Lessons from Washing Dishes on Reality TV

Food Features
Lessons from Washing Dishes on Reality TV

It’s nearing midnight and I’m furiously scrubbing dishes in an unlit canopy tent in the woods of the Hudson Valley. I have three twenty gallon plastic tubs in front of me — one for dirties, one for soap, one to rinse — and my only source of water is a hose that’s been snaked through the yard from the set house on the hill. Only light: my iPhone. It’s so dark that every reach into the dirty tub is like that grade-school Halloween game where you’re blindfolded and your hands are placed into bowls of increasingly tactile icky-ness. Every squishy, oily, gooey item under the surface conjures a brief imaginative nightmare. Some, more real than others. There could be forgotten knives in the murk.

At one point I hear a faint warbling howl (think of a demonically possessed cuica; those unique friction drums popularized in Brazilian samba) that rises such a fright in me that I have to duck into the adjacent tool-shed-turned-kitchen to identify the sounds I was hearing on my phone. Coyote.

At this time I consider the fact that all night I’ve been dumping food scraps and pungent, food-oil tainted water off to the side of my washing station. What better way to attract curious animals of the night? Not to mention that the kitchen has been pumping food smells out into the woods for days. I feel vulnerable. Like being dragged behind a boat that’s steadily chumming its waters. But I have dishes to wash, so I take a breath and step back out into the darkness.

For two summers I worked as a dishwasher on a Cooking Channel reality cooking show. We shot mostly in Brooklyn, but we also did a segment up in New York’s lush Hudson Valley, not far from the Storm King Art Center. I never thought I’d do anything like it. Previously, I’d been working as a copywriter for a NoMad animation/ad-company, but it hadn’t worked out. While it seemed like a leap to go from advertising to dishwashing, I was eager to try something spontaneous and new. Also I badly needed work.

Working on a cooking show feels like working on any other TV show, only the stars are a bowl of burrata topped lentils, or pork and savoy cabbage involtini simmered in garlicky tomato sauce. Yet they require all the same primping, pruning, fawning and styling as any Hollywood starlet. And just who is doing this? Cooking shows have a concentrated, devoted network of crew members drawn in by an interest in TV production, or hospitality. Though sometimes both, or neither. They’re a nomadic tribe, bouncing between New York, LA and Georgia (which, due to the looming presence of a certain bouffanted butter slinger, has become a hub of lifestyle TV production). Some see it as a stepping stone to narrative production work, while others aspire to become food stylists, recipe writers, maybe a chef. Most, however, fall into it. For cooking show production has its advantages. Compared to most TV shoots, it’s fairly laid back. The crew can lead normal lives. Our call times rarely came earlier than 8-9 a.m. (though it can depend on the show). An entire season can be shot in the span of a few weeks.

A pre-roll set kitchen is a lot like a crime scene on a TV police procedural. A team of assorted PA’s, associate producers, and the Culinary Producer (a title unique to food TV production; basically, the head honcho of the Culinary team, which operates independently from the main production crew) painstakingly scrutinize every visible surface to make sure it’s clean and pops for the camera. Often the preparative tasks can feel like tedious, summer camp punishments. Once I was told to locate and clean every fingerprint on every surface in the kitchen that could possibly fall within the eye of the camera. Another time I had to scrape the labels off of a dozen or so wine bottles to avoid the licensing fees of their trademarked labels. This is called “greeking,” a term carried over to TV from its original use to describe nonsensical placeholder text in typography and graphic design — as in, “all Greek to me.”

Photo: Kent Miller

Since many of these shoots happen on location, a dishwasher is forced to get creative. By creative, I mean hand-washing. Hundreds and hundreds of dishes per day. This would be easy in a standard kitchen (with such helpful amenities as an overhead power-rinser, soap dispensers or even a commercial, high-temp dishwasher) — here, you don’t have any of it. Just a tiny sink in the kitchen of a hot, cramped, one bedroom apartment. Other times, a bucket and hose.

Culinary rarely gets a break, even when all else has slowed. Backups and backups to backups have to be made of everything — through the magic of the edit, rarely ever does the food being made on-screen end up being the food that is consumed on-screen. To save time, food is prepared in advance, in a nearby kitchen (in our case, for the Brooklyn segments, in the cleared out third floor kitchen of a blistering, A/C-less, Carroll Gardens walk-up), to sit standby on speed-racks ready to be “swapped” at any time, once the necessary shots have been gathered.

You will get messy, you will get dirty. You will get splattered with every kind of food juice or sauce imaginable — “red sauce,” a Tuscan staple, or runoff from a pan used to wine-cook pork loin chops for a knockout take on pork and black kale. You will unclog sinks with your bare hands (gloves, you learn, become a nuisance more than anything). You will learn how to improvise (like using the pointed end of a cooking thermometer to poke hundreds of tiny blackberry seeds out of a mesh strainer used in the making of a light and tart lemon panna cotta with red wine blackberry sauce). You will get so gross that you’ll avoid sitting next to anyone on the train ride home, for worry of the Pig-Pen-like waves of stench radiating off of you.

There’s a meditative solitude to it, too. Dishwashing can put a person in a serious trance. Drink enough coffee from the crafty table — which I usually did — you go into a kind of super-trance, outside a regular sense of time. Hours fly by. “Time” is gauged on the steadily depleting pile of dishes in your dirty bus bins; it’s an easily quantifiable source of satisfaction. You can’t stop either because these things need to be back on set ASAP. So you learn which dishes to prioritize, and which ones can simply be rinsed. Clear dishware used for “beauties” (food set aside for close-up after all else has wrapped), are the top priority — often warranting two, even three hand washes if there’s time — because any blip of grease caught by the camera will trace directly back to you, and you will not have done your job. You never, never want to hear your name on the monitor once shooting has begun.

The food was consistently amazing. Mostly, homestyle Tuscan “peasant food” pulled off simply, and expertly. Some of my favorite dishes included potato and spinach gnocchi in a creamy fontina and gorgonzola sauce, and polenta incantenata with chopped pork belly. As I was the last one to see a dish before it was tossed, anything leftover was fair game to take home. I kept a box of Ziploc bags at my wash station for this purpose. I lived on leftovers for weeks.

But remember: it isn’t just about taste, it’s about looks. That’s why there are food stylists. A food stylist’s job is to manage the appearance of food for the camera. They’re the ones with all the tricks, the gastronomic MacGyver’s: hiding toothpicks inside a 16-pound beer basted turkey that’s been massaged with a paste of herbs (rosemary, sage) and fennel seeds, so its decorative curls of sliced pancetta won’t fall off, or mineral oiling cutting boards to give them an irresistible, on-camera glimmer. Because at the end of the day, it’s still television. Everything is operating at a hyperreal twist.

Sometimes, I’d get another role thrown at me. Shopper was my favorite. Shoppers run back and forth to the nearest supermarket to supply the set with any food or supplies that they need. I did it once and it’s a blast. It’s an absurd and satisfying thrill to walk into the Gowanus Whole Foods and buy things in such comically exaggerated, Paul Bunyan-like bulk: I’ll take one hundred carrots please! Three hundred eggs! Seventy-five Yukon gold potatoes!

The set and kitchen frequently exist in different locations, so transport requires some serious, logistical problem solving. Small-screen confectionists have sustained entire franchises on this dramatic premise. Often, it meant running hot things as fast as possible to the set without ruining them, or hurting yourself. Other times, it meant hustling up and down two flights of steps with a 20 quart pot of boiling water for a spaghetti carbonara mixed with salty, cubed guanciale, and parmesan and pecorino. One day it meant sprinting a sizzling, popping, fresh-off-the-stove flat-iron steak topped with a spread of almond-sage pesto, down the length of a Windsor Terrace block, dodging our show’s hosts’ hankering mastiff, before it began to cool. Picture young Henry Hill in Goodfellas running house to house in Paulie Cicero’s neighborhood to deliver messages, only with a blazing grill pan. That was me.

I thought about food and TV a lot when I was dishwashing (you have plenty of time to think). Watching people eat on TV is odd because it seems inadequate as a medium. It provides only two out of the five senses — sight, sound — that most bring to the experience. So imagination is needed to fill in the rest. But maybe that’s the key. That imaginative space is where the power and success of these shows live.

I never did see a coyote that night.

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