I can reveal now that in the late part of the spring just past I was a contestant on a well-known cooking show. For ten days I was slave to every sadistic whim of the myriad producers and the three celebrity chefs paid to pontificate on our often woeful and frequently comical culinary efforts. That memorable torture will apparently be spun out for your viewing pleasure over ten weeks sometime next year on Fox Television. I’ll update you when I have the exact dates. I can’t give you very many details (did I win, for instance; or did I throttle Chef Ramsay;) because the non-disclosure documents I had to sign are longer than any novel I’ve read in the last several years, and also dryer, but what I can tell you is this:
First of all, you should know that your shot at fleeting faux-fame and a few bucks could be lurking as close as the Spring Fair at your kids’ school. At least that’s the way it started for me.
I’d wanted to avoid the hard routine work of being a parent come Fair Time—the parking lot traffic control gig; the set-up and tear-down; the solicitation of donations, etc etc,—and so I said to my partner that I’d cook something. I’d enter a savoury dish into the bake-off. Was that good enough? I asked her. Did she think I could get away with that?
I should have gleaned from her enthusiastic response, her slightly surprised tone, that I’d missed some detail, some vital part of the process. But I remained oblivious until just a few days before the event, when Sam “reminded” me that I’d be cooking at the Fair, in front of the assembled hordes, rather than delivering a hot dish prepared in the comfort of my own home. I think it is fair to say that she thought I was an idiot for not reading the invitation. “But it’s too damn late now,” she said. “You’re committed.”
Which is the last thing I was, but perhaps “obligated” does pretty much sum it up and so one morning, with more than a slight hangover and a belligerence that, according to the producer who happened to be up checking out the school for a friend, came off as “more than a pinch of skill and charm,” I prepared for about a dozen bemused onlookers a fantastic asparagus and chevre frittata—but then they’re not exactly tricky are they?
Two weeks later I’d got my real estate business covered, bought some new sneakers and jeans, and pretty much before I knew what had happened I was flown south (in coach), then bussed from the airport in Los Angeles to a middling motel, and from there the next morning to a studio dolled up to look like a supermarket / restaurant kitchen / swanky restaurant / holding cell. Like Cinderella is how I felt. But also like a fool for letting myself be talked into such a daft thing, as well as like a fake, and an old pretender, and even, once in a while, like a million bucks.
And this, even though it seems like the oddest place, is nearly where my story ends for now (remember the non-disclosure part?) But what I can say (according to my lawyer who has asked not to be named here) is that I decided very early on in the competition that the food I cooked didn’t matter very much, and nor, really, did my new sneakers. But the belligerence I’d cultured really did help, mostly because I got to make some acidic little speeches that caught the judges off-guard. Make speeches, not pies, that was my mantra for those sordid and dreamy few days. I looked at myself in the motel’s bathroom mirror every morning, before the bus came to collect us. I’m no Robert De Niro, but by the end I was scaring myself: “Make speeches, not pies. Make speeches, not pies.”
And so I made them. Asked by the judges for my own thoughts on this or that, I would sense the camera turning on me and then offer that, “I should have picked a better potato, Chef, you’re right. Something not so waxy, but more flour-y, and I should have paired it with a bright hot sauce. I should have aimed to capture the vivaciousness of the season on the plate,” I said, “and not just to pin some pig’s trotters to the china.” I was ashamed of myself, I admitted. “I really ought to drag myself into some foul alley and have a go at my own kneecaps,” I said. “But seriously, Chef, I’ve learned from my mistakes. I know now when I should have introduced the butter, turned the fish, hulled the strawberry, frozen the dough. I’ve got it, Chef. I’ve fucking got it.” And yes, I did swear, because they wanted something they could bleep out of each episode. Without me, it was just Ramsay himself, and that does get tiresome after a while. I filled a need, I thought, even if I couldn’t fill a profiterole.
And did it get me very far? Well stay tuned. I’ve said all I can at this point. Except to mention that they flirt terribly, the judges do. And they are cruel, and dismissive. Their compassion, rare as it is, feels as if it’s been poured from a can, or is ordered by a producer who will slither in from the wings with a clipboard and a headset to demand something that will “make America choke up”. It really is a hellish brew they’ve cooked up in those kitchens made out of the desert sun. I loved every minute.
Thankfully, not a word of this is true.