So You Want to Be A TV Chef

Chef David Robinson

Executive Chef David Robinson

Chef David is a close friend and colleague. He has a cooking school in upstate New York State for wounded vets. In addition he stars on TV and has created the incredibly fabulous Learn How to Cook video series.

I asked him to give some advice about cooking on TV. He replies: “Pay your dues in smaller local markets before attempting to leap to a national screen. There are tremendous opportunities in local television, on sites like YouTube, embedding video for your own blog and web site, to promote your cookbook or restaurant.”

Here are a few pragmatic things I’ve learned while producing and appearing in cooking segments for broadcast and video:

1.    Get used to seeing your face and hearing your voice on TV. If you are uncomfortable with your own appearance, or the sound of your own voice, get over it.

2.    Start collecting original recipes that would be suitable for video. Test and practice them. TV consumes content voraciously. Be prepared for opportunities by having your recipes ready in written form.

3.    Teach cooking classes using your recipes at a local cooking school, kitchen store, club, or church. Note: if/when the class gets bored.  Listen closely to the questions your students ask.  These will help you to update and revise your recipes before you use them for video.

4.    Get free or low-cost production: have a family member run a video camera, take advantage of cable access channels, call local TV stations, contact a TV/film school.  Film students want to learn to shoot food, because it is so lucrative in the commercial market.

5.    In the local broadcast markets, get used to producing your own segments, including recipe selection, food and ingredient preparation, setup, food styling, wardrobe and makeup.

6.    Be flexible. Every video or TV situation is unique, from the cameras to the directors.  Sometimes you will have a complete kitchen set, sometimes you’ll have to bring a table and a hotplate.

7.    Choose recipes you can accomplish easily within 3 to 4 ½ minutes. Be ready to move ahead with all steps of a recipe. Have change-outs prepared for the next phase of the recipe in case you run low on time.  (You typically have to prepare a recipe 3 to 6 times to represent the different stages of cooking and a final reveal of the finished dish.) Leave time to taste the dish. There’s something wildly unsatisfying about demonstrating a recipe that doesn’t culminate in tasting it.

8.    Get someone who knows about TV makeup to teach you how to apply your own, or hire a makeup person for a few hours to help you design your makeup. Guys, get help buying natural-looking makeup and practice putting it on.

9.    If you wear glasses, get anti-glare coating on your lenses to prevent the lights from reflecting off your glasses.

10.   Don’t wear pinstripes, or thinly striped woven fabrics. They create an effect on camera called “moiré” – it’s when the pattern jumps around on camera like it’s vibrating.

11.   When you are booked for a TV appearance or taping, be there early.  Producers are nervous types and want to be confident you will show up prepared and do not cancel, leaving them stranded.

12.   Keep the patter going as you cook. For instance, if you’re chopping, keep talking. Be ready to share brief anecdotes and details about the recipe.

13.   Use clear vessels for your ingredients when possible.  Learn to pour your ingredients away from you, toward the camera.  Keep the set/work area organized and simple; don’t over-decorate.

14.  Take charge of your segment. Know your recipe cold. Finish the recipe in logical steps.Don’t let the anchorperson or guests run away with your time.  Keep one eye on completing the recipe, one eye on your host/guests, and one eye on the clock. I realize that’s 3 eyes!

15.  Be yourself. People can spot a phony a mile away. Create a TV persona based on you, perhaps not your exact personality, but a heightened sense of the best of you.  Speak with clarity and assurance.  Be kind, warm and enjoy yourself.  This is show biz.

16.  Learn everything you can about production. Be a sponge. Talk to the camera and lighting folks, watch other talent work in front of a camera, and sit in the editing room.  Always try to get copies of your appearances – record them yourself to be certain you have copies.

17.  Bring muffins or cookies for the crew; they can help you or hurt you. Bribe them. Today’s camera person is tomorrow’s director.

18. If you’re nervous, fake it. It gets easier. It’s okay to stink at first.

Executive Chef David James Robinson is the creator and host of Learn How to Cook (and eat your mistakes)!, a comprehensive 10-DVD and streaming video series for the home cook with over 100 recipes and techniques.  Chef David has also made over 50 live appearances cooking on NBC/Albany.  He is owner and executive chef of Bezalel Gables Fine Catering & Events in the Hudson Valley of New York.