I have never been entirely thrilled with television cooking shows. I’m not sure whether they have helped or hurt the food service industry. True, they have embedded the culinary arts in the common consciousness. Then again, the culinary “artists” they’re inserting into that consciousness include embattled Food Network star Guy Fieri. So it was with trepidation that I considered my literary agent’s suggestion that I audition for a competitive cooking show. She argued that it would boost sales of my upcoming book, MugCakes, slated for publication this summer. So, I warily agreed to the conditions and signed the waivers to appear on the Food Network’s Sweet Genius.
I was familiar with the show but had never watched an entire episode. With a month to prepare, I resigned myself to the task of watching as many episodes as I could stand. The game’s object is to make desserts using secret ingredients, which fit into a specified genre (i.e. chocolate, candy, cake) and visually express a designated theme. Contestants compete for three rounds, and the winner is crowned a Sweet Genius.
“Who would bake with that?” is the standard incredulous reaction to the ingredients contestants are obliged to use. Things you would never willingly add to a cake — Bloody Mary mix, hummus, banana peppers, gummy candies, black garlic, tuna fish — have all found their way into this competitive arena. But the concept is not as weird as it seems.
The basic premise of the mystery ingredient is standard in culinary education. As a student, my teachers used it to measure my command of basic cooking techniques. A loyal disciple of the “turnabout is fair play” handbook, I, in turn, have been known to subject my students to this type of test in their final exams. (The TV show Chopped is a fair approximation of such an exam, although rather than taking home money, a student “winning” this school competition is awarded the right to continue paying tuition.) Sure, it was fun to torture students with weird ingredients. But it also taught them to think on their feet, a skill crucial to successful cheffing.
Creating dishes based on available ingredients is the impetus behind the locavore movement, but it is not a new idea. The best chefs have cooked that way for decades. As a matter of fact, I think it’s fair to say that every dish ever conceived was created this way. (What’s in the fridge? Chicken wings, celery and blue cheese dressing? Behold, Buffalo hot wings!) Of course, real recipe development is more thoughtful than that. But it is these weird ideas that get the creative juices flowing and lead to legitimate culinary innovation. Plus, it is a great way to clean out the refrigerator.
So, I felt confident in the general premise of the show. But I was not so comfy with the idea of national television. I have long known that the TV world is not one I could inhabit on a regular basis. It had alwayslooked incredibly boring, and it has been. The hours of standing around, waiting for technical details to be worked out, just felt wrong. It is not an easy transition from the fast pace of regular food service. What’s more, many segments ended in a request for contestants to stand still and don an expression of surprise, or excitement, or worry or dread. As you may imagine, I am a terrible actress, and all that face-making made me giggle. My giggles, in turn, required additional takes, which I found even more hilarious. I am clearly not TV material.
But it wasn’t all bad. Despite the popular notion that the host of the show, Ron Ben-
Israel, is a little creepy, I found him to be a sweet and silly guy, with a fascinating background. A self-taught baker, his wedding cakes were “discovered” by Martha Stewart and are now the most coveted wedding cakes in the Empire State. But despite his enviable pastry empire, he was generous and patient with his contestants. All that success has yet to go to his bald little head. Yes, he talks funny and looks like an elf. But classifying culinary talent by outward appearance is a bad precedent. Why do you think the “exhibition kitchen” went out of favor? Some things should remain a mystery.
Another aspect of television I find unsavory is the snarky, competitive rivalry producers set up among contestants. In my case, all animosity was completely fabricated. All the contestants on my episode got along great and we still keep in touch. Despite a healthy confidence, I always feel a bit intimidated when I meet other chefs. I know I am good, but there are certainly others better than I am, at least in theory. One of my opponents came from Le Bec Fin, a well-established bastion of the Philadelphian culinary elite. Another was a self-described expert in molecular gastronomy, an arena I have actively avoided, the way parents in the 1950s avoided Elvis. The final guy refused to talk to us initially, choosing instead to psych himself up via his iPod. But as the day dragged on, we got to know each other. I was the oldest of the group and, as such, found myself slipping into mentor mode, doling out culinary tips, tricks and career advice. My nerves quickly dissipated, and the entire experience became a super-fun game. As the show wore on (spoiler alert) I was genuinely sad to see each of them eliminated. (Not sad enough to give up my title as Sweet Genius, mind you. A loss would have been humiliating on a number of levels.)
Yes, I won the show. It was a fun experience, fun to watch myself on TV and fun to watch my kids’ reactions, which resulted in sore sides from uproarious laughter. I received scores of congratulatory emails, then it was back to work the next day, as usual, where I got a couple of thumbs up. The great thing about working in food service is the anonymity. Nobody cares what you did before, or what you do in your spare time. They only care that you can get the order out right and on time, that you keep your station neat and clean up your messes. This is how you know that TV is fake. I am a Sweet Genius, but I still had to take out the trash, wipe down the mixers and sweep up my station. That’s as it should be. I chose the kitchen for a reason. If I wanted stardom, I would have kept my job waiting tables.