My Experience on Food Network Star

Ed Levine, over on Serious Eats, posted today about his experience as a judge on Food Network Star. Nothing against Mr. Levine (who I think is awesome), but I found the post a bit blah and didn't think that he really shared much about his experience at all.

It made me realize that I never really told you much about my own experience as a taster/audience judge on Food Network Star! I'm sorry about that, my lovelies! The episode I was on has long since aired (it was the 2nd episode in the season), so I figured it's cool for me to share some fun bits with you on this lovely summer Friday.

Disclaimer: I have no idea who won the competition, so don't ask me. (I didn't even know who won the episode I was on until I watched it on TV).

2nd Disclaimer: That episode was actually the only one that I watched this season, though I do keep up with the eliminations via Aarti's blog on the Food Network website.


The Episode: I participated in the "Bus Tour" episode, which had the contestants host a kind of edible tour of New York City for a group of "tourists." I was one of these "tourists." The bus took us through three NYC neighborhoods: The Lower East Side (Jewish food), Harlem (soul food and bbq), and Arthur Avenue (Italian). Each team was responsible for presenting a tour of one of the neighborhoods and serving us dishes that they created inspired by the local food scene.

How I Got on the Show: I am very much interested in a future career in TV, so my headshots and resume are on file with various casting agencies here in NY and in LA.  I'm also signed up to receive casting notices, which I review and submit to daily. I heard about another casting where they wanted folks to come in and be part of the crowd at an event where the contestants were going to be cooking (a kind of food festival), and thought it just sounded like a fun thing to do, so I sent in my info. The casting agent saw my resume and photos, and called to ask if I would actually be interested in "a more intimate opportunity with a lot of screen time." I said hell yes, and so that's how that happened.

The Bus: Was freaking awesome! I've never seen a bus like that. First of all, it was enormous; whenever we drove by the regular NYC city buses, they only came up about halfway up the side of our bus (meaning from my seat I could look down onto the roof of the NYC bus).

The inside was designed with theater seating consisting of two tiered rows of seats facing a gigantic glass window. The back half of the bus was curtained off for the crew. There were about 14 "tourists" on the bus, along with Bobby, Giada, Alton, Bob Tuschman, and Susie Fogelsang, and the crew, which consisted of about 3 or 4 shooters, 2 or 3 producers, and then a whole bunch of audio and other production people who were squashed into that back section of the bus. We also had a few SUVs with additional crew following us around, and advance crews waiting at every stop we made. And the contestants, of course, who were rotated in as teams in each neighborhood.

The Celebs: I didn't really get to interact personally with Bobby, Giada, or Alton, though the people sitting next to them did get to chat a bit. I will say that from spending the day with them on this bus, I did get a pretty good feel for their personalities. Bobby was by far my favorite. Of the three, he was the nicest and most down-to-earth. He laughed a lot, and was the one who chatted with folks the most. I also really loved that he would regularly offer to do things like grab a sandwich or a coffee for members of the crew. Alton was just as quirky in person as you might imagine. He had this very cool little retro-style camera with him and kept taking pictures of things. He's definitely got the southern gentleman thing down; whenever I or any other woman would pass by him, he would stand and say "Ma'am." And he has a surprisingly risque sense of humor, which I quite liked! I can see how he would make for a really great mentor.

I did really like those chips!
Random behind the scenes facts:

1. All the food we tasted was cold or lukewarm. We were told in advance to not judge anything on temperature or on texture that is affected by temperature (for example, cheese that congeals a bit or whipped cream that melts, etc.). This is how it actually is on most food-based reality shows. I thought that was interesting as I'd previously always wondered how food is kept hot. Answer: it's not.

2. Making TV means long hours: My call time that morning was at 7am at a studio down in Williamsburg (which meant I was up at 4:30AM). I didn't get home until nearly 10pm.

3. Most of that time is spent waiting around in overly-air conditioned locations--kept cold for the equipment and to compensate for the lights. My trick? I had little hand warmer packets that I kept tucked under my skirt and in my bra to stay warm.

4. Making TV also means that various men will have their hands down your dress and in your bra every couple hours to adjust your microphone or change the battery. You get used to it.

5. The worst thing I tasted that day was the Passover meatloaf thing that Emily made and that weird pickle slaw that Judson made. The meatloaf was awful, and made me want to gag. Most of the people on the bus didn't like it and sent it back almost whole, though I do remember that Bob was a fan of it. The slaw was just incredibly boring and made no sense.

5. The best things I ate were Justin's smoked creme fraiche dip with bialy chips (as pictured above), Malcolm's ribs and rice, and Eric's incredible dessert empanada. Seriously good stuff.

6. When I saw the show later, I was truly shocked that Giada's team won that episode because having tasted and experienced it all in person, I felt that Bobby's was by far the best in terms of both presentation and food. I found Giada's team to be pretty boring. I mean, Yvan (who is adorable in person and asked me if I thought he did OK when he sat down) served us a mozzarella ball on a stick with a cherry tomato and a piece of basil. And that Josh guy who told the 72-minute long Robert DeNiro story (which was edited down for the show, but was seriously endless in real life and made me want to defenestrate myself) served a piece of sausage on bread.

7. I was chatting with Judson at one point, and he told me that they were all on a crazy schedule. They don't tell them what they're doing or what time they'll have to get up the next day. (I remember Aarti said something similar in her interview with Joy the Baker some time ago.) That day they had only gotten about 4 hours of sleep! (Yet they all looked great!)

7. Overall, Justin was my favorite for his combo of personality + food, and was the one I voted for. I also kind of got in trouble at one point for chatting with him between takes (we were then told not to interact with the contestants. Whoops!)

8. And yes, Justin's lips really are that bright pink in real life. And no, he does not wear lipstick!

10. On the way back to the studios after the tour, our ridiculous giant bus nearly got stuck under an overpass, so we had to back up and drive about 2 miles BACKWARDS and against traffic on highway until we reached the previous exit. It was all kinds of hysterical. Once we survived that, the producers (who were all really cool) hopped off the bus and bought donuts and beer for everyone.

11. Oh and Susie Fogelson is GORGEOUS in person. She looks great on camera, but even more amazing in real life. Seriously stunning woman.

So serious! I was probably concentrating hard so as to not freeze to death.


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