HOME > Chowhound > Food Media & News >


Reality Food TV...how realistic?

Are all of the chefs on tv, professional and amateur, so creative and so good that all they need is a basket of ingredients and within 1/2-1 hour they create a beautiful, delicious and creative meal from scratch without a recipe and without knowing beforehand what the ingredients or test will be? I think I am a very good cook but I don't think I could ever do that. And if all of these chefs are so creative, in effect, creating a brand new recipe from scratch, then how come I don't see more creativity and individuality on menus at restaurants? For instance, I went to an excellent restaurant in my city owned by two of the city's most celebrated and "creative" chefs; I really loved their grilled corn dish topped with an aioli and a mexican cheese; I then went online and googled "grilled corn with aioli" and I found an almost indentical and indistiguishable recipe from a restaurant in DC and the recipe was also re-printed in "Food and Wine". Looks like these two celebrated chefs who theoretically can create anything from scratch, "borrowed" this recipe from another restaurant, not that I think there is anything wrong with that because that is essentially how I cook. So the question is, how real are the tv food reality and competition shows?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. TV is not real (at least fiction and "reality" TV shows)

    2 issues :

    - TV shows are just TV shows and are made to be entertaining; in the case of food shows, they are all setup and all have staff to prepare intermediate steps in the recipes, so that you can have a stew that should take 4 hours to cook be ready in 1/2 hour (and that's the same for all recipes).

    - There are very few "new" and original recipes out there, especially since everyone can blog about it and copy'n'paste and tweek the recipe. I'd go out on a limb and write that if you look at menus of 99% of restaurants, you will find the same recipes everywhere (with som eminor twists).

    Anyway, if you enjoy the shows, watch them, if not either change channel or close the TV.


    1. You confuse a lot of issues into an overly long paragraph.

      You seem to be addressing "Chopped" which, to me, at least, has the most "reality" of that genre. As to how they can come up with a dish from scratch, they usually seem to focus on the ingredient they're most familiar with and try to replicate a familiar dish with the remaining ingredients. As to why you can't do the same, it's because they tend to be trained chefs - a whole lot different from a skilled cook.

      As for certain restaurant recipes being similar - where's the mystery in that? There's a trendiness in the restaurant business where customers tend to look for familiar items and you see them done similarly all over the country with tiny variations. Grilled corn with aioli and cheese is a take on the ubiquitous street food of Mexico, elote, which can also be found anywhere large Mexican communities exist in the U.S. The Mexican dish is corn on the cob coated with mayonnaise and sprinkled with cheese. It's not a big stretch to take the corn off the cob, add some variety to the mayo and add cheese. Suggesting that it means that creativity is absent is like suggesting that a Caesar salad on the menu is a blatant ripoff.

      22 Replies
      1. re: ferret

        Sorry that I wasn't more clear and succinct. I was referring more to cooking/chef competition shows where the chefs are given ingredients and then given a set amount of time to create and cook a dish(es) and not the food network/celebratory chef type shows.

        1. re: bakerboyz

          "I was referring more to cooking/chef competition shows where the chefs are given ingredients and then given a set amount of time to create and cook a dish(es)"

          You just described "Chopped."

          1. re: tommy

            the OP also describes challenges on top Chef and Masterchef - just to name 2 others, bot of which I am a huge fan of.

            I also agree with the OP, that it's nearly impossible to whip up some of the dishes right there on the spot without prior knowledge.

            Not sure why the OP got such snarky remarks for a very leegit query.

            1. re: NellyNel

              Suggested that a trained chef may have an edge over the OP in this type of challenge is being snarky? I consider myself a great driver but I'm pretty sure I can't just jump into a Formula 1 car and do 10 laps on a crowded track. It's a challenge designed to test the skills of a presumably trained professional. If any home cook could do it then it wouldn't be as entertaining.

                1. re: tommy

                  No to the remarks that meant that the OP was *only* referring to "Chopped". There are several shows that do those sorts of challenges.

                  And I think the chefs would have to be magicians to come up with those dishes *on the spot*.
                  As firegoat points out Iron Chef is edited to make it seem like those chefs are suprised with the *secret* ingredient, when if fact, they are totally prepared with recipes.

                  1. re: NellyNel

                    Nobody said he was "only" referring to Chopped. As for you suddenly jumping into Iron Chef, that show is not what the OP was referring to (and the "reality" aspects of Iron Chef are fairly well known).

                    Chopped's or Top Chef's challenges are designed to put the contestant's skills to use and are fairly realistic for persons with the necessary skills (not magicians, but people who work with food for a living and were educated in programs designed to teach them how to work with different types of foods). Iron Chef is another show entirely.

                    1. re: ferret

                      I always thought that Chopped was for real when it comes to surprising the contestants. There are times when a contestant has never even heard of an ingredient.

                2. re: NellyNel

                  These replies aren't snarky.

                  I've seen amateurs whip up original recipes without prior knowledge in competitions - heck, I've done it in competitions (I used to run cooking competitions), though I'm not quite as fast as some of the pros. No references, no recipes, no foreknowledge of ingredients, and still got some pretty decent results. I have no doubt in my mind that a skilled professional can pull off the things you've seen on TV. It's not a personal insult to say so. It's just the truth, plain and simple.

                  I've seen musicians who can come out with beautiful and entirely original songs on the spot. No preparation - give em their instrument of choice and they can play something awesome for you that no one has ever played before. Seems a lot more impressive to me - nearly magical, really - than getting a basket of ingredients and making something delicious out of em on short notice. But I've seen it, and it happens.

                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    They may not have been intending to be snarky, but they certainly come across that way.
                    "I was referring more to cooking/chef competition shows where the chefs are given ingredients and then given a set amount of time to create and cook a dish(es)"
                    You just described "Chopped."

                    You will notice there is a period after Chopped, and then nothing else, no other shows are mentioned.
                    Alluding to the fact that Chopped is the only show out there that the op was referring to.


                    1. re: NellyNel

                      That's your definition of "snarky." I was referring to my earlier post when I said he seemed to be describing Chopped and I then went on to give my impression of why it wasn't a seemingly impossible scenario. The OP then responded by saying he was referring to something else but, in fact, went on to describe the format of Chopped. So then I said "you just described Chopped." Either I'm missing something or you are, but the fact that the "mystery ingredients" format extends to other shows that I didn't name doesn't really make my response "snarky" in any way.

                      1. re: ferret

                        I was not only referring to your post.

                        "Anyway, if you enjoy the shows, watch them, if not either change channel or close the TV."
                        Which was completely uncalled for.

                        You said: "You confuse a lot of issues into an overly long paragraph."

                        Who, may I ask are you to call the post "overly long"?

                        You don't think that comes across as snarky?

                        1. re: NellyNel

                          "Who, may I ask are you to call the post "overly long"?"

                          I called the use of a single paragraph "overly long." And who am I to call it "overly long?" One of the countless people the OP is intending to read his musings.

                          Since you're on your soapbox, I imagine that you would agree that courtesy should be extended to all. So if I want someone to consider my post and reply to it thoughtfully, then presenting it in a cogent, readable form should be a priority.

                      2. re: NellyNel

                        I got the impression that you were more annoyed/insulted by posters claiming that some people really were skilled enough to do what you see on TV. But if that's not the case, apologies.

                        Here's the thing though - the OP sort of came out swinging:
                        "And if all of these chefs are so creative, in effect, creating a brand new recipe from scratch, then how come I don't see more creativity and individuality on menus at restaurants?"...
                        "Looks like these two celebrated chefs who theoretically can create anything from scratch, "borrowed" this recipe from another restaurant"
                        You understand how these statements could be interpreted as calling chef contestants 'phonies' and unoriginal and dishonest? And how employing language in the OP that borders on invective tends to beget abrupt, less-than-sunny responses?

                        Not that I have anything against the OP, btw. I'm just saying I don't feel the tone of this thread has been too out of line with the OP's tone.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          Oh, no, not at all

                          I am a huge fan of these shows, and I'm on the fence about how much of it is pure creativity, and how much we arent shown etc...

                          Can it be done? im sure it can.... but I'm not sure it is.

                          I, personally have no passion for the answer either way.

                          I just thought the OP was sort of attacked for just a scratching head kind of question.

                          I also didnt _ and after re-reading - don't -think OP came out swinging.

                          I take is as he/she is just wondering.

                          Which I have done myself.
                          So to say :

                          "You understand how these statements could be interpreted as calling chef contestants 'phonies' and unoriginal and dishonest? "

                          Is quite a bit harsh, and taking the op's query to extreme.

                          1. re: NellyNel

                            'I also didnt _ and after re-reading - don't -think OP came out swinging. I take is as he/she is just wondering. So to say :
                            "You understand how these statements could be interpreted as calling chef contestants 'phonies' and unoriginal and dishonest? "
                            Is quite a bit harsh, and taking the op's query to extreme.'
                            You read it one way, I read it another. But at any rate, I haven't intended any offense, and apologize for any offense taken.

                            "Can it be done? im sure it can.... but I'm not sure it is."
                            Why fudge it when your contestants are capable of pulling off the feats you're claiming to show in the first place?
                            I realize this is a loaded question since, for example, Iron Chef America apparently fudges their competition a little bit in order to heighten dramatic tension (or something). But I see no reason for Chopped to do so, and no reason to believe that Top Chef has ever done so either.

                            On top of that, reality TV competitions are legally obligated to be fair competitions under the FCC since quiz show fraud in the 1950s forced the issue. They can still do some things that are duplicitous (Masterchef giving all of its contestants recipes or instructions for how to make a souffle; ICA having their contestants make their dishes on air, then remake the ones to be given to the judges off-air at a more leisurely pace).

                            Basically I think the biggest assurance that you have for shows like Top Chef and Chopped is that word of such little deceptions by the producers tends to get out - there are a lot of people involved in the production, and they aren't all good at keeping secrets.

                            1. re: cowboyardee

                              No worries!

                              It's so easy to misinterpret gist/tone/sarcasm etc. on these boards.

                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                I think of the off-air phase of the ICA competition as something that makes the show more fair. It gives both chefs a chance to present their dishes in a optimal state. I suspect the judging for each contestant takes 20 minutes or more.

                                On the Japanese battle Udon, the IC stopped cooking at the 50 minute mark. The challenger finishing his dishes and presented them for judging. Then the IC finished his in 10 minutes, and presented them for judging. The reasoning was that this ingredient was very time sensitive. ICA just takes this idea a step further.

                                Fairness means that all the contestants have same constraints and advantages. It does not mean that all the details have to be obvious to the view - unless the viewer is supposed to be the judge of fairness.

                                1. re: paulj

                                  Iron Chef is entertainment - the "contest" aspect is to build some dramatic tension (as is the whole "chairman" and "stadium" theatrics. It's a fun show at times and wouldn't be horribly diminished by a less-hokey format, but it was taken wholesale from Japan and you get what you get. People watched. Since all you're fighting for is "bragging rights" (albeit of limited value) then it doesn't really have to adhere to any contest "rules" and they can make it more staged.

                                  Chopped, Top Chef, etc. tend to be a little more rule-abiding.

                              2. re: NellyNel

                                "Can it be done? im sure it can.... but I'm not sure it is."

                                out of curiosity why is it so hard to believe? the op's main error seems to be in thinking that "ingredient-challenge" type situations result in "brand new" recipes, and not just variations of recipes and techniques the chefs know by rote. presumably, knowing a great many recipes and techniques, to the point where riffing can easily take place, is what separates the professionals from the home cook meticulously following the steps on the epicurious recipe. professional cooks in many instances have to fly more or less by the seat of their pants-- at least the creative chef-driven types appearing on these types of shows. . . when confronted with a totally unfamiliar ingredient, experience and technical ability can remove most of the danger of abject failure, in many/most instances.

                                1. re: soupkitten

                                  Very true. Also, keep in mind that it is often far easier to get a selection of ingredients and be told to 'create something' than it is to be told to make, say, a perfect souffle. In the first case, a good cook can play those ingredients to his or her strengths. In the latter case, it comes down to whether a cook is good at that particular technique or not - much more of a shot in the dark. When we've seen the latter type of challenge on shows like Top Chef, it isn't at all uncommon to see even a skilled professional flounder and come up with a poor offering. This is another reason I think TC is pretty straight-up as a competition.

                  2. I think it depends on the show. For example, Top Chef and Chopped strike me as more or less realistic representations of the contestants' abilities. Masterchef on the other hand - I'm almost certain that the contestants are given recipes or instruction for some or many of their dishes. There's also the issue of selective or misleading editing, which all reality shows do to an extent and stuff like Masterchef and NFNS are really notorious for.

                    But at any rate, there is no shortage of professionals and even amateurs who can quickly whip up something impressive without a recipe and with limited choice of ingredients.

                    "And if all of these chefs are so creative, in effect, creating a brand new recipe from scratch, then how come I don't see more creativity and individuality on menus at restaurants?"
                    A lot of reasons. For one, classics and familiar dishes with minor tweaks often sell better than off the cuff creations. For another, it seems you're imagining a single chef cooking in the back of most restaurants coming up with new dishes at will when in fact your food is usually cooked by various underlings who aren't creating so much as executing dishes that they've memorized, hopefully at high speed and with great consistency. Also, many TV dishes aren't necessarily something that a chef would choose to make in an ideal situation; rather their hand is forced by the contest (e.g. Chopped's mystery baskets). Finally, it doesn't make financial sense for most restaurants who care about making good food to buy a lot of esoteric ingredients that will only feature on one or two dishes - that's a great way to wind up with a freezer full of crap that you paid good money for and is now no longer worth using.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      I would add, that there are many dishes that are fine if you are making a couple of tasting portions for the judges, but if you were to try to translate that into many portions in a timely manner (and add your comment cowboy, about various underlings), it just doesn't work.

                      As far as the reality of being given ingredients and coming up with something on the fly, 'black box' type cooking competitions don't just exist on TV. Mr. S went in one at the end of his apprenticeship and he hated it. Just not his style of creating a dish. As well, sometimes chefs/restaurant managers also use them as auditions for potential new hires.

                    2. Here's an older article that talks about how "real" Iron Chef America is.

                      1. I just always assumed that something like MasterChef, or the challenge parts of Hell's Kitchen, is edited to death so as show only the active contestants doing hands-on stuff, and not the unseen flunkies and go-fers that probably also populate the 'competition stage'.

                        Assuming there are such flunkies/go-fers of course, but all I know is, it would take me a good 25% of the time they give for the entire challenge to get my mise en place for some of the stuff they end up making.

                        1. This is from an article interviewing MasterChef contestants:

                          ---Says Josh, “We cook every single day except Sunday. On Sunday we either have free time in the kitchen or in a cooking class.”

                          Wait, what now? You read correctly: cooking class. We were wondering how two non-bakers with no culinary training made three souffles in 60 minutes. As it turns out, the MasterChef-testants do get a bit of training behind the scenes, and everyone has access to “a full library of pretty much every cookbook in the world” between challenges to study. But no one has any prior knowledge of what the challenges will be, no one gets to consult the library during challenges, and the cooking classes aren’t necessarily specifically tailored to that week’s challenges.---

                          1. If you would like a good read on what it is like to be on a reality TV show I recommend Ben Starr's blog. He was on Masterchef and currently recaps the episodes and gives background explanations on what you are seeing. This particular post is called "What it's like to be on Reality TV"

                            It's an eye opener.

                            13 Replies
                            1. re: Firegoat

                              wow, your definition of "good read" and "eye opening" are different than mine.

                              poor ben is delusional.

                              1. re: linus

                                I guess because he actually was on Masterchef I thought it seemed somewhat factual. Have you been on Masterchef?

                                1. re: Firegoat

                                  oh, i don't think he's delusional about what happened to him.
                                  just in myriad other ways.
                                  he seems to forget, for example: 1) he chose to be there, 2)he could leave at any time, 3)he wasn't paying for the food or the hotel room, 4)his employer doesn't owe him special treatment because he chose to be on a game show, 5) the only thing at stake here is his presence on a game show (as opposed to the stakes of foreclosure, divorce, illness, etc., 6) financial and other sacrifices are required for many careers.

                                  i'll stop there for now.

                                  1. re: linus

                                    Okay, you are focused on what goes on behind the reality TV show in people's personal lives. I was focused on what goes on with the TV show itself. We're clearly on two different tangents.

                                    1. re: linus

                                      "So next time you get offended when a contestant lashes out at another one, before you decide to criticize, I want you to think about everything I’ve just narrated. And I want you to hearken back to your own most-stressful era of your life, and ask yourself if you’d be handling it any better."

                                      That wasn't whining, it was explanatory about every contestant's experience.

                                      Someone who enlists in the military and is proud of his service can still write about the harshness of boot camp and war, right? That's how the rest of us learn about things we haven't done.

                                      1. re: mcf

                                        i think there's a vast difference between military service and volunteering to be on a game show.
                                        haven't seen many guns on the sets of game shows.

                                          1. re: mcf

                                            meaniing there's no one keeping you there.
                                            are there folks who quit 'the price of right' or 'master chef' in leavenworth?

                                      2. re: linus

                                        I think that little article just kind of made a mess of what is at heart a valid point:

                                        It shouldn't be surprising that reality TV contestants on some shows seem irritable or aggravated, because the producers of some shows really go out of their way to irritate, aggravate, and stress out their contestants. (also of note, reality TV producers seem to go out of their way to pick a few narcissistic or otherwise abrasive personalities to stir up the rest of the cast). Yeah, they signed up for it, but they're still gonna look kinda pissy in the moment when they're sleep deprived, thirsty, hot, isolated, and that one crazy asshole no one can stand just stole all the cilantro from their station.

                                        Of course, whining about how awful it all was after the fact or comparing it to the trauma of war or a death in the family comes off as naive at best.

                                        1. re: cowboyardee

                                          i think you're right. of course producers are going to go out of their way to stress the contestants: it makes for better -- i guess i mean more popular -- television.
                                          but you'd have to be awfully naive to not know this going in, and though you're all deprived of this and that, you can always walk right out the door.
                                          i don't understand why these types of contestants don't realize the stress (which could be less if they just realized they're there voluntarily and the game show really doesn't matter) is the small price they pay for their attempt at shortcutting their way to success.

                                          1. re: cowboyardee

                                            I didn't find it messy or whiney. I thought he used hyperbole and analogy to make a point. It's very concrete thinking to infer that he thusly equated them.

                                            He asked readers to use their imaginations.

                                            1. re: mcf

                                              Yes, he used analogy to make a point. And yes, his point was essentially a good one. I'm pointing out that his analogy wasn't particularly apt. Or particularly sensitive, for that matter.

                                              Not sure how you're determining that my thinking is 'concrete.' I wrote 'compared,' not 'equated.' He turned a piece that was ostensibly about defending the actions of another contestant into a mini-treatise on how traumatic his experience was, and compared it to some, frankly, much more serious traumas that some of his audience has undoubtedly experienced.

                                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                                I wasn't referring to your thinking specifically. But I do believe that concerning oneself with the specifics of each type of trauma, one is focusing on a twig, not the forest.

                                                It was a writer using hyperbole and it gave me a firm basis for understanding how the contestants might be feeling in the moment, without thinking it must be as traumatic as actualy war with IEDs exploding around.

                                  2. Reality.
                                    Two separate things.

                                    1. Actually, to me that is what a chef is. Someone who really understands food, flavors, the underlying chemistry and techniques, has creativity. Anyone - even me! - can follow a recipe. A chef (actually a cook who leads the kitchen, but I use that term here because that's how you termed it, even though many of the people on these shows are not chefs in the sense of leadership of the kitchen) is someone who actually can open the refrigerator and make something to eat out of whatever happens to be in there. I think of Lynn Rossetto Kaspar, who regularly suggests dishes based on lists of ingredients or suggests interesting ways to use key ingredients taking into account the caller's restrictions or preferences.

                                      As for "they made something for which I found a recipe on the internet" well yes - as someone else said, there aren't many truly novel recipes out there. And there are a lot of ways to combine ingredients, but not an infinite number. What is really going on with these TV shows is something that the viewers can't discern and that is the execution. I can mix those ingredients, too, but I guarantee you that it won't look or taste as good as something one of these chefs prepares on these shows. They know the right amount of heat, cooking time, they have the skills to cut properly, etc. They can look at something and know if it needs more time or if it is just at the perfect state of cooked.

                                      Finally, I think those with rigorous classic training - like Hung Huynh of Top Chef Season 2 - prove my argument. They always do much better than do the (mostly) self-taughts like Carla Hall who makes a few good dishes in a single style and has trouble with the basics.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Just Visiting

                                        My favorite season of Hell's Kitchen was the one where they showed them waking of the cheftestapants every hour or so all night and showing them a video of Ramsay making one of the dishes on the menu. I wish they'd show more of the cooking.

                                      2. I recently watched Micheal Symon give his "tips" for cooking scrambled eggs on The Chew and realized he copied it verbatim from an earlier video Gordon Ramsay did. It was like he was reading a transcript from Gordon Ramsay's clip, he copied it to a tee - right down to the taking it on/off the heat several times.