Yes, friends, it’s another food reality television show–Worst Cooks in America premieres on the Food Network on January 3. It turns the Top Chef paradigm on its head–instead of being covertly invited to snicker at the flailings of chefs who are meant to be talented, we’re urged to root for the redemption of home cooks who have already admitted that they’re terrible.
These purported worst cooks in the nation are split into two teams, and submit to cooking boot camp, one team under Anne Burrell, formerly of Centro Vinoteca, and the other under Beau MacMillan, of elements in Phoenix. One by one they are eliminated in cooking challenges, until the last two compete in front of a panel of “esteemed culinary critics” to win $25,000 (and not, we assume the title of Worst Cook in America).
One of the contestants walks among us, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. We caught up with Rachel Coleman about her kitchen disasters, what she learned from Anne Burrell, and what it’s like to study reality TV in college, and then actually be on reality TV.
So are you really one of the worst cooks in America?
I mean, I don’t think I was the worst in America, but I was scared to try anything. It’s not that I was burning down the kitchen or anything, but I just never cooked at all, because I thought: Why bother? I can’t do it.
Whenever I wanted to cook something that was fancy, it wouldn’t turn out right because I didn’t know how to follow a recipe. It would be like: I like mushroom sauce. So I’d just put some mushrooms in a pan and nothing would happen. I didn’t know how to follow recipes correctly.
Plus, it’s so easy to find such cheap, good food in New York. And in a lot of neighborhoods, it’s intimidating because groceries are so expensive.
Where do you live?
Where do you like to eat there?
I just moved here a few weeks ago, before that I was in Williamsburg. I like Enid’s in Greenpoint…
Do you have a favorite pizza place?
Yeah, Carmine’s Pizzaria on  Graham Avenue.
Describe your worst kitchen disaster.
A few times, I tried to make macaroni and cheese. I have this memory that my friend’s mother used to make it with cheddar and cottage cheese, but I had no idea in my brain how to make it creamy. I ended up just mixing a bunch of cheeses together and it turned out really gross. It was disgusting.
I feel like a lot of New Yorkers don’t cook, and it doesn’t bother them–what made you want to do this show? Was there something in particular that bothered you about not being able to cook?
It was basically empowerment. It made me feel powerless when I wanted to have something, and if I couldn’t find a restaurant that had it, I couldn’t have it. It was frustrating. I guess I want what I want, and there’s no way to get it if I can’t figure it out myself. I think it was also about growing up a little, and being able to feed myself without having to rely on my parents or a deliveryman. Definitely empowerment. Also, I’d been watching The Next Food Network Star and was jealous of some of the things they made on that show.
What’s your day job?
I’m an editor for Neilson’s website.
So do you want to continue with that, or has the show changed your goals?
I like editorial, but my main passion is writing. I have a music blog that’s mildly successful. [popjew.blogspot.com] I like to put on concerts. So that’s my ultimate goal, to make that lucrative, to put on shows and do music stuff.
But since the show, now whenever a touring band comes through, I make them a big dinner or a breakfast in the morning, if they’re crashing over. I really like doing that. Now that I have confidence in my kitchen abilities, I can be more helpful to people from out of town.
What do you like to cook?
Well, now that I can successfully follow a recipe, I can cook anything. Lately, I like to cook fried stuff, deep-fried stuff. I made a deep-fried portabella mushroom sandwich that was really good.
You’re on “team red” under Anne Burrell. What was it like to be taught to cook by her?
She was definitely a good teacher, but also pretty terrifying–a tough love kind of teacher. If something was wrong, she’d let us know. She definitely intimidated people, but that was good in the end. She reminded me of my mom a little bit. Definitively scary.
Was there anything that you learned that surprised you or was an “ah-ha” kind of moment?
There were moments like that almost everyday, because there was just nothing that I had any idea about beforehand. The biggest thing was reading a recipe–that you should read it from beginning to end before you start. It’s easier than reading as you go. And the idea of mise en place: Getting everything you need in front of you before you start. When you’re organized, everything flows so much easier.
We’ve been living with reality TV all around us for more than 10 years now–were you nervous about going on reality TV, that things would be edited in a certain way, that you would somehow regret doing it?
I was terrified, and had huge second thoughts. When you go to a reality TV audition, you don’t think you’re going to make it on. There are so many people there–what are the odds? So when they called to say they wanted me on, I didn’t want to do it. I told my mom, my best friend, my boss, and everyone I knew said: You’re stupid if you don’t do this…it’s a great opportunity.
And it has turned out to be a really positive experience. It’s something they say to you: This is the Food Network, it’s not VH1. It’s not a malicious place. And it was all about learning, so it was a really positive experience. I guess I’m still a little bit nervous about what people will say when they see it, but I’m confident I represented myself well.
What made you decide to go to the audition?
I’d been watching The Next Food Network Star, and I liked that show a lot. And I saw this audition posted. I actually studied reality TV in college, so I always looked at casting calls, but I never went. So I was interested in the process. When I saw this casting call, it sounded cool to be able to learn to cook from celebrity chefs. It was the first one [casting call] that made me get up from my computer and go.
And what’s cool about this show, and not other shows, is that even if you don’t win and you get eliminated, you still gain a valuable skill. It’s not like Big Brother, where all you’ve done is be on television. It’s a skill I’m actually using in my life.
So having studied and thought so much about reality TV in college, what did you think of it finally being on the inside? Anything that surprised you, what it as you thought it would be?
I don’t know how much I’m supposed to talk about what happened behind the scenes, but there’s definitely more stuff that goes on than what you see on camera. I will say that.