13+ Things TV Chefs Won’t Tell You

We went behind the scenes to hear from your favorite chefs on TV to learn their dirtiest kitchen secrets. Goodness, greatness, great balls of fire!

By Michelle Crouch
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine January 2013
from Reader's Digest Magazine
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    Many TV chefs don’t write or develop their own recipes.

    Some don’t have time. Other are more focused on being on TV than on cooking, so they would rather pay someone else. And a few just don’t know how.

    If you want the food you make to look as pretty as mine, don’t fill the plate.

    Putting something small on a bigger plate always looks better, especially if you stack the foods or lay them against each other.


    When a chef forgets to say something important, we have to do what’s called a voice-over.

    That’s when you’re watching and all of a sudden, you don’t see the chef’s face. Instead, you see a close-up of the bowl or their hands and you hear them saying, “Now add a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon.” With the best talent, you’ll almost never hear a voice-over.




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    Obviously, we’re not all going to sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting for a roast or a lasagna to cook.

    So there are people in a second kitchen behind the scenes cooking a bunch of versions of the same recipe so it will be ready to go at different stages. That’s called a swap-out.


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    Sometimes, the dishes we taste on are stone cold because of a swap-out.

    So we may be saying, “Mmm,” but really it tastes awful. We just smile and stomach it.



    Sure, we burn things.

    When that happens, we just make sure to pick it up with the charred side away from the camera, and we never flip it over.



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    Sorry, but we are not going to tell you how bad a recipe is for you.

    While more chefs are acknowledging that we have a responsibility to people’s health, you’re never going to see calorie counts when we’re making chocolate cake.


    Here’s how to enhance just about any dish: Add some acidity.

    Whether from fresh citrus juice or vinegar, acidity wakes up the palate and makes food jump and pop.



    Before I host a cooking segment, I go through every step of the recipe with the art director, prop stylist, and food stylist.

     They ensure I have every tool I need, they mise en place-or prepare and measure out-every ingredient, and they make the finished dish look gorgeous. So keep in mind that it will take you a lot longer to follow this recipe at home-and it probably won’t look quite as perfect.



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    Please don’t follow my recipes to the letter.

     A recipe should be a loose map to guide you, but since no two ingredients are exactly the same, you should be constantly tasting the dish and adapting as you go along.


    When I say something should be brown, I mean brown—not tan.

    Whether searing a piece of fish or baking bread, home cooks generally underbake food. Really yummy, magical things happen when food turns brown.


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    A garnish can make anything look better.

    Go ahead and throw some chopped fresh greens or herbs on top. They smell nice, create a beautiful contrast in color, and give the whole plate a little zing.


    In the restaurant, I cook in a very methodical way; I use something, and then I clean it right away.

    But in competitions like Hell’s Kitchen or Master Chef, the kitchens get destroyed. Afterward, there are dozens and dozens of dishes, anchovies on the floor, mayo is splattered all over the wall, and you can still hear the stove clicking because someone left the gas on.

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    We make mistakes, lots of them.

    Towels catch on fire. Food gets dropped on the floor. We get cut and burned. One chef actually had the words “All Clad” branded onto her wrist for weeks after touching a pan that was coming out of the oven. But unless you’re watching a reality competition, you won’t see any of that on the air.

    The truth is, I have no clue what brand of ketchup or baking powder I’m using.

    That’s because we have a graphic artist whose whole job is to “Greek” brand name products by creating fake names and new labels. It’s to avoid giving companies free exposure.”

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    Yes, the cooking and food we make on TV is real.

    Enough said.

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    Want to know the hardest thing to do? Go on a morning show.

    Once on the Today Show, it was Halloween. I was trying to talk to Matt Lauer, and he’s dressed as Luke Skywalker. I’m in costume, too, so I have these big rubber gloves on, and I’m trying to ice a cake. Then there were Ewoks messing with everything. At the same time, I’m supposed to be answering questions and promoting the new season of my show. You have no idea how impossible that is. Plus, it’s live, and you have only two minutes.

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    This job is harder than it looks.

    Besides just cooking, you have to describe your method step-by-step, talk about different ingredients, and make eye contact with the camera. And then there may be someone in your ear telling you need to get to the next step or to move the pepper mill because it’s blocking the shot.

    What kind of spoon did I use? The one they handed to me.

    Only people like Rachael Ray who have their own line get to use specific products and tools.


    We’re cooking all this amazing food on TV, caviars and truffles and such,

    but when we take a break for the most part what we’re eating–unfortunately–is very standard catered food like baked chicken breast or unremarkable mac-n-cheese.


    No, that’s not my real house or kitchen.

    In most cases, I’m cooking on a set in New York City or Los Angeles that gets packed up when we’re done filming the season. If you stare at the cars in the background long enough, you’ll realize it’s just a video loop.

    If a TV chef is going to do a recipe that calls for a pound of asparagus, we’ll have four pounds on the set, just in case of retakes or swapouts.

    If there are four recipes per show, and you tape four shows a day, you wind up with a tremendous amount of food. Most of the extra gets distributed to food pantries. But sometimes the crew gets a treat.




    Most chefs, especially big names, are not involved at all in deciding what they’re cooking if they’re invited to do a short on a morning show.

    They often don’t even know what they’re making until they get there.



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    I once had a chocolate malt shake shoot out of the blender and all over me.

    The crew thought it was the funniest thing in the world. Because of continuity, my wardrobe had to stay the same, so I had to run off set, take off the outfit, soak it in seltzer and blow dry it out. Plus, my hair and makeup had to get fixed. Meanwhile, the food was getting cold. Viewers saw none of that.
     



    Even though my show is on every week, the whole season was probably shot in just a few days or weeks many months earlier.

    So we’re always looking for pumpkins in February and doing Christmas cooking in June.


    The first thing I ever cooked on camera was a minestrone soup.

    I made the whole soup and didn’t realize until the end that I forgot to add one of the vegetables and the beans. That meant I added only three of the five veggies that were supposed to go into the soup. But I stood there smiling proudly as if I had made the whole thing right.

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