Reality shows centering on food have been around for years, but the work behind them took awhile to get noticed.
This year, three examples of the cooking show genre landed Creative Arts Emmy noms, acknowledging the extensive technical behind-the-scenes magic that turns these programs into more than the usual stand-and-stir routine.
“The real difficulty is that you’re not tasting the food,” says Jesse Fisher, a nominee for editing the Travel Channel’s “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” which he assembles from 50-60 hours of footage for each episode.
“It’s about setting up expectations and seeing the care they take in the kitchen,” says Fisher.
Unlike other reality shows in the genre, “No Reservations” places specific emphasis on the eating experience. “We try to make it seem like a long, elaborate meal,” Fisher explains.
And since the show features Bourdain dining in different places around the world, it requires the crew to adapt to a wide variety of environments.
“We’ve just learned over time how to make food look good with very little light,” explains Zach Zamboni, nominated with Todd Liebler for his camerawork on the show.
The duo often use 200mm prime lenses to give the images a cinematic feel. “The food is a living thing,” Zamboni says. “There’s a person’s energy in that. The photography is about not killing that energy.”
The other nominated shows, Bravo’s “Top Chef” and Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” put greater emphasis on the diverse characters behind the culinary preparation. “We want to make the show about food, but the food comes from these chefs with unbelievable personalities,” says “Top Chef” nominated editor Kevin Leffler.
“You have to be quite prepared when the food is ready,” adds “Top Chef” director of photography Tim Spellman, another nominee. “The food-products shots are a big point of the show. The chefs have to provide an extra dish for everything they make.”
Spellman relies on seven to nine cameras during the lengthy shoots while dealing with kitchen-related problems like grease build-up on the lenses. However, he doesn’t need to make the food look any better than it already does. “We try and shoot a lot of long lens stuff, but it comes down to the quality of the chefs,” he says. “I just try to give a nice commercial look to the show.”
The team behind “Hell’s Kitchen,” on the other hand, puts as much effort into creating the food’s environment as it does into the actual cooking.
The show’s set is constructed each season on a 25,000-square-foot stage (Culver City’s Century Studios was used for last season’s and the upcoming one’s lensing). Eighty-six robotic cameras throughout the building, including behind the kitchen mirrors, capture the action.
“You can stand behind a contestant, 18 inches from where they’re chopping cucumbers, and yet the glass can crack so easily when it’s next to a grill,” says nominated production designer John Robert Janavs. “We all love a great meal, and there’s an adventure to food.”