Cooking competition shows like Chopped, Top Chef, and MasterChef continue to be all the rage. As a chef, though, the decision to compete on one can be complicated. There’s the brutal audition, the lengthy shoot days, unfamiliar kitchens, and fast-paced competition. On the other hand, there’s the potential for increased business and an enhanced public profile. We spoke to five cooks and chefs who auditioned and competed on various cooking competition shows and asked them to walk us through each step of the process — the audition, the filming, the aftermath, and, most importantly, whether or not they thought the experience was worth it.
Why go on a show?
The biggest reasons to audition for a show have to do with professional development and the potential for exposure. As Carrie Crespo-Dixon, a San Francisco-based publicist at Wagstaff Worldwide who auditioned for MasterChef points out, “Especially now with social media so dominant, [shows] can really help build followers, and an appearance could launch other opportunities in the digital and publishing world.”
Each show, too, has its own network of contestants, producers, and casting directors, all of whom can serve as valuable connections, according to Jenny Dorsey, chef of the Wednesdays supper club in New York, and a competitor on Cutthroat Kitchen, Beat Bobby Flay, and Chopped. “I’m friends with many of the people I have met, and we’ve supported each other and helped grow each other’s networks.”
She adds that “different shows serve different purposes. I went on my first show, Cutthroat Kitchen because I felt totally unprepared for TV. I knew it would be a good growing experience. And then Chopped was always a show that seemed challenging to me because of tight time regulations, and I wanted to push myself.” It’s not just about going on any television show. Knowing which show will add the most to your career is an important consideration as well.
What is the audition process like?
The audition process for each show varies wildly. Sometimes, it’s a simple on-camera test, with no cooking involved; other times it’s much more lengthy, involving various cooking tests and in-person interviews. Just because the show is a one-episode affair, that doesn’t mean the audition will be quick.
Dorsey first did an in-person audition during which “you are being vetted for both basic culinary abilities and on-camera personality.” And don’t discount the personality portion — “TV is TV,” says Crespo-Dixon. “Put your personality on steroids when you go on an audition if you really want it.”
Next, there is often a round of Skype interviews “where you spend a great deal of time yelling enthusiastically at the camera, saying things like ‘I can definitely win this!’ while being videotaped so the final producers can watch you,” Dorsey says. With a show like Top Chef, an additional audition is required involving bringing in a dish for the casting directors to taste. “And if you make it to the finals, you go to Los Angeles for two days where you are literally locked into your hotel room and are escorted to and from interviews with executive producers,” Dorsey adds.
Oh, and landing the audition in the first place? That’s not easy, either. The best way to score an audition is to get a referral from a past competitor on the show — otherwise, you will simply be one of thousands.
Is there a stigma in the chef community against going on a show?
A little while ago, going on television was considered selling out. These days, “It’s become part of the game,” says Zac Young, pastry director for Craveable Hospitality Group in New York, who competed on Top Chef: Just Desserts and Beat Bobby Flay.
This shift also has to do with the changing visibility of the chef role itself. “Before these TV shows, the chef used to be in the background,” says Pasquale Cozzolino, chef of Ribalta in New York, and a competitor on Beat Bobby Flay. “Now, they are the faces of the restaurants, and shows are what introduce them to the public and bring them attention.”
All that said, it’s important to remember: “Television does not reflect the reality of restaurant life in the least, so even if you win on a show, that doesn’t grant you a free pass to run a kitchen or manage a team,” Dorsey says. “There’s certainly a waiting period for ‘TV’ chefs to prove themselves with their physical concepts.”
What are the biggest challenges when actually competing?
Even though these are cooking shows, the hardest part, a lot of the time, is not actually the cooking. “It’s the anxiety and the build-up before starting the competition,” says Hugh Mangum, pitmaster and co-founder of Mighty Quinn’s Barbecue in New York, and a competitor on Chopped. “Since you can’t prepare for what’s to come ahead in a challenge, it’s easy to get in your head and overthink things before starting the competition.”
Also, because television is, at the end of the day, entertainment, though you are the one doing the cooking, the way you are characterized or judged is totally out of your hands. “You’re just a cog in the system,” says Dorsey. “You have to listen to judges you may or may not like or respect critique you openly over things you may not have had control over.”
As a contestant, you are also given no time to adjust to the setting. “Ovens work slower or faster, burners are less powerful than we are used to, everything takes longer to cook,” says Young.
Will your restaurant see a significant uptick in business as a result of competing on a show?
The answer is yes and no. Both Cozzolino and Mangum say that whenever their shows re-run on television, they see small bumps in business throughout the next few days. Young says he gets asked to do more events and appearances, thanks to being on a show.
But television is not necessarily the total and utter game-changer that a lot of people make it out to be. It’s important to manage your expectations before going on a program — expect opportunities and business to increase, certainly, but not significantly — and not forever. It’s mainly up to you to hustle and maximize opportunities for yourself after your show airs.
Finally, here are the chefs’ top tips for going on any kind of cooking competition show.
“Make sure the show is the right fit for you,” Young says. “If you are a pastry chef with no savory experience, you probably don’t want to go on Chopped. There are a ton of shows out there — find the one that you know you will win.”
“Be a professional at all times,” Dorsey says. “There is no time in the middle of the day to take a nap or a break, or hide from the cameras, or snap at one of the contestants, or argue with a judge. The camera sees everything, and if you want to be taken seriously, you need to be clear-headed.”
Top Chef contestant Lee Anne Wong gave Mangum his favorite piece of advice: “Remember not to look at your competition while you are cooking because it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing. Focus on what you are working on and your style of cooking and cuisine, and that’s what will matter in the end.”
Train for your show. Cozzolini practiced for Beat Bobby Flay by simulating the competition circumstances in his own kitchen to adjust himself to the ingredient limitations and time constraints. This is a great way to get into the right mindset prior to your show.
“If you are looking for the appearance to unlock some doors down the road, activate on social media as soon as possible because that exposure can help and build your brand in the long run even if you don’t win the show,” advises Crespo-Dixon. “You can still become an audience favorite even if you don’t win the title.”
“Stay positive throughout the process,” says Young. “The editors will always pick the nastiest, most frustrated, cocky comment you make [to air]. Trust me.”
Photo credits: Food Network.