Masters of Reality: What Happens to TV Chefs When the Cameras Stop?

Photos by Jane Bruce

One day in 2009, Rachel Coleman was sitting in a hotel conference room in Manhattan with two companions: a friend, Theresa Smith, and a bowl of cottage cheese mixed with pasta—her own version of macaroni and cheese. She was there for hours and hours, patiently waiting. Coleman was 24 years old, had her black hair cut into a shaggy bob, wore big rose-framed glasses, and was living in Bushwick. She’d brought the food, based on a half-remembered recipe from a childhood friend’s mother, to a cooking show audition. It was proof that she had no idea how to cook. (Smith was there to testify that, no, her friend did not know how to cook.) “My friend was a saint,” she told me on a recent afternoon, as we sat in a Park Slope bar watching NASCAR. “I thought it would be a few hours, but we were there for like eight.”

Coleman was trying out for the first season of Food Network’s Worst Cooks In America, which she’d eventually win. “People think it’s a fun thing to say about me if they’re introducing me to someone—‘Rachel won a reality show, Worst Cooks In America,’” she says, sounding exasperated. “So they always say, oh, does that mean you’re the worst?” Really, the show was about learning to be a better cook, provided you were bad enough to start with. Logically, it should be called Most Improved Chefs In America.

Justin Warner was also young and struggling when he decided to go on a reality show. The restaurant he’d opened with his friends, Bed-Stuy’s Do or Dine, had recently been shut down by the city for an assortment of violations, and he thought his life’s work was about to vanish in a haze of fines. So he tried out for Next Food Network Star, which he eventually won. Ilan Hall was also young, broke, and full of dreams when he tried out for Top Chef Season Two. He had to buy a video camera he couldn’t afford to record an audition video, and he took it back to the store as soon as he finished. Chris Scott, the culinary talent behind Windsor Terrace’s Brooklyn Commune, was more established in his career but thought TV could take him to the next level. Dale Talde, a former contestant on several iterations of Top Chef and now the co-owner of Brooklyn restaurants Talde, Pork Slope, and Thistle Hill Tavern heard about his show from a former girlfriend and was encouraged to try out by his co-workers; they told him that he was a raging asshole and that he’d fit right in on a reality show.

Reality TV contestants, as a general rule, are a down-on-their-luck bunch. Would you like to have your phone taken away, sleep in a sterile apartment with a bunch of strangers for weeks on end, and be prevented from watching TV, face the very high likelihood that you’ll be made to look like an idiot on national television, all for the very small chance to win a big prize? The people who say yes to this proposition don’t tend to have a lot going on, otherwise.

All of the reality show veterans I spoke with found the experience baffling, boring, and full of a bittersweet mixture of hope and disappointment. Warner was supposed to win his own show on Food Network, but three years later is still waiting. Coleman won prize money, but had little contact with Food Network after her win, and even had to contact producers over and over to actually get her cash (it’s unclear if hectoring is what finally got her paid, or if the normal bureaucratic process of check approval at a TV network simply took an extremely long time). Hall won the most of all and is perhaps the furthest along in his career—he’s the head chef at The Gorbals, the restaurant inside Williamsburg’s Urban Outfitters, and the host of Knife Fight, a cooking competition on the Esquire Network just entering its third season.  But it’s taken him the better part of a decade to get there.

All of them imagined themselves on the precipice of a huge, life-changing experience, some transformative event that would render them forever different. Yet each of them found that the reality of reality TV left them asking, “Is that all there is?”

Ilan Hall at The Gorbals

Perhaps alone among the creative arts, food has a remarkably positive and uncomplicated relationship with television. Fashion keeps its major reality show, Project Runway, at a cautious arms-length; when I attended the taping of its finale in 2013 (which also doubled as a Fashion Week show), the audience had more Midwestern tourists than fashion insiders. The film reality show competition from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Project Greenlight (in which the winner actually makes a full-length film), only produced laughable bombs during its brief run, though inexplicably, it is being revived. When the Oxygen network tried to launch a graffiti competition in 2015, street art blog Animal New York headlined its review, “OXYGEN NETWORK’S NEW STREET ART SHOW IS FUCKING TERRIBLE AND THERE’S NO REASON TO EVER WATCH IT AGAIN.”

There is no such uneasiness in the food world. In fact, there have been television chefs almost literally as long as there has been television.  Marcel Boulestin’s broadcasts with the BBC are widely credited as the first televised cooking segments and aired just seven years after the company figured out how to broadcast images and sound together in sync. The decades since have been a virtual parade of chefs that television has turned into stars: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, the Cajun caricature Justin Wilson (whose catch phrase, “I guar-an-tee!” has outlasted his renown as a cook), Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and on and on and on.

With the invention of competition reality shows early in the century, food television found a new home. While there are skills competitions in singing, dancing and even special-effects makeup, food shows are particularly popular and numerous. There’s Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, Food Network Star, Chopped, Cupcake Wars, Masterchef, and the kid-focused Masterchef Junior, to give just a very partial list. El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià, French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, Momufuku’s David Chang, and Joel Robuchon, once named “Chef of the Century” by Gault Millau, have all graced one show or another. Food reality purports to be doing something more elevated. For all the subjectivity of taste, there seems to be something objective, something nuanced, happening in a cooking competition. One contestant is a good cook, and one isn’t. Those are chefs who are already well established in their careers. For young chefs, the pressure to get on television—and the potential rewards—are even greater.

“You could be a horrible cook, but if they see you on TV, people will come, regardless of what you’re doing,” says Chris Scott, the chef behind Brooklyn Commune, and a one-time contestant on Food Network’s Chopped. For a young chef looking to get ahead, TV is “the strongest way” to help build a career.

The first thing to know about appearing on a food reality show is that, first and foremost, it’s a TV show. Your skills in the kitchen matter, everyone agrees. But your skills in front of the camera are crucial.

Justin Warner heard about his show, Next Food Network Star, from the producers on a reality show he’d been on before, 24-Hour Restaurant Challenge.

“They said, ‘You should try out, we don’t have enough people that are qualified at making television,’ he says. “I think everybody knows that. You have to have culinary chops, but mostly you have to know how to play games, and you have to be a showman, to some extent.”

They told him he had to show up at an audition at 9am the next day and to have a culinary demo—a display of how to do something in the kitchen— prepared. He had no idea what to do. “I’m like, culinary demo, what? So I showed them how to peel a hardboiled egg. Here’s a clue—remove the shell,” he says, laughing. Throughout the show, Warner says, he was able to spot what the producers wanted from him, and deliver. “Once you smell the story, you kind of run with it,” he says. “I had a feeling on Food Network Star that there would be this paternal push with Alton and I, and I still feel that. And Alton and I have had very similar life experiences,” he says, speaking of Alton Brown, who served as his mentor on the show. “It was all very real, but once I could see that unfolding after it was all edited and cut together, I was like, I get it. Cool. America loves it, I love it, he loves it. Rock on.”

Coleman says she had a similar ability to spot her storyline (Coleman and I have been friends for several years, full disclosure). “They ask you the same questions all the time to get you to say the same things,” she says. “So they obviously have a character picked out for you. I was one of the youngest people, and my thing was ‘This is going to help me become more of an adult.’ That was the storyline they chose for me. So they were always asking me in my interviews, ‘Do you feel more like an adult?’”

“Your talent is incredibly important to them, but it’s also a television show that they want people to enjoy and continue tuning in to,” Hall says about Top Chef. “You have to kind of understand that. And with that, the competition itself is a strategy game. It’s not necessarily who’s the best chef. There are people who I thought were way better than I am, but they didn’t play the game as well.”

Dale Talde at Talde

When I ask him if he found Top Chef producers to be manipulative of his appearance on the show, he hems and haws. “You get prodded to sort of react a certain way. They try to egg you on a little bit. They’ll ask you the same questions, and if you don’t answer it properly, they’ll want you to answer it again and again,” he said.

Reality shows just “let people do what they naturally do,” says Talde. “A lot of the time, people are fucking assholes. And it shows. If you’re not a fucking asshole, and you act like a fucking asshole, and you’re like, oh, that was edited—what did they edit? You said that.”

Seeing himself on television helped Talde realize just how much of an asshole he was. “When I could see the embarrassment on my mother’s face at the way I’m acting, that was a real wake-up call,” he says “You’re getting a front-row seat to how people perceive you. That’s a very unique angle. Because actors and people playing sports —they’re acting, right? This is supposed to be you and who you are. It’s awesome in that way. You can get an honest opinion. Like, yeah, your mom’s embarrassed by you. You have to grow. They make you a better person.”

Filming a long-term reality show like Top Chef or Next Food Network Star can be a bewildering, lonely experience. Producers confiscate your phone and keep you from reading news or watching television. You live in a sterile apartment with a group of strangers, frequently surrounded by cameras. Coleman’s experiences were particularly strange and summer campy.

When they had some down time, she tells me, they’d beg their handlers to take them for walks. If they couldn’t do that, she says, they were allowed to watch DVDs. “We only had 10 DVDs, so we watched The Italian Job five times. The new one, with Mark Wahlberg. It became like our joke, we’d get back from filming, and someone would be like, ‘Put in The Italian Job!’ We’d just watch it like every day.”

Another strange ritual developed over the course of the show: The contestant’s mattresses were oddly thin, she said, so as contestants were voted off, the remaining cast would try to grab the loser’s. “By the end, we all had like three mattresses,” she says. “You’d like wait in line for someone’s mattress when they left.”

Even a one-off appearance on reality TV can be overwhelming and strange. Scott says that his one day on Chopped, where he was cut in the second round, was a grueling ordeal, and started with him arriving in a nondescript area of Queens at 6 in the morning.

“You know, on the show, when it looks like it’s so quick,” he says. “Let’s say that you have 20 minutes in the first round. That 20 minutes is real. After that, you’ll be in the back room where it looks like you and I are just talking about what happened in the first round. Now, we’ll talk, but we’re back there for about an hour, sometimes two hours. You know. You’ll play cards . . .  Then you go back to stand in the front of the judges for what you made two hours ago. And then you go back again for maybe 30 minutes. And then you come back out and you compete again. Let’s say for 20 minutes and then do the whole process all over again.”

“It’s not real life,” says Talde. “If I tell my cooks I need a dish, they tell you ‘It’ll be in the window in five.’ On a show, it’s like, ‘We need you on set now,’ but then you’re chilling there for two hours. It’s like, what the fuck?”

If being on a reality show is confusing, winning is a thousand times more so. Of all the winners I spoke with, each looks at their win as being not quite what it could have been, even if they might not put it that way.

Justin Warner at Do or Dine

Warner admits that he cried when he won his show. He puts it down to the situation’s “confusing cocktail of emotions,” and says that winning was “like your emotions are getting put in a juicer and tears come out.” When he won, he “thought that I would get a cubicle and get to work. But that’s not really it.” He understands that maybe he’s just not cut out for the kinds of shows Food Network does.

Warner did produce a show for Food Network—a Bourdain-style travelogue called “Rebel Eats,” where he drives around the country looking for other culinary misfits.  In it he’s described (by himself, in voiceover) as “a rebel with a culinary cause.” Food Network officially categorizes the show as a special, meaning one-time-only program, but it was widely understood to be a failed pilot.

If Warner is sanguine about his fate, not everyone else is. In an interview with food blog The Braiser, NYU professor and author Allen Salkin discussed Warner’s treatment by the Food Network.

“I think it’s a failure of the Food Network’s imagination that they haven’t figured out a way to get a successful show behind Justin,” he told the site. “It does not say good things about them . . . They promised something on that reality show. They did not deliver.”

Warner gets visibly agitated when I read him this quote.

“Was I bummed out that I’m not Guy Fieri right now?” he says, naming a fellow winner of Food Network Star. “Sure. Have you ever not gotten what you wished for? Sure. Do I think that it’s a mistake? Probably not, because I’m not qualified to think that.”

In the meantime, he’s focusing on his restaurant, making occasional TV appearances, and looking for a way forward.

Coleman, for her part, never exactly thought she’d be a chef. “There were some people who wanted to be famous, but I was a little more cynical,” she says. “I looked at them like they were delusional. To me, $25,000 [the prize money] is a big deal. I went on a road trip around the country. I guess it allowed me to focus on projects a little more for like a year. Then I had to pay my taxes off, and it was back to real life. I was young, I don’t think I had any idea what I really wanted. If I won $25,000 now, I’d like buy a house, you know?”

Talde, now a successful restaurateur and chef, also didn’t expect much from his show. “I came back and started working,” he says. “I wasn’t waiting by the phone, waiting for fame, waiting for Bravo to call me and say, ‘Dale, you got a TV show.’ I just went back to work.” He’s since been asked back several times to different versions of the show: Top Chef Duel, Top Chef All Stars, and more. He credits the show with much of his current success. “It had a huge impact on my career,” he says. “You meet investors that way, and, I mean, I don’t think my parents really knew what I did until they saw me on TV. They’d say, Dale cooks the food this restaurant is making, not that Dale is making his food.”

Hall had his share of problems dealing with his win, too. “I knew ultimately I wanted to open a restaurant, but I didn’t think I was ready,” he says. “I wasn’t even a sous chef where I was working. I was working on a couple of consulting things, I was traveling a lot, and then I decided to bugger off and go to LA and try to open up a restaurant there.” He even had some rumors to combat, including that he’s blown a large portion of his $100,000 prize on designer sneakers. “That was a really funny thing that a blogger wrote,” he tells me, in perhaps the most menacing tone of our entire conversation.

But then, losing isn’t easy, either. Despite co-owning a popular and lively Brooklyn restaurant with his wife, Chris Scott’s longing at what might have been is palpable. He can recite in detail what went wrong on the segment where he was cut—he lost track of time and left out one ingredient. He’s applied to Top Chef four times and never been selected. He doesn’t know why. “Kevin Sbraga, who won Top Chef Season Seven, is a good friend of mine. Mike Isabella, who was on Season Six, him and I are tight. Matter of fact, me, Mike and Kevin all worked in the kitchen in Philly at the same time,” he says. The implication is clear: What do they have what I don’t?

Justin Warner at Do or Dine

But when describing his approach to TV, Scott says he tried to stay calm and composed. “I just didn’t want to go on national TV and look dumb,” he says. “They kind of tell you what to say. You know, in this scene, I want you to come on strong. Like, I don’t care who these contestants are, I’m going to beat them down and I’m going to be the Chopped champion. They want you to be all hyper and grandiose in front of the camera.” But he refused to play along. “Even after I lost, they had me backstage and they were like, ‘Wow, you know, it sucks that you got chopped,’ he says. But he would only reply in an even tone: “Yeah, you know, but it’s OK. I’m just glad for the experience and can’t wait for it to come out.” 

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