What ended my chances to be on a reality cooking show that had a grand prize of $100,000 probably came in the third round of interviews when the culinary expert asked me, “What’s your favorite condiment?” and my answer after a rambling monologue was “cardamom.” I talked about other “condiments” like curry (“My wife doesn’t really like it.”) or standards like rosemary, thyme and other “condiments” that might have featured in a Simon & Garfunkel song. Sure, cardamom is not only not found in most recipes but is found in “my favorite recipe for pancakes,” something I’d pointed out after this verbal adventure of about thirty seconds, which is a lifetime in a “job” interview for a spot on a TV show where 30 seconds might cost tens of thousands of dollars if you are car company whose Lincoln Navigator is being driven by Matthew McConaughey. But the salient point — really the only point — is that cardamom is a spice. It is not a “condiment.”
Ketchup. Mustard. Mayo. Whatever-the-fuck.
Those are condiments.
She was asking me about mayo, when I had thought we were going to talk about why cardamom makes my pancakes so much better.
Answers like these during a 15-minute phone interview on October 12 with a producer (a culinary expert who helped produce the show) I believe ended my chances to be a contestant. The next step would have been a trip to Albuquerque on November 27, and filming until December 11 depending on how well I did. The winners of each round in this competition of home cooks wins cash, and the final winner gets a hundred grand.
But getting cut?
It’s all good.
I mean, I have a load of darks to wash that’s not going to wash itself.
A nice woman had approached me on October 1 through Instagram. A direct message. These days, when you get a DM on Instagram, it shows up in “Requests,” and these are usually spam, or people promising they can increase the number of my followers, or college-age women asking if I want to see them lose their virginity on video. (No joke; it’s pretty messed up.)
But there were several things that tipped me off that this might be legit:
- The writer addressed me by first name
- She identified herself with her whole name and identified the company she worked for
- She used paragraph breaks in standard fashion along with proper punctuation
- She ended the first paragraph with the words “$100,000.” (Sure. I know that that’s one word, and it’s not even a word. But I tend to see each zero as a thing. You know: 0 = debt repayment. Another 0 = new chef’s kitchen. Another 0 = put it into Karen’s business, etc.)
- She wrote — in successive paragraphs with appropriate breaks — how she came across me, what she wanted to discuss and closed with her name again and title.
I looked her up on LinkedIn, and she seemed legit.
I replied later that day that I’d like to talk, and so we did.
They were going to start a new streaming show, through a “major food network,” that was a competition of home cooks who have short-cut hacks on making meals quicker. The hacks could be food prep or cooking techniques, or they could be how to use a kitchen tool in a new way that made meals easier.
The initial approach had come on a Friday morning. I responded late that day, and over the weekend we scheduled a call for Monday. It went fine enough. She asked me what I would do with the $100,000. (I’ve seen Chopped forever and they ask this on the show; I surmised that they ask this early on so that my reasons would sound compelling on camera.) I said, “I’d probably get a new chef’s kitchen. I’d put some money into my wife’s art business. I’d help my kids with their educational and career goals.”
Not the whole truth, of course. Because somewhere in there would be a new surfboard. And I’ve needed a new pair of brown slip-on leather shoes, because my Maddens have a slice in the bottom of the right one, and if I was walking to appointments instead of driving, most surely my socks would be soaked on rainy days. So: new shoes. I didn’t mention that to the nice woman, because she probably lives in L.A., where you also drive and where it doesn’t rain. And if it does rain, nobody drives.
Killed the interview.
She said she definitely wanted me to go to the next step and scheduled a video interview for me with another casting agent for the next day. Hell, I thought, I’m rocking it. Shoes, here we come.
The Zoom interview was about 45 minutes long, and the young casting agent, a man in his late 20s or early 30s, informed me that this video would be shared with producers, along with my answers from the previous day and the written application I’d had to fill out, and their decision would be based on those.
I got this, I thought. Zoom is where I live. I use Zoom all the time for work with strangers and colleagues and I can kill this. I know how to look into the camera even though I’m not looking into the person’s eyes and I can come across as personable. I can totally do this.
This was a little different, because I was not interviewing specifically for the casting agent but rather auditioning for some unseen person or persons in Los Angeles who saw hundreds of interviews like this. He said that although the interview would take a little time, they would edit it down to a couple minutes and present it to the show’s producers. You know, those people who drive on non-rainy days and have more than one pair of work shoes.
He coached me along the way on how to say things to appear excited. He had me repeat a couple answers here and there, rephrasing things, giving shorter answers, looking more excited. This was around 4pm, and frankly I was a little tired. I needed to snort some cayenne pepper to get myself going. And so I did. Just kidding. I said I needed to. But I didn’t do it.
It was a day or two later maybe when the first casting agent called me to schedule the next call, the third one that I mentioned above, which would be a “culinary expert” on the show. I actually just now found her on LinkedIn, and she’s a beast. Serious background in chefery and culinary education. (Chefery is as much a word as cardamom is a condiment by the way. Chefery has those squiggly red lines under it, indicating it’s not a condiment. And I’m going to fucking leave it as is.)
She was all business. She peppered me — you knew that pun was coming — with questions like, “What four ingredients must you have to cook with?” (I answered garlic, onion and a couple other things.) “What oil do you use?” Olive. “What’s in your dry pantry?” I had to ask for clarification; she said, “Anything not perishable.” Hence, dry… pantry, airhead. I mentioned pastas, and realized that didn’t make me stand out. Rice, pinto beans, canned goods… (Should I mention that they are Del Monte, a brand I hate?) None of these made me stand out. I forgot all about the large bag of chia seeds I bought from H-E-B, which will probably last me until the canned goods perish after the apocalypse. That answer was probably a fail.
She asked me, “Do you do more baking or cooking?” “What’s your go-to dish?” “How much do you spend on groceries each month?” “If you had an hour’s notice, what kind of meal would you make?” I answered all these relatively well.
Then she asked, “What’s your favorite cuisine?” Oh, man, here I’d hit it out of the park for sure with the prowess that got me all the likes and praise on Instagram. I told her all the dishes I had made: the pastas and smashburgers and healthy options with fish and chicken casseroles, and I even made sure to outline my secret weapon: spaghetti-western food. People hadn’t heard of this: not Hollywood, not the streaming TV-viewing public, not even that fruity-hairstyle-driving-a-Lincoln-probably-running-for-governor-of-Texas guy. I was killing it. Killing. It.
Until she repeated the question: “No, I mean, what’s your favorite cuisine. Like: Italian, French…”
This was not going well. I said meekly, “Probably Italian.” Which was probably the favorite cuisine of 90% of those interviewed, too.
And yet those 90% knew cardamom wasn’t a condiment.
I inquired several times with the original agent whether they’d made a decision. I got a note on November 2 — that was Election Day in case you weren’t paying attention. Yeah. Election Day. — that informed me that I had “not been selected to move forward with the show.” It was a gracious note. A single paragraph. (I myself might have made it two, just for readability’s sake. But hey, she wasn’t auditioning for my upcoming Reality Grammar Show. I’m serious, by the way. Still pitching it to the perpetually-shoed Hollywood types.)
There came a point between my final interview and when I got word of being cut — a span of only three weeks — when I started to cook occasionally with methods and a mindset that were geared to being the kind of cook who might win on a show like this. Not the kind of cook who cooks to enjoy cooking.
Hey, I’m all for winning $100,000.
But there really is a truth to how different it is between doing something you enjoy for the love of it versus for the money, and perhaps having it spoiled. (This is why famed surfer Laird Hamilton doesn’t compete: surfing is not a competitive activity in his mind. It’s a relationship between the person and the ocean.)
I’m ok having a dry pantry that has things I forgot to mention during the interview because they are pushed to the back when I bought the 10-pound back of white rice at the beginning of COVID. I’m ok even calling cardamom a condiment, because I’m still going to use it in my pancakes despite its category. I did so this past weekend. Everyone loved the pancakes.
I’m still ok thinking my spaghetti-western cuisine is a thing. She didn’t ask about that. The culinary expert, that is. And she’s a freaking culinary expert. Pfft. Right.
It is a thing. And I’ll turn it into an even bigger Thing. And there will be food trucks and restaurants and t-shirts and key chains.
Maybe not key chains. Who buys key chains at a restaurant?!
I’ll have to noodle on that one.