The 5 hidden truths of Reality TV Cooking Shows
1. It’s as crazy as it looks
I often get asked, “How real are cooking shows?” Well, the truth is a cooking competition is always intense, scary, dramatic, and nerve-racking. Even after winning two of Food Network’s highly rated shows, Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay, I was still nervous going into Food Network Star.
What makes reality TV cooking shows a success is that they capture the authenticity of cooking under pressure in real-time. –there is no time to prepare elaborate lists or look up recipes. It's a real competition. There's no stop and go. We are really being timed, and we are being filmed from all sides under dozens of lights. The celebrity chefs are watching intently and cameras document your every move. When that clock starts, I do really run around like I’m training for another marathon.
2. You can never be too prepared
I'm a chef and an entrepreneur, so I'm always working on three or four different projects at one time. I squeezed in as much cooking, studying and practicing in front of the camera as possible. I turned my living room into a war room with dozens of recipes from my childhood, memories, and moments that define my unique culinary point of view. I even recruited my sister and girlfriends to help by sending me challenges: "OK, you have 30 minutes and three ingredients to make a meal, go!"
3. You don’t become a Food Network Star overnight
From the moment I sent in my application to be on the show to the last episode is a whopping eleven-month journey! There are many lengthy steps involved including applying, open casting calls, applications, in-person interviews, getting cast, filming, and airing.
The longest and most agonizing period for me was waiting to find out if I’ve been cast. To give you an idea of my timeline for Food Network Star, I applied in October of 2017 and the final episode is not scheduled to air until August 13th, 2018. Once I got cast in January 2018, I jetted off to LA to begin filming in February.
4. You wait around a lot for the action
To produce a one-hour show, we are filming all day long. My call time was usually at 5 a.m. at a studio near the hotel, which meant I was up at 4:30 a.m. At times, I didn't get back to the hotel until nearly 10 p.m.
As soon as you get into the studio, they rush to hair and make-up to get you camera ready. Once you’re dressed for TV, you spend most of the time waiting around in overly air-conditioned rooms – kept cold for the equipment and to compensate for the lights. Being that I’m always cold, wardrobe gave an over-sized warming jacket that made me look like I was hanging out in a sleeping bag!
Even though we are on all day, the actual filming only takes a few hours, if that. While you wait around, you are never alone and they chaperon you everywhere around the set. Lastly, while filming, all of us were sequestered with little or no contact with the outside world, including our families.
5. Cooking under pressure: know thy kitchen
Now for the fun part: cooking. Every episode has a mentor challenge and the main cook-off. As soon as I walk into the kitchen, the tension is already mounting as Bobby and Giada reveal what our challenge for the day is going to be. Like clockwork, everyone gasps! Everyone is frantic and trying to get their heads around what to cook based on whatever bizarre theme or ingredient was presented.
Thinking on your feet is the key to success. I knew I had to keep tried and true recipes in my back pocket even when incorporating specific ingredients for each challenge. At the beginning of each round, I would sprint to the pantry and load up on anything and everything I thought I might use: herbs, proteins, pantry ingredients and all the tools I would need for my station. I tried to grab everything in one trip, so I could spend the rest of the time cooking. They always do walk-throughs of the pantry for contestants before the competition, so we know where ingredients are. The lesson here: memorize the pantry!
Cooking under pressure is indescribable, almost an out of body experience. When that clock starts counting down, the pressure is seriously on. It’s a race against time. I spent precious minutes frantically running from my station to cooking on the stoves at the other end of the kitchen (by design).
Once the cooking is completed, the plated dishes go to the judges who rate it based on creativity, taste, presentation, and the on-camera challenge. They do not judge anything on temperature or on texture that is affected by temperature because hours can go by between cooking and judging. This is how it is on most food-based reality shows.
Then comes the judging table, which has all the familiar ingredients of Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay: spotlights, cold room, stoic looks on the judges’ faces, and anxious contestants. It’s really bewildering to me how I managed to put myself through yet another high stress, anxiety-inducing competition. Looking back, I would do it all over again, in a heartbeat!