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What Really Happens on TV Cooking Competitions

Christina Tosi pulls back the curtain.

By Lucky Peach February 18, 2016

This comes from Versus, our latest issue, now on newsstands.  For more great stuff like this, subscribe today

Each episode of MasterChef (and MasterChef Junior) pits amateur cooks against one another in one of several challenge formats: mystery box challenges (contestants all cook using the same surprise ingredient); elimination tests (loser goes home); team challenges (two teams compete for immunity from elimination); and pressure tests (someone from the losing team goes home). Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi joined the MasterChef and MasterChef Junior judging teams last year, rounding out a judging panel of Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot, who has since left.

Christina Tosi: One thing I want to say right off the bat: there is so much footage that gets cut! Don’t get mad that we didn’t spend enough time with John Doe, that we didn’t all taste his food, or that it looks like we told Jane Doe when to take her soufflé out of the oven but didn’t give John Doe pointers, too. We did! We’re probably the most fair people in the world—it just didn’t make the cut, because we weren’t interesting enough when we said it (or my hair was out of place). We want everyone to succeed. There is a team of standards-and-practices officials who watch the contestants’ every move. Everyone has the exact same advantages, and we want them to leverage those advantages fairly.

Thanks for that. The million-dollar question: Is Gordon Ramsay an asshole, or is that a feature he can turn on and off? 

Gordon is many things. He’s hilarious and knows how to get anyone to crack a smile, he’s an incredible businessman, and he’s also a chef. A chef that grew under many great chefs, including Marco Pierre White! So yes, he can also be intense, and turn a seemingly harmless mistake in the kitchen into a very serious affair—and he’s usually right when he does it. Part of the reason he became a great chef is because he grew up in kitchens where “asshole” wasn’t a comment about a chef, but may very well have been a sentiment if you were that shortsighted of a cook or onlooker.

Do you have to be more polite or diplomatic in your role as a judge than you do as a chef?

If anything, I’d say in the first season of MasterChef, I was far less polite than my mother ever raised me to be (sorry, Mom!). The real talk is that I’m a girl and a pastry chef, plus I’m wearing a little dress and am all dolled up. The cooks aren’t sure what to make of it (“If I flirt with her, will she vote for me?” Gross. No.). Some of the lovely folks on the other side of the TV at home aren’t sure what to make of it either (“A leggy lady-boss? I’m not so sure about this…” Really, guys? Get used to it.) And so I did what I always do in situations like this—though I’m usually wearing jeans and a pair of high-tops—I get tough, and I don’t give much away until I’m ready, and then I convince people why I’m at where I’m at. I’m a perpetually positive mentor, and you’ll see a ton more of that in the coming seasons as I get my footing; as I hopefully lose some of the bells and whistles of being a female judge, I can just be myself.

How often do you have to wait for beauty shots and stuff to happen before you can taste the food? Or do contestants cook extra portions for cameras in addition to the plates expressly for you?

Cooks rarely cook an extra dish for beauty shots. The challenges and timelines are just too tight, and there’s romance in the one dish that either takes you to the top or may very well be your fall from grace. Preparing two dishes just complicates things and takes away from the focus of the competition. It’s the spirit of leaving it all on the table, literally. No excuses.

Because every dish you see on TV looks, well, beautiful, there is always down time between “Time’s Up!” and when we taste. And we don’t taste all of the food at once, because you just can’t taste twenty dishes at the same time while they’re all still hot.

The second that time’s up and we know there will be a lapse, we go directly to each cook’s station and inspect each element so that nothing can be lost in the transition. Keep in mind that we taste food at each cook’s station as they work, so we have a good idea of who’s looking good, and who is going down in a ball of flames.

And while you might think a piece of meat is going to overcook or that pasta is going to congeal—and you’d want to blame the time lag for a dish’s stumble—the failures in the kitchen rarely hinge on that level of detail.

What is a behind-the-scenes procedural drag that the audience would never guess existed?

It can take hours to get the cooks in and situated, introduce the challenge, and read the rules. In order to make sure the competitions are fair (and something we can film and air with a clear conscience), everyone needs to start with the same understanding of what the competition is, and we have to confirm they hear every detail of the challenge. Stress does strange things to people—so immediately after we have painstakingly gone through every single aspect of what we’re shooting, they stop paying attention, or they can’t remember where to stand, or they start before you say so. They think it’s a steak challenge even though you said gnocchi. That does make for fun TV sometimes.

Do you ever see people who are just totally lost? As in, do you ever give people a challenge and they get writer’s block, but for cooking?

Yeah, a lot. Or people will go in a direction they think is a great idea, and they’ll realize halfway through it’s a terrible idea—but it’s also incredible to see how people recover. It happens more at the beginning than toward the end; at that point, they’ve been doing this day in and day out, so it’s a muscle that they’ve built and strengthened.

Never when someone is lost do they not produce something—and sometimes the best thing comes out of that. I think when you give yourself limitations, you actually end up being more creative; that fight-or-flight sense turns into fight, and I’m often amazed by how many clever things come out of people getting lost in a challenge. They’re much more intentional, and they’re much more realistic about what they can make happen with the amount of time they have to execute.

Do you ever have dishes that are inedible? Or incredible?

Very, very rarely inedible. I’ve never had someone mistake the salt for the sugar—that’s the only way I could really see someone’s dish being inedible. There are definitely plenty of things that don’t pop and that aren’t exciting or that just don’t make sense—the most common thing would be too many things competing with each other on one plate.

I think, more than anything, the most memorable moments are the ones where you have a dish that’s incredible. And I’ll think to myself, How did you do this in thirty minutes? And it’s not just making the dish delicious. We see the whole process, so you’re also like, How did you go from having no clue what you were making today, to being given rice as a challenge and making these amazing little rice pudding arancini balls? And even as chefs, there are moments when something is so insanely delicious, we’re caught off-guard, asking “You’ve never made this, you didn’t know you were gonna make this, and you don’t have a recipe?”

Who are the bigger babies: MasterChef adults or MasterChef kids?

The adults! They gave up so much to be on the show, they have so much riding on the opportunity, and as such, they have so much more to lose. It’s much more intense. Adults are guarded and tricky. They are also the bigger babies. But we love them, all the same.

This comes from Versus, our latest issue, now on newsstands.  For more great stuff like this, subscribe today