16 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets to Celebrity Cooking Shows

Almost every foodie loves a cooking show or two. Maybe you adore competition shows, such as Top Chef or Chopped. Perhaps you have a soft spot for Ina Garden or Gordon Ramsay. Sure, some cooking shows are better than others. But celebrity cooking shows can be entertaining. Plus, they expose you to recipes that can help you cook like a master chef at home.

No matter how many cooking shows you watch, you probably know little about how they’re produced. Curious about the behind-the-scenes secrets you’d pick up on the set of your favorite cooking show? Read on to get the inside scoop.

1. Many chefs don’t formulate their own recipes

Gordon Ramsay cooking
Celebrity chefs aren’t all as creative as you think. | Gordon Ramsay via Instagram

Think you’d never make it as a TV chef if you can’t come up with your own recipes? Think again. Reader’s Digest reports many TV chefs don’t develop their own recipes. The publication explains some don’t have the time. Others “are more focused on being on TV than on cooking.” And still others just don’t have the talent for developing new recipes. As with many other aspects of preparing a dish for TV, most celebrity chefs get plenty of help.

2. Chefs often cut themselves because sous chefs have better knife skills

Alton Brown holds up a plate of food
Executive chefs have forgotten some knife skills. | Alton Brown via Instagram

ABC News learned on the set of Iron Chef, “the cameras never stop rolling — not even when the Kitchen Stadium chefs have an accident.” According to Alton Brown, the competing chefs have proven likely to injure themselves because sous chefs tend to handle knives better. “You know, [the chefs] become big on TV, and they become sloppy with knife skills,” Brown says. “It’s like, ‘Oops! I’ve cut the dickens out of myself.’ You know, blood all over. … Sous chefs are laughing.”

3. Cooking competitions are a lot more fair than they seem

Christina Tosi on set
Everyone gets equal time, despite what you might see on TV. | Christina Tosi via Instagram

When you watch a contest-style cooking show, you might get the impression that judges didn’t spend enough time with one competitor, or they didn’t taste all of the food another prepared. But Christina Tosi of MasterChef and MasterChef Junior tells Lucky Peach things only seem unfair because so much footage gets cut. In fact, cooking competitions are set up to be as fair as possible. “There is a team of standards-and-practices officials who watch the contestants’ every move. Everyone has the exact same advantages,” Tosi says.

4. Chefs have stylists to make everything look perfect

Jamie Oliver
Food just doesn’t magically look that perfect. | Jamie Oliver via Instagram

We all get disappointed when we follow a recipe, only to cook a dish that doesn’t look anything like it did on TV. Just know it’s not your fault. Reader’s Digest notes celebrity chefs rely on an arsenal of staff — including art directors, prop stylists, food stylists, and assistants — to make everything look perfect. Plus, they plate everything with the intention of making it look gorgeous. Don’t beat yourself up if your version doesn’t look the same.

5. It can take hours to get the chefs situated

Graham Elliot
Producers must make sure contestants understand the rules. | Graham Elliot via Instagram

Tosi also explains on MasterChef, “It can take hours to get the cooks in and situated, introduce the challenge, and read the rules.” The reason why? “Everyone needs to start with the same understanding of what the competition is, and we have to confirm they hear every detail of the challenge.” Thanks to high stress levels, chefs often misunderstand a challenge, stop paying attention as the crew reviews everything, or start cooking before it’s actually go time.

6. Competitors can get writer’s block — but for cooking

MasterChef judges
Chefs don’t always have a plan right off the bat. | MasterChef via Instagram

You aren’t the only one who looks at the ingredients in your fridge and can’t figure out what to make. Tosi tells Lucky Peach on MasterChef, plenty of competitors get a version of writer’s block — but for cooking. “Or people will go in a direction they think is a great idea, and they’ll realize halfway through it’s a terrible idea — but it’s also incredible to see how people recover,” she says. “… Never when someone is lost do they not produce something — and sometimes the best thing comes out of that. I think when you give yourself limitations, you actually end up being more creative.”

7. A single episode can take 14 hours to film

cooking competition
It’s so much more than a 30-minute round. | Kathy Fang via Instagram

Delish spoke to chef and Chopped winner Kathy Fang about what it was like to compete on the Food Network show. Among other things, the publication learned it can take 14 hours or more to film a single episode. Contestants need to arrive at the Chopped set around 5:45 a.m. And if they don’t get eliminated, they’ll continue filming until 8 or 9 p.m. And as for the winner? He or she still has to spend an hour or more doing on-camera interviews about the challenge.

8. Chefs can help each other — or sabotage one another

Ted Allen and Bobby Flay
Some chefs refuse to share ingredients. | Ted Allen via Instagram

Fang also tells Delish contestants on Chopped can either share ingredients with one another or opt to sabotage each other. All contestants have full access to the kitchen. But the kitchen only has one jar of each spice or seasoning. Fang says if you’re the last contestant to start grabbing ingredients, you might not find what you need in the kitchen. “You could yell and ask, ‘Hey, has anybody seen the cumin?’ Some people might tell you to come and get it; some people might decide to hide it,” she reports.

9. Cooking shows waste tons of food

Wolfgang Puck
A lot of the food is just for the cameras. | Wolfgang Puck via Instagram

Thrillist reports that, according to multiple Reddit users who have worked on cooking shows, your favorite shows waste tons of food. That’s not exactly a practice you should emulate in your kitchen. Because food sits out under studio lights for so long, it’s often not safe to eat once filming wraps up. Plus, dishes often get made several times. And, like any other chef, celebrity chefs make mistakes. They burn food. Or they undercook it. And sometimes they drop an entire tray. (We’ve all done that at home.) Plus, staff in a second kitchen often make multiple versions of the same dish. That way, the finished food is already ready for filming.

10. Some of the drama on cooking shows is manufactured

Alton Brown
Drama is not planned, but when it happens it’s encouraged. | Alton Brown via Instagram

Joe Arvin, who competed on Cutthroat Kitchen, tells Chef’s Roll though there’s not any planned drama on the show, the producers encourage it. “The one thing about reality TV game showing, which is what Cutthroat Kitchen is, is that you have to follow all California law regarding game shows,” Arvin says. “Therefore, we had a lawyer on set to ensure that all rules were being followed, and there was nothing too fake about the contestants.” The rules are “extremely strict in regards to providing a real world versus Hollywood produced experience.”

11. On many cooking competitions, chefs can’t look up recipes

Elise Mayfield plates dishes
Chefs are expected to know their recipes. | Elise Mayfield via Instagram

A.V. Club learned on Master Chef, contestants can’t reference recipes when they’re putting a dish together. Contestant Elise Mayfield tells the publication chefs can’t have recipes, even when they’re baking. “No recipes. It’s scary. There are moments when you’re like, ‘Oh my god, it worked!’ I don’t know any other way to explain it other than that it is amazing what the human brain can remember when you’re under pressure.” Mayfield says she memorized recipes for baked items, including cakes and biscuits.

12. Nobody actually eats the food you see on TV

Giada DeLaurentiis via Instagram
What you see cooking often is not what’s eaten. | Giada DeLaurentiis via Instagram

Another cooking show secret that comes courtesy of Reddit? Judges on contest-style shows don’t actually eat the food you see cooked and plated. That version gets thrown away. And a different version is cooked specifically for them to take two or three bites (and then throw away). Plus, many dishes you see on TV are actually inedible. They’re often sprayed, painted, and otherwise manipulated with chemicals to make them look more appealing — or to make them last longer under the studio lights. 

13. The staff does all of the prep work ahead of time

Mario Batali with two chefs
A “30-minute meal” on many cooking shows could actually take days and several chefs to prepare. | Mario Batali via Instagram

Ever wonder how celebrity chefs manage to make a complicated dinner in just 30 minutes? Simple. According to Reddit users, somebody else does all of the prep work. Plus, all of that cleaning, chopping, marinating, and prepping gets done ahead of time. In fact, on some shows, a food stylist actually does most of the cooking (not the chef who hosts the show). And when somebody makes a mistake, they reset and start all over again. Think the food actually gets cooked in the amount of time you see on the show? Not a chance. HowStuff Works notes as many as 20 people help prepare each dish for a cooking show. And the Food Network kitchen, for instance, has five separate kitchens.

14. They aren’t cooking in their real homes or kitchens

Rachael Ray on her show
No, you’re not seeing all that home cooking done at the celebrity chefs’ homes. | Rachael Ray via Instagram

You might assume a cooking show gives you a look into the kitchen your favorite celebrity chef has at home. But Reader’s Digest reports that’s rarely the truth. The chef is almost always cooking on a set in New York or Los Angeles. And when the show finishes filming for the season, a crew packs up the set. The crew often shoots an entire season of a show in just a few days or weeks. Although it seems like you’re seeing a chef’s kitchen evolve over the course of a season, all you’re seeing is a set that’s strategically decorated and staged.

15. Cooking competitions are a lot like real kitchen life

five chefs pose for a photo
The pace and pressure on many cooking shows is like real kitchen work. | Michael Vignola via Instagram

Although contest shows, such as Chopped, might seem pretty different from working in a real kitchen, many chefs say there are several similarities. In both situations, chefs have to work well under pressure and respond to all kinds of unforeseen situations. Michael Vignola, a Chopped contestant, tells Tasting Table, “This show is real. There’s no stop and go. It’s very much like real kitchen life, and you have to just make it happen.”

16. Many celebrity chefs don’t eat the food they prepare

Giada DeLaurentiis takes a photo of sandwiches
Some chefs spit out their food between takes. | Giada de Laurentiis via Instagram

Wonder how Giada de Laurentiis stays so thin while cooking rich Italian food? According to Page Six, she doesn’t eat the food she cooks on her show. In fact, she reportedly spits out food after tasting it on camera. De Laurentiis has said she stays thin by eating in moderation. So even when she does eat a few bites of a dish prepared on the show, she probably doesn’t eat the whole dish.