Fifteen years ago, a food career might have meant being a cook, writer, photographer, or distributor. Now the food media landscape is larger than ever, with novels, podcasts, webisodes, and of course -- TV.
But how do you enter food television? I’ve been cast on two different cooking shows (Cooks Vs Cons and Food Network Star), and while I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any means, I do have some tips on how to get noticed. Here are 10 pointers, based on my own experience and what I’ve learned from others who have made their mark on food TV.
Is this for me?
1) Ask yourself -- do I really want this? For some people, cooking competition shows are exhilarating and business-boosting. For others, they might be painful and regrettable. When you shoot a cooking show, you’re looking at a 14-hour day, with cameras in your face, watching your every move and misstep. And then compound that day after day if you’re doing a show that follows contestants over multiple episodes. If that sounds exciting -- carry on! If it sounds frightening, maybe food TV isn’t for you.
2) When the kitchen is a stage. All competition shows have two casting criteria. 1) Do you have the skills? 2) Do you have the camera presence? This goes for any show, whether it’s Food Network Star or Jeopardy (I know, because both me and my husband got to the screen test portion of Jeopardy casting and didn't make it). Being smart or a great cook isn't enough. Camera presence doesn’t mean that you’re gorgeous. It just means that you pop on screen somehow. Is this you? And if not, can you make it you?
3) Get looped into casting. Okay, now for the fun stuff. You’ve decided you want to take the plunge. Now you have to find the opportunities. Food Network makes it really easy by listing all their casting openings here. Follow various casting agencies directly, too. JS Casting casts for Food Network Star, Cooks Vs Cons, Beat Bobby Flay, and Chopped. I was on their mailing list for TEN YEARS before I was cast on Food Network Star.
4) Look for smaller, newer shows. This is a game of odds. It’s much easier to be cast from a field of hundreds than it is from a field of thousands. Plus, once you’re cast on one show, you can use that as a launching pad for other shows. I applied to Cooks Vs Cons before the first season even aired. Because it was a total unknown, my application didn’t have to fight for attention as much. And because JS Casting already knew me from Cooks Vs Cons, they eventually cast me for Food Network Star.
5) Find a friend who was on a show. Referrals matter. Whether it’s a job, or a potential date, or a publishing deal -- getting the right intro can make all the difference.
6) Build a platform. Confession. I tried out for Food Network Star ten years ago. I was 23 years old and fresh out of college. I met with Jennifer Sullivan (the JS of JS Casting) and she said, “I like you, but I can’t do anything with you. You don’t have a platform”. Brutal, but honest! I was just a person who liked food. So what? But over the years, I built a platform and a body of expertise. I became a food novelist. An F&B marketer. A food blogger. Put in the work and set yourself apart, and you’ll make casting agents take notice.
7) Tap into “what’s at stake”. A very common question on casting applications is, “Why is winning XYZ so important to you?”. Or they might ask you point blank, “What’s at stake?”. Remember food TV is just like any other show -- it must have stories, characters, conflict, drama. Consider two contestants. Arnold wants to be cast because it’s a fun bucket list thing and he asked, why not? Betty wants to be cast because she lost her bakery to a freak flood that deprived a community of a beloved institution. Who would you root for? I’m not saying you have to lie here, but you have to consider why viewers should care about you. Like writing a novel, a storyline works best if there’s something important, even life-and-death, about the outcome.
8) Act comfortable and confident. If you’re nervous in your initial casting, then they’ll probably write you off then and there. Being on set is way more nerve-wracking, and if you can’t handle a couple people judging you, then you won’t be able to handle actual filming, when you’ll be watched by dozens of people on set and millions of people on TV.
9) Be yourself, but more. My totally unscientific measurement is that the camera saps away 25% of our energy. So that means you have to give 25% more. Think of TV makeup. If you saw a person with TV makeup IRL, you’d be like wow you have a lot of makeup on. But on TV, they look totally natural! So, bump it up.
10) Don’t be discouraged if you’re not cast. Seriously, don’t take it personally. Remember my #2 above where I said you’re cast based on skill and camera presence? Well, there’s something else: cast curation. And you have no control over that. Maybe they’re looking for a specific personality or a person from a specific place. Casting isn’t about winning a race, it’s about fitting a niche. Maybe that niche is you… and maybe it’s not. The best thing you can do is be yourself and wait for the right time.
I'm curious... would you compete on a TV cooking show?