Five pieces of advice from a MasterChef finalist on how to get cast on the show.
A week after returning from my honeymoon, I took a cab from Brooklyn to a hotel in midtown Manhattan at six in the morning and stood outside in the autumn chill for four hours holding a whole ass lasagna.
I, along with a few thousand other hopefuls, was there to audition for MasterChef Season 5.
I learned a lot during the audition process–and, obviously, I made it on the show–and I have a few tips on how you can bring your A-game to casting and improve your chances of being considered.
So, if you want to be ready to try out for Season 12, here’s how to slay the competition before you even step foot into the MasterChef kitchen.
TIP #1: HAVE A ~LEWK~
TV is a visual medium. You don’t have to be super hot or even conventionally attractive to get cast, but it helps to look like you put in some effort. People are going to be looking at close-up shots of your face for an hour a week for four months. Show up looking like someone you’d want people to see.
If you’re considering wearing jeans and a neutral-colored t-shirt to the audition, don’t. Pull together ~an outfit.~ Give yourself a signature style. Remember that bright, saturated colors look best on TV, so leave your understated black button-down in the closet. Wear something that a stranger would compliment you in. I showed up in heels and a pencil skirt–and on the show, I was forever clad in heels and a pencil skirt; it’s not my favorite thing to wear in “real life,” but your outfit can help you stand out. It’s about character-building, not fashion.
If you’re planning on rolling out of bed and showing up in yesterday’s messy bun and no makeup, don’t. Treat this like an interview for the strangest, most fun job you’ll ever have. Play up your eyes or your lips or your brows–or play it all up.
Enhance what’s unique about your look. Are you tall and willowy? Wear heels and double-down on the height thing. Do you have curly, all-over-the-place hair? Set it free! Do you have an ironic handlebar mustache? Wax that baby up and lean into it. Look like yourself–but yourself turned up to 11.
TIP #2: BRAND YOUR COOKING STYLE
Are you someone who elevates humble ingredients into something restaurant-worthy? Are you a sultan of spicy Sunday slow-cook stews? Are you a knife-obsessed carnivore who hunts their own meat? Spend some time reflecting on your cooking style and craft it into a single-minded idea. Then practice saying that single-minded idea, over and over again.
I’m serious. Go stand in front of the bathroom mirror and practice saying “I’m a sweet Southern dad of two and a sultan of spicy Sunday slow-cook stews,” or whatever phrase reflects your unique approach.
Say it again. Over and over, until it sounds believable. Remember, if you win, this sound bite is going to be the foundation of your cookbook.
TIP #3: IMPRESS THEM WITH A SINGLE BITE
I spent weeks perfecting my homemade lasagna bolognese, simmering the meat sauce for 24 hours, tasting it and seasoning it obsessively. I made the pasta from scratch, cranking it out on an old-fashioned pasta roller. I awoke at 4 a.m. to put it in the oven, packed it in my insulated lasagna carrier, and spent $40 on a cab into the city. At the audition, we had two minutes to plate our dishes, so I garnished a large slab of of my pride and joy with roasted grape tomatoes and homemade basil oil.
The chef/judge who was at my open call (not one of the judges from the show) took the most microscopic bite of my food imaginable–a bite so tiny you’d need a degree in quantum physics to measure it. He asked me a few questions about how I made it: did I make my own pasta (yes), did I add garlic or herbs to my bechamel (no). “It’s good,” he said. He made a note on his clipboard and walked away.
Obviously, my lasagna was good enough to move me forward in the audition process. And I think part of it was that lasagna is a food with complex flavors that all come across in one bite. The sauces and meat and pasta are all layered–you don’t have to go searching around a plate gathering disparate bites of various items to appreciate the entire dish. (I didn’t plan for this; I just wanted to make a lasagna.)
I wonder how many people didn’t get a fair shake because the judge wasn’t able to assess the quality of their taco, or sandwich, or protein/carb/veg combo in one forkful.
My advice is to show up with something that tastes amazing even by the quarter-teaspoon. Choose a dish that lets you squeeze maximum flavor into a bite that fits on the end of a butter knife.
TIP #4: BRUSH UP ON THE CULINARY ARTS
At my audition, the same chef/judge who tasted my food asked me a few questions about my general cooking knowledge. I was ready. I had spent years devouring cookbooks, magazines and food shows; I was basically an encyclopedia.
“What’s the name for a small, quarter-inch dice?” he asked. I froze. The Google search in my brain returned zero results. He saw me struggling and prompted, “Here’s a hint–it starts with a ‘B.’” Again, my own personal Wikipedia failed me. “I’m sorry, I don’t know!” I said. Giving me a chance to redeem myself, he said, “OK, let’s try this one–what’s a long, thin, matchstick cut called?” “Julienne!” I said, with full confidence. He smiled and nodded. “Yep. The other one was brunoise, by the way.”
Just like you’d research a company before you interviewed for a job there, you should study the finer points of cooking before you audition. No one expects you to be James Beard–MasterChef is a show about home cooks–but you need to prove that you have a passion for the craft. Examine your weak spots; do you need to learn a little more about baking? About knife skills? Are you an expert in the cuisine that’s native to your region but couldn’t name the five French mother sauces?
Do some reading. Peruse cooking blogs. Flip through your cookbooks. Watch YouTube videos about obscure skills. Go eat at a restaurant that serves an ethnic cuisine you’ve never tried (once you can safely do so). The more you know, the stronger your “interview skills” will be.
TIP #5: LEARN TO LOVE THE CAMERA
If the audition judge is impressed with your food, you’ll immediately go on to interviews with producers. Then comes the “camera test”: a one-on-one, on-camera interview with a casting producer.
If you have a sparkling personality, but clam up in front of a camera, you’re going to need to work on that. I met some incredibly talented cooks at my open call who didn’t make it past the camera test, because they got nervous or simply weren’t comfortable being recorded.
I treated my camera test as my *one* opportunity to really show the casting producer who I was. I was honest, open, vulnerable, and expressive. I figured if I didn’t make it on the show, that footage would go straight into the garbage bin, so what did I have to lose? I talked to the casting producer like she was a close friend, and I was 100% myself.
I cannot stress enough that you *must* get comfortable opening up in front of the camera. You are auditioning for a television show! There are no fewer than 20 cameras pointed into the MasterChef kitchen at all times, and the interviews are a big part of the show. If you‘re not watchable, they won’t cast you–no matter how good your food is.
The good news is, this is something you can practice! Get a roommate or significant other to film you on their phone, watch yourself back, and see how you come across from an interviewer’s perspective. Are you coherent? Well-spoken? Expressive? If you come across like a deer in headlights, you’ll make boring TV–so open up and be yourself.
IN SHORT, BE UNFORGETTABLE
Notice that I didn’t say “Be interesting” or “Be memorable.” Be unforgettable. From what you cook to what you say to what you wear, make sure producers *cannot forget* who you are.
Be someone you could sum up in a phrase: “The tall sassy advertising lady with the red lipstick.” “The crazy molecular-gastronomy-obsessed Scottish guy in a designer tracksuit.” “The down-home Texas oil guy who loves big slabs of meat.”
Sharpen what’s unique about your style, your personality, and your cooking POV into a sellable package.
Obviously, make great food (that is quite literally the first step in nailing the audition). But after that, sell YOU. After all, anyone can make a lasagna. But only you can bring your unique personality to the table.
Good luck. See you on TV. ;)