After coming off Chopped Grill Masters in 2015, how can you say no when the #1 Food Network TV show featuring Alton Brown invites you to be one of four chefs competing in a 3-round elimination grilling competition. Each round begins with sabotages that you can bid to use against your opponents. You start with a $25,000 bankroll so I wondered what a winning strategy would be.
I know I can cook but could I handle the crazy sabotages that my opponents might purchase for me? Even if I won the show, how much of the $25,000 prize money would I still have at the end? Should I bet the farm, or should I conserve money for each round? So many questions and angst over game theory.
I watched prior Cutthroat episodes and estimated that winners seem to walk away with about $2,500. So, if I have to spend $23,000 to win, then I would keep it to about $8,000 per round to stay in the game. Simple enough?
Call time on shoot day was 6:30 am at the Los Angeles Center Studios in downtown Los Angeles. I packed the checklist items requested which was five knives, dark pants, and undershirt. I decided to wear my barbecue chili pants and signature Slap Yo Daddy hat to show I meant business and was ready to rock and roll.
As I drove up to the address provided, I chuckled inwardly as it was Deja vu driving into the parking structure. This was coincidentally the same building as my old Unocal 76 workplace in 1986. I guess it had been sold and was now a TV and movie production facility. I was met by producer Billy and coordinator Katie and escorted into the contestant’s waiting room. There I met fellow contestants and barbecue friends Brad Orrison from The Shed BBQ in Mississippi and Terry Mathews from Arizona whom I had competed against in the past. I also met the fourth contestant for the first time, a cook and actress Jodi Taffel aka The Bacon Babe.
It was nice that there was fresh coffee and some light breakfast items while we got mic-ed up and put on our Food Network chef coats. I was feeling apprehensive, not about the cooking portion, but the devilish sabotages I knew I had to deal with. A production crew met the contestants and marched us single-file into the Cutthroat Kitchen set a 3-minute walk away from the holding room.
When I walked onto the set, I marveled at how small the set was as it seems large when you see it on TV. The usual four stoves were replaced with 4 gas grills since this was a grilling episode. There must have been a least two dozen crew already busy at work getting the set ready for us.
The pantry was off to one side, and we all got to walk through the pantry for about 2 minutes to familiarize ourselves with the layout. We were allowed to inspect our cook station as well as the equipment and supplies. I noticed that my 5 knives were placed neatly by my cutting board. I was assigned spot #3 and shown the X on the floor I was supposed to stand in front of my station.
It seemed similar to the cook station I used in NY on Chopped Grill Masters so I was beginning to feel more comfortable. Tong, check; salt and pepper, check. There were no mystery ingredients yet in the pantry as they would be revealed by Alton once the shoot began.
We practiced getting through the fake pantry door. The producers warned us to not get caught after the 60-second ingredient grab as Alton was apt to levy “penalties” on any contestant that was late getting out of the pantry. I made a mental note to myself to memorize the layout and made a checklist of ingredients that I wanted to get to salvage my dish in case some of my ingredients were taken away in a sabotage. Things like egg and cheese to bind ingredients and flour thickeners came to mind as things I needed to get into my shopping basket. A key strategy is getting the shopping basket filled correctly because if you don’t get the protein, veg, carb, and ingredients you need for the mystery dish, you’re sunk even before you begin. You need to pile on as many extra ingredients and supplies you can, just in case you need to improvise.
The producers went through a safety briefing and mentioned that there were medical staff and fire safety staff on the set in case they were needed. Oh-oh, I thought to myself, “Don’t cut yourself and don’t get burned!” Next, the producers had us shoot our individual farewell walks off the show and that took a few takes. I wasn’t sure I was supposed to smile with victory or have the look of defeat. After those takes, we were ushered back to the waiting room to await Round #1.
When it was time, we were led single file back on the set. By then, the gas grills had been lit and the pantry was stocked. We did several introductory takes and then Alton made his grand entrance down the stairs leading into the Cutthroat Kitchen. I was totally taking in the moment because I’ve been a fan of Alton for many years. I love his nerdy demeanor from the days of Good Eats.
Spoiler Alert: if you watched the License To Grill episode, you know what happened next. Alton picked hamburgers for Round One which is an easy grill item. However, Jodi spent $10,000 outbidding me on two sabotages with the 8-foot grill grate (held by Terry) and the frogs legs cornhole game. So much for my game theory of not spending over $8,000 in each round. Lesson learned for me to not be cheap!
I guess Jodi picked up on the waiting room conversations that Brad and Terry had with me about my 100 first places and 27 Grand Championships. Jodi knew I would be a strong challenger and invested in getting rid of me in first round which worked. Also, I guess the fact that she tripped and fell on the back of my heel while the four of us were running out of the pantry did not help. Hey, it was completely accidental as she hit the back of my shoe and I was in front of her (I played my DVR slow-mo several times to confirm. No flagrant foul here!)
All in all, I got booted off after the first round. Nevertheless, it was such a fun shoot even though I did not advance. Everyone on Food Network’s crew including the casting producers, coordinators, to the show producers were very professional and courteous. It seemed like they all liked their jobs and it was a pleasure to work with them. There was no attempt to make any contestant look bad and the producers responsible for developing the sabotages said they thoroughly test all the obstacles to ensure they are crazy but yet safe and doable with a bit of effort.
Congrats to Jodi for winning the License to Grill episode. Well played. I could have made some decent frogs legs burgers but unfortunately, the 8-foot metal pole with a grate at the end was too heavy for Chef Terry to hold over my grill so he lost control of the grate and my patty slid into the grill. Despite heroic efforts to stick my arm into the fire (singed my forearm hairs), I could not salvage the round and Judge Simon was right as my frog legs patty did not look, taste, nor represent a hamburger.
Hey, I got to meet my idol Alton and also chef Simon Majumdar. How cool is that? And, who knows, Food Network may call me back in a future show to shoot a “revenge” episode. I now know better to be cheap the next time around.