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What It's Like to See the Sausage Being Made on a Reality Cooking Show

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Sunday is the fourth episode of Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-off. I haven't seen any footage from it. I don't know which team wins, though I can make a rather educated guess. But I do know what the food tastes like, and that long lines of hungry extras were hidden from camera. I can tell you that a bored production assistant picked a zit on her chin, using her iPhone as a mirror, while the chefs were hard at work. I can tell you that every time you see a close-up of the celebrity chefs in action, there was a cameraman pushing people out of the way to get the shot.

I've written enough times about being watching TV being filmed to know that every time you’re at a show that isn't a live feed, you can expect some incredibly long, frustrating waits. This is always part of the territory, and it's usually not what people want to read about. As a writer, I'm supposed to put up with the crap so you don't have to. I should skip right to the juicy bits. Like when I saw Montel Williams in his last season, and he came out to speak with the audience, and told us that he wanted to be the first black president (this was while Obama was considered a long-shot for the Democratic nomination). He said he would be unpopular, and if he had to be assassinated to make some real change, well, he was willing to make that sacrifice. "What??" we all thought. "How did he—did he just volunteer to be an assassinated president?" Then he immediately segued to wondering aloud why we have copper pennies, but not copper doorknobs, which would be more sanitary.

Forgive me for wallowing in petty frustrations for a bit. Tickets for Food Network shows, like the shows of many networks, are subcontracted out to third-party production companies. So Onset Productions, the company hired for Rachael vs. Guy, called us to Manhattan's Baryshnikov Arts Center at 10:30am. This was in late July. We sat on folding chairs in a big, open space and were given stout bottles of Poland Spring. Various young, tan, blonde girls with hard faces told us rules, like no phones, no gum, and please wear these multicolored wristbands. This was odd, because they also said to act like we were on our lunch break once the cameras were rolling. Thirty minutes passed, then thirty more. Finally they started taking people to the street, in groups of twenty-five.

We waited in the shade in front of a building for half-an-hour. Then, we moved across the street and pressed against the brick side of an aquarium store. There was moderate shade here. We could see, perhaps 40 feet in front of us, the two teams of celebrity chefs prepping food, and guys with headsets giving directions to guys with cameras. A bro with a chinstrap beard, gelled hair, and swagger came to address my group. "If we see you using your cell phone to take pictures, I will personally take it, smash it with my foot, and use my own phone to take a picture of me doing that!" I think he thought he was giving us helpful instructions in a funny way, but no one laughed. We waited here an hour.

Four people from my group were called up, but the rest of us were asked to walk in from the other side of the makeshift set, where another group of hopeful extras waited. Our line thought we had seniority, and this group didn't want to give up their place. Uncomfortable standing ensued. A young production assistant, the one who'd picked her zit with the aid of her smartphone, asked everyone to back up, back up, wrap the line around the corner of the building. For some reason they wanted a shot of an empty sidewalk. This meant making about seventy-five shifty people, antsy about losing their place in line, stand in the sun. Some were very old ladies. Remember, it was late July. Every twenty minutes, eight people were called. At this rate, it would take three more hours for everyone to get through. The crowd groaned. Occasionally, someone would snap at the production assistant, who would apologize, then go back to looking bored. As I've said, I've been part of many audiences, and long waits are part of the package. Still, this was among the worst I'd ever encountered.

At 2pm, I was chosen. I felt liberated. Also hungry—like many of us waiting, I thought a 10:30am call time for food meant to show up with an empty stomach—and very sweaty. I made it to the first of two food carts, this one manned by Coolio and Joey Fatone. This was a revelation. Joey Fatone rambled about his bacon-wrapped shrimp in barbecue sauce. He handed me a single bacon-wrapped shrimp wrapped in barbecue sauce. The taste was really underwhelming for such a promising combination. It was fine, I guess.

Coolio was making enormous "Soul Rolls," which, as best I could tell, were just huge egg rolls. He would look at the crowd around him, make eye contact with people, then ask a girl what she wanted. He literally had four rolls going at any time: wrapping, frying, putting in a bowl, cutting in half. He'd chat with people in front of him, tell them how his inspiration was a Japanese neighbor he had in the projects. Occasionally he'd pop off to wash his hands, or to prep some more. He averaged about one serving every four minutes. I waited for a Soul Roll for forty-five minutes. He'd look me in the eye for a second, then look at any girl in front of him and ask what she wanted. Every time. A guy with a headset would tell Coolio he had to hurry up, but Coolio said "You're not the boss!" He turned to a girl in front of him. "He's not the boss." Then he picked up the last Soul Roll in front of him, ambled over to the guy who wasn't the boss, and gave it to him, as a peacemaking offering.

Finally, it hit me. The hours of standing in the sun. The devastatingly slow pace of our line. I'd been angrily blaming some vague Food Network middle-manager for this utter failure of logistics, exacerbated at times into rage because I was whiny from hunger. But it wasn't so much a failure of planning as it was Coolio's slow, slow, devastatingly slow pace. He was a snail in a world of turtles. (Or a turtle in a world of snails. Whichever is slower.) The huge line of people waiting to sample his wares was kept out of sight, remember? He had no sense that there were seething throngs, just out of his field of vision. He had no urgency. Every patient fan was categorized as "cute girl" or "not," but otherwise we were indistinguishable. Coolio, the cause of my angry hunger: At one point he stopped to rap a quatrain about his cooking. Everyone else cheered, but the man had no more appeal to me. Coolio—or Joey Fatone, for that matter—would literally be fired in the first hour of any restaurant job in New York City. Of this there is no question in my mind.

My Soul Roll was fine, when I finally received it. I went to the second cart, and Taylor Dayne gave me a barbecue sauce-slobbered piece of meat on a stick. She was sweet, and it was fine, too. Just okay barbecue. Apparently someone was handing out cards where we were to vote on which cart was better, but I never saw one.

Still hungry, I went back to the Baryshnikov to get my bag. In the waiting area was a spread of sandwiches from some nearby catering company, many uneaten. I grabbed one. Its taste was on par with the five or so bites of street food I'd had so far that day. It was fine.

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