As a judge on Bravo's new cooking competition Recipe for Deception, New York chef and restaurateur Jonathan Waxman has been charged with uncovering each competitor's secret ingredient when even they don't know what it is. There may be a lot of lies to filter out of the mix, but Waxman says that the challenges are actually designed to help chefs elevate to the next level of artistry — "that's what separates chefs from cooks," he insists.
The Daily Dish spoke with Waxman to get the truth behind Recipe for Deception, which premieres Thursday, January 21 at 10/9c.
What is the premise for Recipe for Deception?
Jonathan Waxman: Say you and I are in a competition. You know my secret ingredient and I know yours and you want to figure out what your secret ingredient is, so you ask me three questions and I can respond to those three questions with two truths and a lie. So it's kind of like charades and poker combined. You've got to start cooking, and you've got to cook a great dish. But you do have to intuitively figure out, number one, what your secret ingredient is and how you can incorporate it into that dish; and at the same time, your brain has to try to get out of me what your secret ingredient is.
So let's say your secret ingredient is bacon and you can ask me three questions. You could say, "Is it from the sea?" And I could say yes but that could be my lie. Or you could ask me, "Does it fly?" and I could say no and that's true. And you could say, "Is it salty?" And I would say yes because that's my other two truths and a lie.
Are there a million potential ingredients in the kitchen?
There is anything in the kitchen! When the dish is presented, it's got to be a wonderful dish. It's got to wow [fellow judge Chris Oh] and myself but it also has to use the secret ingredient perfectly. It's a great dish, but do you know how to use the secret ingredient? If you find out what your secret ingredient is in the last 20 seconds of your challenge and it's a difficult ingredient to deal with, you might get screwed. You might not figure it out at all, and you look hopeless and the only thing you can hope for is that your opponent is equally as pathetic as you are.
If you cooked a good dish in the begining, you've got a good foundation, but that's only 50% of the judging. Let's say you totally miss your secret ingredient, well at least you have 50% there. Your opponent might have figured out the ingredient, but their dish is just pathetic. So they're on the wrong side of the fence from the beginning, but their secret ingredient might have actually been used in a clever way, so then it becomes a real difficult thing for Chris and I to judge.
How do you approach that?
That's where the fun part comes in; it's like, how did they use the ingredient? We don't know when they figure it out because we're blind to the whole competition; we don't see them cook. All we get is the end result, so Chris and I are in a predicament because we've got to figure out, number one, what the secret ingredient is but we also have to look these guys in the eye and judge their food.
I liken it to, how does a sous chef become a chef? They're really good at a lot of things but to get to the next level, what do they need to do? They need to get the magic, they need to get the passion, and I think this really illuminates what they have to learn. Once people get it — listen, did everyone get Top Chef when it opened? No, it took a couple minutes before people figured it out and then they would think, "Oh, I know what this is about. It's about guys trying to beat the crap out of each other and somebody's going to win at the end of the day." With our show somebody's winning that episode, which I think is a little more fun. It's more of a thinking person's chef show and I think it's the next level, and people are ready for it.
The trailer reveals that guest judges like Million Dollar Listing's Josh Altman are also part of the mix. Can Josh cook?
He didn't get into the kitchen at all, but it's always good to have someone that's not from your field to come in with a fresh pair of eyes. What's interesting is their perspective, and it was great for us because we had to keep our game face on; we couldn't let up. It's tough when you judge a million dishes—you get numb a little bit. Having a guest judge really broke the ice for us.
How can these challenges be applied to a chef's real-world job?
You could be a great line cook, but can you improvise? Can you create a dish? You've got to look around the kitchen and use your peripheral vision, and that's what separates good chefs from cooks. That's what happens. If she's that person and she picks out an ingredient that you would never think about putting in a dish, you go, "Oh my God, that's brilliant." That's the ultimate gift in our craft, to be able to improvise and make a great dish and it really is about secret ingredients. That's why I think the show is going to be really successful.