Reality television has baffled ever since the Japanese seemed to have invented it many years ago. Why are these people who appear as contestants so willing to toss aside at least some measure of their dignity and self-esteem in front of several million viewers?
The answer, of course, is the chance at fabulous amounts of cash and prizes.
And in at least one show’s case, a dream job.
I’m still not convinced that makes it all worth it. But I wasn’t signing up this week for a casting call to Valley chefs, held in Scottsdale, for possible appearances on the Fox reality television series “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Local culinary pros came to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute’s SkyBridge campus at the Galleria Centre on Monday and to Barcelona nightclub and restaurant on Tuesday with visions of being whipped — perhaps even pureed — into shape by renowned chef Gordon Ramsay.
The show casts in only one city per year, said casting producer Chase Landau, and in preparation for “Hell’s Kitchen’s” sixth season, it was here in the Valley.
NO FORMULA FOR CHOICE
Producers don’t have a set process for choosing the 10 contestants who ultimately go on the show that season to vie for Ramsay’s approval and ultimately, a position in a world-class kitchen.
“I wish that it were more formulaic,” she said. “I think it varies on where you are and by the individual you’re talking about. That spark, that X factor is something casting will notice and pick up on, but it’s not something I can nail down and say what it is.”
In other words, people whose being on the show undergoing a grueling series of weekly culinary challenges entertains you.
“It’s TV, so we’re looking for people who are energetic and comfortable in their own skin,” Landau said.
This week’s casting calls were simple, according to Landau: You show up with a filled-out application, sign in, then talk with a casting associate about who you are and what you do. No, there’s no cooking test, she said, just talk about their careers so far and answer questions such as “What’s your signature dish?”
Landau said Scottsdale was picked based on the “creative choices” of the executive producer and the casting department, whatever that means.
It means plenty of people eat out in Scottsdale at some pretty fine restaurants. But some of the 50 or so chefs awaiting the start of interviews Tuesday afternoon at Barcelona weren’t from any of those places.
A TRIBUTE TO HIS FATHER
Don McLane of Chandler is in the audio-visual business. His father, who died a few years ago, was a Scottsdale executive chef, having worked at the Quilted Bear among other restaurants. He taught Don cooking.
Don McLane, 46, went into restaurant and banquet management, but said he had a falling-out with his father. He was on his way to try out for “Hell’s Kitchen” in San Diego when he learned of his father’s death, canceling the audition plans.
On Tuesday, McLane was back.
“I’m here just to show him what he taught me didn’t go to waste,” he said.
Ron Hewitt of Phoenix cooks for about 100 residents of an assisted living center in the West Valley, but dreams of the big time.
He said his Stetson, jeans and boots got him past the first stage of the show’s auditions two years ago but he didn’t make it to the show. So he’s trying again.
“I have an idea of how they’re doing it,” he said. “I’m hoping my charm will make it happen.”
NOT MERELY AN ART
Salena Massoli was one of the few women waiting to be interviewed, and one of the few wearing the oversize white coat chefs wear. A cake artist, she said she has loved cooking since her grandmother helped her make pancakes as a 4-year-old.
“It’s had a hold on me ever since,” said Massoli, 33, of Mesa, who described herself as “fiercely competitive.”
You can say that again. She described potential opponents from such eateries as pizza kitchens and steakhouses as “chuckleheads.”
“You have to have a discriminating palate to recognize food for what it is,” she said.
A fan of “Hell’s Kitchen” for two years, she also likes the spinoff “Kitchen Nightmares.”
“I’ve had a few nightmares myself,” she said, adding that Ramsay’s drill-sergeant on-camera demeanor reflects what goes on behind the scenes in many restaurants.
Cooking, Massoli said, is both art and science.
“Yes — and instinct.”
I’m still not sure it’s worth being severely admonished on national television week after week.
But everyone’s entitled to a dream, and to dream up a way to live that dream.