The morning of her MasterChef audition, Season 6 winner Claudia Sandoval got up, went to Trader Joe’s, and bought ingredients for three-cheese tortellini with Asiago cream sauce. This is the kind of shopping trip you’d imagine one might take earlier, say, a full 12 hours, in advance of the casting, but then, Sandoval says she wasn’t sure if she’d be going at all. She’d been watching along from the comfort of her couch for years (“from the comfort of your couch, it’s so much easier!”). Competing on TV, though? That seemed beyond the realm of possibility.
But Sandoval had a friend who thought she’d be an obvious candidate: a passionate home cook with a big personality, which is pretty much everything you want in a reality television contestant. Colleagues at the marketing firm she worked at all encouraged her to audition. But she was also a single mom with a full-time job and no real savings and how could she disappear for 12 weeks, anyway? “I just kept thinking, there’s no way I can do this.”
And then that morning, Sandoval had a change of heart. It was only a casting. If they said yes, she’d figure out the details later. “I didn’t plan it ahead, I didn’t practice, nothing,” she laughs.
Casting for reality cooking competitions present a particular cocktail of challenges: You need competitors with serious culinary chops, yes. But you also need people who are compelling on camera and won’t be paralyzed by the looming threat of disapproval in Tom Colicchio’s piercing blue eyes. Then they’ve got to fit together as an ensemble, a healthy mix of underdogs and future fan favorites and competitors that have what one might politely call “strong personalities.” Which means that the shows hinge, in large part, on their audition processes—finding people who can not only cook, but also be engaging while doing so.
MasterChef asks prospective competitors to bring a representative dish to impress (three minutes to plate, no heating apparatus, BYO utensils). For Sandoval, just getting her food to the casting was a strategic challenge: It needed to stay hot, but it couldn’t get mushy, and hold up through the potential hours of wait time. “My biggest concern was that I was going to have overcooked pasta because of the steam,” Sandoval recalls. She packed strategically, improvising as she went: al dente pasta, coated in olive oil, sauce kept separate until serving, containers wrapped in insulating towels. And then she was lucky. She was seen within half an hour’s wait.
When it was her turn, she was taken into a room with about 20 other ambitious amateurs. Experts sampled their dishes, one by one, asking questions about techniques and recipes: What’s the ratio of flour to eggs in your pasta? What’s the base for your sauce? (Béchamel, specifically mornay, thank you for asking.) “You’re just waiting there as they check out other people’s food, hoping to god that yours is good,” she says.
It was. Her food, combined with her written application—like all things in life, reality casting begins with a written application—was enough to get her through “the first round of craziness.” What exactly happened next is shrouded in television secrecy…and more paperwork. Whatever happened in those subsequent rounds, though, (there were “a lot of conversations”) she nailed it.
Out of 40,000 hopefuls, Sandoval was among the 20 who made the cut. A year later, she was crowned Master Chef, winning the season with a modern Mexican three-course tour de force: huatilachoche tamale, swordfish with sautéed chayote, and hibiscus-poached pear with key lime flan.
Sandoval’s star turn was a whirlwind. For Adam Greenberg, executive chef at Barcelona Wine Bar on 14th Street in D.C. , recent Chopped winner, and current Chopped Champions champion, the road to television victory was more of a marathon. Six years ago, the Connecticut native was working at Barcelona’s West Hartford location when the restaurant group set up meetings for their chefs to interview with the Chopped casting directors in New York. Unlike MasterChef, Chopped casting, which isdesigned for pros, doesn’t have a cooking component; that’s all in the application and résumé. At the interview, Greenberg says, “they really just want to get your personality. Why would you want to be on Chopped? If you won the $10,000, what would you do with it?” They go through hypotheticals: If this were in your basket of surprise ingredients, what would you make?
Greenberg didn’t make the cut that time. Still, he stayed in touch with the casting director “almost to the point where I was consistently annoying,” he says. “I kept asking, am I doing something wrong? Is it my personality? Is it my weight?” This went on for years until he got the call: He was in. He’s still not sure what changed. For whatever reason, this time, he fit. The minute he won his first episode—turning a burrito into chocolate milk ice cream and White Castle-style sliders into fideos—he was gunning for a spot on Chopped Champions.
Greenberg’s leisurely path to victory isn’t all that unusual. Marjorie Meek-Bradley, executive chef of both Ripple and Roofers Union in D.C., with a fast-casual pastrami place coming soon, made it to the finals this year onTop Chef Season 13. But she first auditioned three seasons earlier, back in 2012.
There’s no cooking for Top Chef castings, either, as most of the show’s competitors have so many obvious accomplishments (established restaurants, James Beard nominations) that it’s pretty clear cooking isn’t going to be an issue. Instead, there’s a rigorous 18-page written application that asks: Who are your culinary rivals? What’s your chef coat size? Describe a hypothetical dish inspired by the texture of velvet. Plus, there’s a five-minute get-to-know-you video audition (“Have fun and BE YOU!” urges the application.)
So Meek-Bradley enlisted a colleague (and her iPhone) to film on the Mall talking about her love for D.C.; in the restaurant kitchen, making gnocchi; “goofing around” with her boss. Then she waited. She passed the standard background check. She was flown out to Los Angeles overnight for more testing, including interviews with producers on-camera and in-person, a requisite psychological evaluation. It felt like a done deal. Then three or four weeks later she got the email: She didn’t make it.
Despite the urgings of the casting producers, she was reluctant to try again. She’d been disappointed once, plus things were good in D.C. She’d started a new job, opened a second restaurant, gotten her first nomination for a James Beard Award. Why put herself through it? But this past year, she changed her mind. She was bored, looking for a new challenge. “I think I had more confidence than I had in the past,” she tells me. So when a casting producer tweeted at her that they were still looking for female chefs, “I just went for it.” This time, she didn’t bother with frills. For her video, she broke down a striped bass on camera and cooked it up with beets and smoked egg yolk. Meek-Bradley was more casual now, less eager to please. She wasn’t out to prove anything anymore, she says; this time, it was for her. She got the call at work, in the middle of service. Ten days later, she left for filming.
There was no time to prepare; she was running two restaurants in D.C. and needed to figure out how to keep them thriving while she was off the grid. “I was more worried about leaving here than going there.” And besides, she’d been “preparing” since culinary school. “This is what I do every day,” she says. “I butcher animals, I break down fish, I put new things on the menu, this is my life. I’m not going to go on a show to cook a different way than I cook every day.”
Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley on Top Chef. Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Retrospectively, she says, maybe she should have binge-watched the series. “When I came back I subscribed to Hulu and I watched a bunch of episodes, and I was like, ‘Why the f*ck didn’t I do this before!’” In some ways, though, her general lack of official prep turned out to be an asset. According to Top Chef lore, baking is considered a near-certain death sentence. And if she’d known that, perhaps she wouldn’t have risked quite so many baked goods. Instead, she did pistachio sponge cake, milk bread rolls, parsley and Parmesan garlic bread; baking became a not-so-secret weapon. “The things that made me stand out were the things people say not to do,” she says.
Sandoval, on the other hand, took a different approach: She prepped, and prepped hard. Without any kind of formal training (“I’m a foodie at best”), she DIY’ed her own last-minute culinary program. She knew her baking was her weak point, so she spent two months making “all kinds of crazy desserts” that would play to her strengths: Mexican chocolate flan, Mexican chocolate crème brûlée, cake with café de olla butter cream frosting. To get in shape for Mystery Box challenges, which hinge on surprise ingredients, she had her friends bring over random groceries and time her while she figured out what to do with them. She studied cookbooks. She memorized recipes. And she gave away a lot of baked goods.
So what advice do they have for prospective competitors? Sharpen your knives (Obviously.) Be yourself (Yes, agrees everyone.) But say you make it through the audition process, then what? “If they say you have 30 minutes to cook something, never think that’s 30 minutes to cook,” Sandoval tells me without hesitation. You need a cushion: to plate, to garnish, to come up with a new plan when you forget to pull your potatoes out of the oven.
“You want to take risks, but you want to take calculated risks,” adds Greenberg, who ultimately became a champion among Choppedchampions by transforming an unsettling blue cheese lollipop into a cream sauce for his lamb ragu with penne and managing to artfully incorporate onions into his classic all-American sundae. Don’t let the specifics of the challenges distract you from the basics, he says. Lollipop or no lollipop, focus on technique and seasoning, and the rest will take care of itself.
“I think the biggest thing is to ask yourself why you’re doing it,” advises Meek-Bradley. Challenge is probably a good reason; pursuit of glory probably isn’t. “Go in knowing you might get sent home first, and as long as you’re okay with that, I think you’re probably strong enough to go into it.” May the best chef win.