Compelling television keeps viewers engaged because it makes them feel something. And when it comes to cooking shows, that means only one thing. “When you watch ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘The Bachelorette,’ it may not make you want to go on more dates, but when you watch a food show, you’re gonna leave hungry,” said “The Great British Bake-Off” executive producer Kevin Bartel. “And that’s because of the way that you shoot it.”
When food first came to TV, it wasn’t very pretty. “The French Chef,” starring Julia Child, debuted in 1963 with an episode dedicated to boeuf bourguignon. Between the kinescope photography, hazy lighting, and the black-and-white photography, her classic beef stew looked like gruel.
Today, with hundreds of cooking shows across every conceivable platform, we spend more time watching food being prepared on TV than actually cooking it. Viewers can’t taste anything, but they are seduced by sophisticated imagery that is the result of customized gear, highly attuned camera operators, and a generous dash of psychology.
“The obvious thing that is different about doing a show about food is that a very large and important part of food is how it tastes, which the audience can’t experience,” said “Top Chef” executive producer Dan Cutforth. “Creating ways that the audience feels like they did taste the food, even though that they didn’t, is at the heart of what we do.”
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Competition cooking shows like “Top Chef,” which premiered its 16th season on Bravo December 6, rely on what Cutforth said are “visual and verbal” cues to communicate the quality of the chef’s work.
“We were very influenced by the way that cookbooks are shot,” Cutforth said. “[Season 1 director of photography Bradley Sellers] wanted to shoot it slightly differently than most people normally would, to really make sure that the food itself looks really appetizing and appealing, and was beautifully presented. Then, if you were focused the right way on the food, you were able to see the components of the dish.”
However, the production made a serious mistake in its first episode: They didn’t shoot “beauty plates” of the dishes presented for judging. “The very first episode, by the time we got through it, we realized what we needed, and went back and shot every dish from the first elimination challenge, and shot it properly,” Cutforth said. “We realized that just shooting [the food] in the moment, we weren’t going to be able to showcase it in the right way.”
Today, production spins the beauty plate as it seeks the best angle for composition and for its components, both in full and close up, as judges taste and evaluate the food. This stemmed from head judge Tom Colicchio, who “was adamant that the food had to be eaten hot,” said Cutforth. “So, we figured out how to do it.”
The solution: Contestants must complete two plates of perfect food — one for the judges, and one for the cameras. Failure to provide the cameras’ beauty plate doesn’t mean the chef will be eliminated, but it does mean the chef can’t win the challenge. Also, simultaneous shooting means that even if the judges deem a dish a failure, it won’t influence the filming.
Bartel, who also produces “The Great American Baking Show” (ABC’s Yankee cousin to the “The Great British Bake-Off”) said beauty plates are “everything.”
“It’s your payoff,” he said. “That’s the great reveal. You’ve just invested half of a show or a third of a show, depending on how many challenges are in the episode, watching it all come to life and as the viewer, that’s the moment where you’re like, ‘Did they get it or did they not?'”
Although “Bake-Off” and “Baking Show” each eliminate contestants every week, they are kinder and gentler alternatives to the cutthroat competition of “Top Chef.” However, Bartel believes that stems from more than the charming setting of an English countryside, or the camaraderie encouraged between contestants and judges; shows about cooking and baking are two very different things.
“Cooking is art and baking is science,” he said. “So cooking is improvising. You take ingredients and you can tweak stuff and you’re creating on the go. That is absolutely not baking, and it’s very rare that you’ll find somebody that is an expert in both baking and cooking. You may have unbelievable bakers that also cook for fun, but they wouldn’t consider themselves award-winning chefs and vice versa because it’s a completely different side of the brain that you’re using.”
For baking shows, he believes it’s key to focus on technique, “making sure that each step in the process is defined and depicted in a way that’s satisfying for the viewer,” he said. “It’s important to capture their vision at the beginning. And then the middle it’s like, ‘How is that going? Is it all going to plan, or are you falling behind schedule based on the time constraints or the frame that we give them?’ And the end is that great reveal — like, ‘Did I pull it off, or did it just completely crumble?'”
On both “Bake-Off” and “Baking Show,” the production team uses specialty cameras and lighting to capture the iconic oven shots, along with what Bartel described as a “very rudimentary lazy susan” paired with a 4K or 8K camera for beauty plates. Bartel noted that because contestants are amateur bakers, producers want to put forward creations in the best light possible. “It’s not about focusing on the mistakes as much as it is focusing on what went right,” he said. “[On] ‘The Great American Baking Show,’ we’re focusing and celebrating on the successes more than the misses.”
It’s a different skill set for the team in the “Top Chef” kitchens. To capture the cooking action, Cutforth said key qualities for camera operators include having a great eye as well as a great ear. “When a story’s unfolding in front of you, you don’t really know where it’s going, so you’ve got to really listen,” he said. “You’ve got to really be thinking about taking the information they’ve got, and then do the math of where that’s going. Obviously, they have producers to help them with this as well. They’re constantly thinking about the story as well — not just the story of how the food’s being made, but the story of the dynamics of the challenge.”
Also important is the verbal aspect, which comes down to what the judges have to say. “When they are talking about the food is where the audience gets to taste it, so to speak,” Cutforth said. “Tom [Colicchio] and Gail [Simmons], who are the two who have been there since the very first episode, are fantastic at it… and Padma is really very knowledgeable about food and finds really great ways to speak about it, and trying to describe in what ways it’s delicious, and what ways it’s not.”
While these shows rely on high-def cameras, beauty plates, and crews who have the sensitivity of a tuning fork, Cutforth said it all ultimately must serve a master greater than hunger: the underlying human narrative.
“I think people are inspired by the creativity that people bring to these things that we maybe don’t really give a great deal of thought about from one moment to the next, in terms of a dish on the menu,” Cutforth said. “I think that people love seeing the creativity under pressure. I think they also love the passion that chefs have for what they do. It’s inspiring to all of us to see people who are doing what they really love, and to me I think that’s the appeal of the show. It’s awesome to feel like everywhere you go, and everything you eat, there’s someone behind that thing that brought love to it, and wanted it to be amazing. It makes you maybe see the world in a slightly different way.”
“Top Chef” Season 16 airs Thursdays on Bravo. “The Great American Baking Show” airs Thursdays on ABC.