Navigating the World of TV Production for Food Shows
Posted on: Aug 03, 2023
Are you a foodie? Have you been working in reality TV, but haven’t ventured onto the set of a cooking show yet? Are you just curious about what it’s like behind the scenes? Read on to find out a little more about the magic of the production behind your favorite food shows.
Types of Food Shows
There are a variety of types of food shows being produced these days and if you are a fan, you are probably familiar with most of them!
- Cooking, aka “Dump and Stir”: This is your classic cooking show. It features a chef who demonstrates how to make their recipes on camera.
Examples: Barefoot Contessa, Nadiya Bakes, Nigella Kitchen
- Competition: These cooking competitions now make up the vast majority of food-related content being produced today. They will typically take place on a stage or set, and involve casting contestants or chefs who will compete in various cooking challenges.
Examples: Top Chef, The Great British Bake Off, Chopped, Guy’s Grocery Games
- Travel/Documentary: These shows typically send a smaller ENG (electronic news gathering) or EFP (electronic field production) crew to locations all over the globe to feature various chefs, restaurants or cultural stories related to food. They are often conducted in an interview or documentary style.
Examples: Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Chef’s Table
Most culinary shows will fall into one or more of these three categories, but of course, there is always the possibility of a new unique concept. Knowing what type of food show you will be working on can help you anticipate the kind of environment you’ll be working in on-set.
In the Kitchen
A few things will stand out the first time you work on a food show. Your set or stage will include a kitchen, or in some instances, multiple kitchens. Unless shooting on location at a restaurant, the kitchen often spans beyond what is seen on camera, as an enormous amount of food and equipment must be housed near the set to be ready for the next shoot day or competition.
In the kitchen, you’ll find an entire additional department unique to food shows: the culinary department. Department sizes range greatly from 1-2 producers with a small kitchen staff, to a team of 30 on large-scale productions. It all depends on the scope of the show and budget, but there are some key positions to be aware of on most productions:
Culinary Producers & Culinary Associate Producers: These producers are essentially chefs themselves who work with the story department to ensure that the featured chef(s) or contestants have all the ingredients and kitchenware they need for each episode.
Ingredient Team: On larger shows, there may be an entire team dedicated to sourcing ingredients.
Equipment Team: Also on larger shows, there may be a team dedicated to sourcing kitchen equipment. Often brand deals will be made to feature a specific line of kitchenware in exchange for better bulk prices.
Kitchen Staff: Includes a variety of positions such as sous-chefs, prep cooks, dishwashers, runners and even culinary coordinators or production assistants who are specifically assigned to working in the kitchen.
Food Stylists: Typically found on the set of food photo shoots, there may be food stylists on-set as well. These stylists are a part of the art department, and they take a finished plate of food and make it as beautiful as possible for those camera close-ups. Be aware—food that has been displayed by a food stylist is often no longer safe to eat!
Celebrity Chefs, Hosts & Judges
Celebrity chefs, hosts and judges are the most important talent on the set of a cooking show. They may be the entire focus of the show, competing against each other, judging the dishes of contestants, explaining challenges or even being interviewed about their favorite dishes. They will often have their own trailer or green room and should be treated similarly to an actor on a scripted set. Similar to actors, some celebrity chefs are very down-to-earth and easygoing, while others can be higher maintenance. The show can’t go on without them, so if you are a PA, make sure they receive their lunches exactly as ordered, that they are given plenty of notice when they are needed on-set and that any other general requests are met.
Unique Challenges in Food Show Production
Once you understand the basics of a food show crew, you’ll notice that certain aspects are crucial for a successful shoot day.
Awareness of the environment in which you are shooting is essential for a productive day of cooking. Are you shooting on a temperature-controlled stage? Is the air conditioner pumping too high or too low? If you are shooting outdoors, there are a myriad of complications to consider, including running power, humidity, heat, rain and wind. Any variation in the environment can greatly affect the outcome of the recipe and the ability of the chef or contestants to successfully create a dish. Some environmental complications are unavoidable or may even add drama to the competition, but the culinary team and production must be aware to ensure the day can proceed as planned.
Speaking of drama, contestants on competition shows are another type of talent you will be working with. They often have an assigned producing team to help them procure ingredients and tools, and to guide them through the shoot day. If a contestant has never been cast on a TV show before, they will likely need more guidance on-set. It should be mentioned that the long days and complicated challenges can put quite a bit of pressure on contestants. It may make for exciting TV, but if you are thinking about competing as a contestant, please be aware they won’t make it easy. If it takes 30 minutes to bake that roll, you’ll probably be given 25.
TIMING. IS. EVERYTHING.
If you’ve cooked or baked at home, you already know that timing is crucial to creating a successful dish. This is even more important when working on the set of a culinary show. Each shoot day is carefully scheduled to allow just the right amount of time for preparation, cooking, plating and serving. Ice cream melts! Any time a dish is to be served to judges or celebrity chefs, timing the cooking so the food is served hot or cold is key. Any delay on-set can cause major complications for the chefs or contestants, as an oven can’t simply be turned up hotter to save time without risking burning the food. While there are some tricks to cheat time on-set, like baking doubles, sticking to the shooting schedule is paramount.
If you’re a foodie, there are some interesting avenues in TV that might be a great fit for you. There are also many competition shows with casting teams always seeking new talent. You can simply Google your favorite food competition show + “casting” to see guidelines or submit an application. Even if you’re a kitchen novice, food shows can be very fun to work on and you don’t have to be an expert to get started. If you listen and learn, and keep an open mind, by the time the show wraps you’ll find you have a whole new skill set—and you’ll get to taste a lot of treats along the way!
Kealey McGray studied Creative Writing and Film & Television at the University of Michigan. She has worked in almost every part of the entertainment industry for the past 14 years including: live TV, unscripted TV, and scripted TV, as well as independent films, commercials, events / concerts, and for a major Hollywood studio.
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