(What, you think we can only do policy?)
There’s been a proliferation of reality cooking shows — Top Chef, Kitchen Nightmares, Iron Chef, Chopped, and so on — as well as spinoffs and brand extensions. For those aspiring chefs seeking to success on these shows, some pointers:
1. Always cook something. Seems obvious, but every competition has some person who makes a crudo or carpacchio. It’s not a slicing-and-marinating competition, folks; you need to cook.
2. Never do a duo. The indecisive or overly ambitious chef will decide to take a main ingredient and go for multiple preparations on a single plate. The problem is that you are competing against yourself — one preparation is going to be better than the other, and judges will note that. Figure out which one is better, and just do that. And let’s not get started on trios, OK?
3. Never make a napoleon. They never work. Trust us.
4. Avoid pre-fab food. Again, it’s a cooking show. Baking a cake from a box or using tortillas from a bag is not going to win it for you.
5. Don’t cook the same dish over and over again. Every chef has a style and a point of view, but you can’t make a variation of the same thing the whole series. In the immortal words of Fabio from Top Chef: “This is Top Chef, not Top Scallop,” mocking a fellow contestant who made scallops every week. The prominent exception to this rule (and the guy who wrecked it for any one-dish Charlies who tried to follow) is Ilan from Top Chef season 2, who cooked variations of a handful of Spanish dishes for pretty much the entire series.
6. Learn to make dessert. Most of the folks on these shows are chefs, not pastry chefs, so any challenge involving a dessert becomes a greater challenge. Particularly problematic are team challenges where someone gets stuck cooking dessert while everyone else is cooking in their comfort zone.
7. Learn to use a pressure cooker. The homely pressure cooker is a key tool on these cooking shows. Most challenges have significant time constraints, and the pressure cooker offers the only option in many cases for braising certain cuts of meat. Yet, highly trained chefs seem to be utterly befuddled by the device, particularly the lid. Put away the molecular gastronomy chemistry set, buy one, and learn to use it.
8. Learn/remember how to cook on non-commercial ranges. Many of the cooking shows are sponsored by makers of cook-tops and ovens, so it’s always puzzling that so much footage of chefs complaining about their stoves and equipment makes the final cut. Professional chefs are used to cooking on commercial ranges — which throw off a lot more BTUs than your typical home stove. So any challenge that uses a residential range is going to be an adjustment.
9. Know your host and judges. Watch the show ahead of time. It still amazes me that people serve Tom Colicchio undersalted food. If you are going on Hell’s Kitchen, you should be able to cook Beef Wellington in your sleep. And don’t bother serving Scott Conant, the judge on Chopped, a dish that combines fish and cheese.
Equipped with these simple rules, you can now compete and, while you might not win, you won’t embarrass yourself. Bon appetit.