a.k.a. Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright), a pair of zaftig, motorcycle-riding Brits with a taste for clotted cream and lard; Mediterranean Mario (with the olive-happy Mario Batali); and Hot Off the Grill, featuring barbecue maestro Bobby Flay. The channel has also launched the first foodstuff game show in the U.S.: Ready, Set, Cook!, which pits two chefs against each other with limited ingredients and less time. New plans include a pilot called This Is Your Fridge, which hopes to stalk the iceboxes of stars like Matt Damon and Tom and Nicole (though Joe Pesci’s cooler is probably more like it).