As part of the From the Judging Table series, Insider spoke to celebrity chefs from popular cooking-competition shows to find out behind-the-scenes secrets about the series they judge on.
It can take anywhere from 12 hours to multiple days to film a single episode of some cooking-competition series.
Judges are sometimes given customized gifts to commemorate their experience on these shows.
Sometimes judges get into heated debates about final verdicts, or wish they could change their minds.
A lot of work goes into creating popular competition series like “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” and “Holiday Baking Championship.”
In fact, each show requires hundreds of crew members, many hours of production, and detailed judging processes to bring the final product to viewers’ TV screens.
As part of the From the Judging Table series, Insider spoke to former and current judges from popular cooking shows to find out behind-the-scenes secrets about everything from production schedules to what happens inside the deliberation rooms.
Read on to learn 16 interesting things about some of your favorite cooking-competition shows.
On many shows, winners are chosen based on the episode’s individual challenge, not the chef’s cumulative journey on the show.
On some shows, even contestants who shine for a whole season can get sent home for one slipup — and though this surprises some viewers, judges are meant to focus on only the dishes in front of them.
Duff Goldman, pastry chef, author of “Super Good Baking for Kids,” and longtime judge on Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship” and “Kids Baking Championship,” told Insider that individual challenges count the most for judges.
“The shows aren’t cumulative unless specifically stated,” Goldman told Insider. “One contestant can absolutely crush it all the way through a season and then one bad day can get them sent home. It’s a tough break but them’s the rules.”
He said this is to help maintain the integrity of the show and the judges’ culinary expertise by affirming that “the only factor [in winning] is the food on the plate.”
Judges often get into lengthy and heated debates about which contestant’s dish reigns supreme.
Many of the judges who spoke to Insider about their experience on cooking-competition shows said that judging panels can get very heated.
“Top Chef” judge Richard Blais even compared culinary deliberations to being sequestered during jury duty.
“‘Top Chef’ is a show that has notoriously had five- to six-hour deliberation sessions where judges have disagreed, especially if it’s a big episode or near the end,” Blais told Insider.
Fellow “Top Chef” alum chef Antonia Lofaso, even recalled one of her most heated debates on “Family Food Showdown,” where she “duked it out” with fellow judges Clinton Kelly and Robert Irvine.
“It was to the point where we were at the judging table f—ing screaming at each other … You have me and Robert — he’s an alpha male and I’m an alpha female — and, at first, I didn’t even realize how aggressive we were being,” Lofaso said.
She told Insider that, at one point, Clinton banged his hands on the table and said, “I will not be bullied by the two of you!”
“Robert and I just started hysterically laughing like, ‘Oh my God, we broke Clinton!’ So, yes, we’re very passionate about who we think should go home or win,” she added.
On most shows, the judges are the only ones allowed to decide who wins — no hosts or producers get a say.
Goldman explained that, on the shows he appears on, the duties between different people on set are clearly separated — so the final decision regarding the competition is judges-only.
“No outsiders ever. The host is the host. The producers produce. The judges judge,” Goldman told Insider.
Blais agreed, emphasizing that producers don’t have a say in who wins.
“I think early on in the reality cooking days there was always concern that producers had something to say about decisions but because of legality they don’t,” Blais said.
Lofaso told Insider that although producers don’t have a say in who wins, sometimes their preferences are evident.
“I’ve definitely been in a situation where the producers have a certain group of people that they want to stay because their personalities are great or whatever, but the shows that I do it’s 100% gameplay, food, and technique,” Lofaso said. “I don’t allow for it to be swayed by a producer.”
On some shows, contestants get to use their own personal, written recipes.
Although it varies by show, Goldman said, some series — particularly those featuring baking — allow contestants to bring written recipes they can refer to during the competition.
“For baking we let people use recipes,” he said. “I certainly couldn’t compete without them.”
“For savory competitions, I think most people operate without recipes. That’s just the nature of cooking,” Goldman told Insider. “But with baking, the measurements need to be precise and nobody can store that much information in their heads, especially when there’s a TV show that millions of people are watching.”
Food Network’s seasonal “Baking Championship” shows are filmed months in advance.
Food Network’s seasonal baking-competition series are actually filmed “anywhere from three to eight months” before they air, according to Goldman.
Fellow judge Carla Hall, star on “Halloween Baking Championship” and host of the “Say Yes! With Carla Hall” podcast, explained that this is because of the extensive post-production schedule involved in taking the show from raw footage to finished product.
Multiple judges told Insider it can take up to 12 hours to film a single episode of a show.
According to chef Jamika Pessoa, a former “Food Network Star” contestant and judge on “Sugar Showdown,” it can take a long time to film a short episode of a series.
“Viewers only see 30 minutes to an hour but in many shows, particularly baking shows, it takes hours or days to shoot,” Pessoa told Insider. “It is a lot of sitting around and waiting as a judge, but at least I know the wait will be worth it.”
Some competition shows don’t take very long to judge.
Hall has experience on the “Baking Championship” series as well as “Top Chef” — and she said the judging deliberations on those two shows is like night and day.
She said judging “Baking Championship” typically only takes “about 30 to 40 minutes.”
“On ‘Holiday Baking Championship,’ when the last contestant leaves we immediately go outside and talk about it and then we decide who’s going to be in the top and who’s going to be in the bottom,” she said. “Then it takes another 30 to 45 minutes to write up the copy that says, ‘So and so, this was your dessert … ‘ and then we’re right back in.”
On the other hand, she said, deliberating on “Top Chef” would sometimes take hours.
Being a judge comes with some pretty glamorous perks.
Chef Damaris Phillips, who’s judged series like “Beat Bobby Flay” and “Guy’s Grocery Games,” said her job can sometimes be pretty glamorous.
She explained, “I’ll be like, ‘I’m feeling a little sleepy today.’ And then just because I say it and there is a mic on me that somebody is listening to, [someone] will come in my ear and they’ll say, ‘Damaris do you need an oat-milk latte? Or would you like a sugar-free Red Bull with pellet ice?'”
Phillips said other glamorous moments of being a judge include getting hair and makeup done, having a personal stylist, and, of course, getting to eat food cooked by some of the world’s best chefs.
Although it depends on the show, the judges don’t always get to watch the contestants cook or bake.
Longtime “Holiday Baking Championship” judge Nancy Fuller said that on many shows the judges are completely unaware of the challenges the contestants faced while making their dish.
She said sometimes contestants will reveal that they’ve made a mistake, but the judges wish they’d keep that information to themselves just in case their dish turned out better than they expected.
“When presenting their cake we can tell by their faces when they come out if they’ve had issues, but we would have no way of knowing otherwise,” Fuller said. “They’ll think it’s really bad and we think it’s great. We tell them not to tell us the negatives.”
Hall told Insider that she feels the lack of context from not seeing the cooking process can be tough for contestants who run into snags during the competition.
“Sometimes you’ll have a plate of food and you’re like, ‘Why is there a tiny tart the size of a silver dollar on the plate that looks like you just got interrupted putting the food on your plate at a buffet?’ And we didn’t know that they ran out of time and all of their decor was sitting on their station,” Hall said.
“It’s really sad,” she added. “[The viewers at home] all know that but we don’t know that and we’re judging based on the final product.”
Like viewers, the judges sometimes wish they could offer advice or jump in to help the contestants.
When judges are able to watch contestants cook in real-time, they sometimes feel the urge to give advice.
“It is just as stressful for judges as it is for contestants,” Pessoa said. “Sitting there watching I want to jump in and help. I want to yell out pointers and time on the clock.”
“The worst is when I see them distracted with another component of the dish and the pot is boiling over or something is burning under the broiler,” she added. “I want to break the rules and help, but I just can’t.”
“Chopped” judge and chef Chris Santos agreed, telling Insider, “I want to jump back there and remind them to not overthink the dish.”
Sometimes extra food is taken home or shared with the crew.
Ever wonder what your favorite cooking-competition show does with all of the extra food?
Although the ongoing global pandemic has impacted this tradition, Fuller said, extra food is usually shared among the cast, crew members, and even taken home by judges.
“There’s a hundred people who work on ‘Holiday Baking Championship,'” Fuller told Insider. “So there’s a lot of food and a lot of people.”
Fuller said that she once took home the leftovers of a macadamia-nut cheesecake because it was the best dish she’d ever eaten on TV.
The food on cooking-competition shows isn’t always that good — but time and circumstances are often taken into account when judging.
Although some shows are designed to highlight the best ingredients and showcase the talents of culinary professionals, others are designed to challenge a chef’s ingenuity and test their skills with limited ingredients and short cooking times.
The latter often results in food that’s not exactly worthy of five stars.
Blais told Insider that it’s important for judges to factor in the show’s challenges when critiquing a final dish.
“The food is not always good. I think that’s safe to say and understandable. But it’s about judges having context,” Blais said.”Knowing [contestants] had 20 minutes and they just ran around the grocery store, or they cooked from a vending machine, or they had a hand tied behind their back.”
” … It’s important to remember you’re not handing out a Michelin star, you’re judging food that was made by people that were cooking under incredible circumstances,” he added.
Sometimes cooking-show judges become friends in real life.
Hall told Insider that she has bonded with her costars on the seasonal “Baking Championship” shows and that the host Jesse Palmer and her fellow judges, Goldman and Fuller, often have dinner together and hang out when they’re not filming.
“Nancy Fuller and I are the same person but we look completely different,” Hall said, adding that judging side-by-side has also allowed her to learn a lot about her costars’ palates.
“I was making dinner to take to Nancy’s and I love lemon, so I added lemon to a vinaigrette, but because I’ve been sitting next to her at judging table I know she doesn’t like lemon,” Hall recalled to Insider.
“I added more olive oil and some mayonnaise to take the acid out and I tasted it and thought it was good. I gave it to her and she was still like, ‘Ooh this is so tart,'” she added. “So I was like, ‘Dang. Big fail.'”
The “Halloween Baking Championship” judges have a say in their costumes and sometimes help put them together.
One of the most fun and festive aspects of Food Network’s “Halloween Baking Championship” is that the judges wear elaborate costumes.
Hall told Insider that the judges have a say in what outfit they wear and how they are created.
“Once the costumes are chosen, we have a little creativity in terms of how to execute that costume … ,” Hall told Insider. “Over the years we’ve grown really close to the makeup artist and wardrobe department, so it’s very collaborative in how to bring that costume alive.”
Hall added that judges can even get hands-on in helping to bring their costume vision to reality by painting accessories, choosing jewelry, and more.
Although decisions are final, there are moments where judges wish they could change their verdict.
Hall told Insider that it’s not really possible to change a judging verdict after it’s been submitted to the showrunners.
“Sometimes I’ve judged and then I go back and really want to change my mind, but there is a process where a producer has to write up copy based on who won and what the lineup is,” she told Insider.
“So I’m texting the producer and they’re like, ‘But this is what you said.’ And I’m like, ‘I know I said that, but in hindsight, I really mean this … ,'” she explained. “And I feel bad because sometimes you have to process it and it’s only after that you realize you would have put that person somewhere else.”
Some cooking-competition shows give gifts to the judges.
Phillips told Insider that many cooking shows give the judges gifts to kick off a season or commemorate a completed one.
“Every season that you’re a judge on regularly you get a gift for the season,” she told Insider. “On ‘Beat Bobby Flay,’ we got a pair of high-top tennis shoes that said ‘Beat Bobby Flay’ on them.”
She said on “Guy’s Grocery Games” she once got a custom Hydro Flask with the show’s name and her name on it.
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