Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

The Small Screening

Tom Colicchio shares his wisdom about presenting food on TV. He would know — he's never had a major disaster!

It's amusing to me how so many of our cheftestants said, in response to this week's Elimination Challenge, that they did not want to "do TV" in their careers as chefs ... while they're doing TV to advance their careers as chefs. As I recall, they were saying those words directly into the lens of a television camera. Let's face it: The media has long been a critical factor in shaping high-level careers of all kinds, and today's Top Chefs must be able not only to cook, but to generate heat about their cooking. On TV.

If a chef can get on television, whether local or national, s/he should not hesitate. Chefs should be pleased to start with local television - its viewers, of course, are your future patrons, and this is your moment to hook them. You're establishing relationships. If you do a good job the first time, you will have made the segment producer look good to his/her boss and they'll be happy to have you back, which, of course helps as you progress in your career and want to promote newer ventures. Here in NYC, the chefs' entree to television is usually CBS's "Chef on a Shoestring", which is great. The national morning shows are the biggies that you ultimately want to be on, but they usually won't let you on until you show them some tape and they like what they see. This is another reason it's important to do something in your local market and to do it well. I have always finished my segments and I've never had a major disaster. This is not to say that I haven't had my share of anxiety. My first time on television was the worst experience of my life. In '91, right after winning Best New Chef from Food and Wine magazine, I was asked to appear on Regis and Kathy Lee. I was doing a braised red snapper in a lemon rosemary vinaigrette with roasted red peppers and an eggplant caviar napoleon. I was told to be there at 8 a.m. and showed up prepped and ready to go ... only to be yelled at by the producer, who said I should've been there at 6, had missed rehearsal, and "was going to screw it all up." Nowadays, there is someone on the set to help you set it all up; back then, it was just me, setting up off-camera. And this producer kept coming by every five minutes to shout at me that I was going to screw it all up. To make matters worse, Regis made a few references to missing rehearsal that I thought were directed at me, too, until I realized that he himself had missed rehearsal and was actually busting on himself. The segment went off without a hitch and the producer who had been yelling at me beforehand was thrilled with me afterwards, offering to have me back any time I wanted ... while I was thinking "Are you kidding? I was so nervous, I'm NEVER doing live TV again."

Clearly, I got over it. TV's actually very easy to do. You can make things as complicated or as simple as you want. The best way to assure you finish on time is to have swap-outs, where food is already prepared. You can have as many swap-outs as you like, to use along the way, and you should always have a beauty plate done. Jamie was looking to do her entire dish in the two minutes allotted, which is why she came up short. Leah should have had a duck already cooked, should have had the relish already made, and should've had the whole thing already plated. You'll notice that Stefan didn't try to make his whole soup in two minutes - he had the ingredients ready to show us how to make it, but then had the soup finished for a swap-out. Jeff handled his segment perfectly: He had a beauty plate ready, and the food was really good. In that segment on Regis and Kathy Lee, I had swap-outs for every step of the process: I had the fish raw, plus in the oven, plus the beauty-dish already made. The various elements of the eggplant caviar napoleon were ready, as was the fully assembled dish, and I swapped at each step. It's the only way I could be sure to finish the segment successfully in the time allotted.

A lot of our contestants didn't make it on time. We were trying to distract them, because this is exactly what happens on air: The hosts will be asking a barrage of questions throughout. Speaking of the host, always ask him or her to help you ("Can you stir this for me?"), which none of our cheftestants did. Engage the host. He or she is the one with whom the audience feels a connection, so you are being introduced to your viewers through the host and need to establish that you have a rapport with him or her. No matter what. Once, in Dallas, the on-air talent mispronounced my name and introduced me as the new chef of the W Hotel. I didn't correct him, which would have been a gaffe, but at the end I just put in a plug for "the new Craft Restaurant at the W Hotel". As for your rapport with the audience, mugging like Daniel did doesn't usually go over well. It's just unprofessional. And as for rapport with the crew, I always bring a ton of extra food for the stagehands. These folks have been at work since 4 a.m., so by the time you're on at 10, they're pretty hungry.

Finally, when doing a segment on TV, you're usually there for a reason such as a new restaurant. You want to take that moment and shine, plug your work, and, in the very short time allotted, find that one message to put out there and then stay on that message the whole time, using descriptive words that help convey the food to an audience that only has a visual of it. Ariane did all of that really well. She mentioned her restaurant in New Jersey right up front, she highlighted the fresh Jersey ingredients that she'd chosen to honor the state, and pointed out that the ingredients were readily available and the recipe easily accessible to the home viewer. The only caveat I'll make is that you want to pick a signature dish that will help set you up, and there wasn't anything unique enough about Ariane's selection to do that for her.

This challenge was a test of both flavor and presentation, and presentation of the chef as well as the food It was as "New York" as a challenge could be, and I encourage our cheftestants to hone the skills required to master it. By the way, I was asked to do Top Chef based on a segment the producer of Top Chef saw on the Today show. I'm glad that segment went off without a hitch.