Interview: Food Network Star Judge Bob Tuschman
As if his position as general manager of the Food Network weren’t already demanding enough, Bob Tuschman has also been tasked with choosing the next Food Network Star, alongside fellow exec Susie Fogelson and established stars Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay. In the midst of Season 7, the Princeton grad and former “Good Morning America” producer took time to share show insights. He called this season’s competitors “without doubt, the most accomplished cast in terms of cooking skills, in terms of focused points of view, in terms of large personalities, in terms of camera skills” before fielding questions from a varied collection of journalists and bloggers, including me.
Pattye Grippo from Pazsaz Entertainment Network: As the season progresses, and you start to get a feel for who the contestants are and how well they can cook, do you begin to get a sense of who’s going to make it to the end?
Tuschman: You know, you think I would after all this time, but I’m constantly surprised week to week, which is one of the reasons why I really love doing this show, and I think one of the reasons why it’s so interesting for viewers. Even though I have people who I pick early on as favorites, I never stop being surprised, both by their internal struggles and in terms of certain challenges that face them. I’m always surprised by people who start the show at the very back of the pack, and emerge through sheer force of will, for their ability to listen to notes, both for themselves and others, and to just never stop improving themselves. I’ve also said that the people who end up winning, even though they have all the skills we need, are often the people who can grow as people in the shortest amount of time.
Pattye Grippo from Pazsaz Entertainment Network: That’s an interesting perspective. How difficult is it, watching these contestants, not to get attached early on, and to favor them and want to see them do well? Is that difficult for you?
Tuschman: Yes. I’ll tell you that having four committee members keeps you very honest, because we are talking all the time about what the plusses and minuses are of each contestant. When we do the deliberation at the end of the show, that is very real, there is nothing scripted about our opinions and we often come at it from very different points of view. To keep personally attached to people that I’m rooting for, we’re very real about what their deficiencies are as well as their strengths. Bobby and Giada and Susie, we all keep each other honest about everybody’s pluses and minuses. The result is very much a decision, at the end, of the committee.
Joshua Lurie from Food GPS: What did it take for you to get comfortable on camera?
Bob: If you watched the very first season, I think you’ll get a good idea. I like to think I’ve improved along with the contestants. I, in high school and college, did plays, so I always enjoyed being in front of people. Like the contestants, what you think you’re putting off to the camera is not necessarily what the camera is reading. I had to watch myself in early episodes, I thought, oh my gosh, I am so low energy and flat and monotone. I certainly was aware that I needed to amp up my performance just to come across probably how I do in real life because the camera truly does eat about 25% of your energy for lunch.
Joshua Lurie from Food GPS: How has what you’re looking for in a star changed from Season 1 to Season 7?
Tuschman: That’s an excellent question. Our expectations are higher now. As the seasons have progressed, so has the celebrity, on a national basis, of our current food stars. Our food stars have become national stars far beyond the food world. Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay, these are household names, even among people that are not food watchers. Our expectations about what we’re looking for in somebody has ratcheted up dramatically. You’re really looking for breakout personalities, breakout performers, who we think can have life far outside just the food spotlight.
Brandon Maya from Dresses & Appetizers: I’d be curious about, If you had three points of view that help you make your decision, what would those three things be.
Tuschman: The three criteria I’m looking for?
Brandon Maya from Dresses & Appetizers: Yeah. I know it’s cooking and point of view every time you look at somebody, but what else are you looking for every single time you look at an individual?
Tuschman: I’m looking for comfort in their own skin. We saw this with Katy this week. She was looking to us for what we wanted her to be. To me, when you’re trying everybody outside of yourself, you’re not presenting any authentic, grounded, forceful version of yourself. What we’re looking for, in a way, is somebody who has such a strong sense of who they are and what they want to be. They’re going to be that in a huge way whether the cameras are on them and they’re doing a challenge or not. Katy has a lot of skills but I was looking for a stronger sense of self, less of her looking to us each week. That’s one thing.
Two is a creative intelligence so that no matter what challenge we throw at them, they have enough improvisational ability to adapt to it. They don’t get stuck in a pre thought out dish they want to make or answer to a question or act. They can be creatively intelligent in whatever situation we throw them into, because a Food Network Star will have to do that.
The third, I would think – let’s see – I guess would just be strength, not in a physical sense, but in an emotional sense. We commented to Alicia who seemed a little fragile, Susie said, this past week. A strength of who they are, a strength of no matter what we throw at them, a strength that even at their most tired, their most drained, they’re going to have the stamina to keep going and keep presenting a star presence.
Brandon Maya from Dresses & Appetizers: Very cool. So the last one will be an easy one. Your last meal ever. You’re only going to get one meal, what will it be?
Tuschman: I can tell you what genre it will be in, Italian or Mediterranean because those are the flavors that naturally appeal to me. I think in a former life I probably lived on a Mediterranean island, had a small fiefdom, played in the sun and swam in the sea with some pukka beads on me and ate very healthfully. Somewhere in that realm. I wouldn’t be unhappy if it was a large, blistery, charred thin crust pizza with a couple bottles of red wine. Zinfandel would be great, if you’re looking for a Christmas gift.
Megan Thompson with Reality TV Magazine: If you could create the ultimate Food Network Star, could you assign a percentage to star power, personality and cooking in the perfect combination?
Tuschman: I would actually say evenly split, which is 33 1/3% for each. To me the huge difficulty of Food Network Star, we get pitched, every year, hundreds of people, who are really, really excellent cooks, and we get pitched people who are really amazing personalities, but really don’t have the food sense. And we get people who have them, but really don’t have a point of view of somebody we think is going to bring broad interest to our viewers. To get all three in one person is so difficult and it’s why I have grey hair, because I really should be a blonde at this point, but it is really difficult, and I think what makes Food Network Star such a difficult competition is to have all three of those in equal amounts.
Megan Thompson with Reality TV Magazine: In the past seven seasons, have you ever felt you were possibly too harsh on a contestant?
Tuschman: Yes, I certainly had eliminations where I regretted – interesting enough, I felt bad about Kelsey, this was a few seasons ago, who is now on Cooking Channel and has now come into her own. I said repeatedly that I felt she was a little too young and a little too unformed. I got such hate mail the week she was kicked off, because people loved her so much. Last year, when they gave her a show on Cooking Channel, I was having a chat with her, and she said, “You know, I really wasn’t ready for it then, I really am ready for it now, so I thank you now because I needed more time.” I felt sort of vindicated there. I do feel bad sometimes about being harsh, but I do feel like direct, honest criticism, is the biggest favor I can give somebody, because you give them the opportunity to improve. I feel if you’re just nice to be nice to them, they’re going to go down in flames thinking what a nice person you were, as you kicked me off. I want to give everybody the chance to really raise their game, and they have to do it in a very short time period, so I do think being tough is really a gift.
Steven Cavendish of the Chicago Tribune: Do you find it interesting that the show is less about food – although it’s food centered – than it is about star making? Is that a slice that the network is breaking off (and has done so very well) or is it a direction that the network is going in general?
Tuschman: We want every show to be unique and the unique promise of Food Network Star – because there are a lot of competition shows on our air alone – the promise of Food Network Star is that you get a peak behind what it take to be a celebrity chef in this day and age. It is harder than viewers think it is, because most of the stars that do it make it look so easy. It’s a lot of skills, it’s a lot of behind the scenes forces that come together to make a star. That’s what we’re trying to do with this show. If you look at our network, we have shows in every different area. We have much more interesting food on a Chopped or Iron Chef America. There are shows that are a little more about personalities in the food world. Diners, Drive-ins and Dives really introduces you to the personalities behind the food. We try to show the food in a lot of different angles. We want each show to have a unique promise to the viewer, and to me, the star making machinery is what Food Network Star is about.
Steven Cavendish of the Chicago Tribune: Have you been surprised on how high the ratings have been? Particularly, it ended on such a high note last year. These are really big numbers for the network.
Tuschman: Yes, obviously we’re thrilled by them. One of the great things about this show is, we have a lot of different kinds of people who watch the Food Network for different reasons. This brings all our different viewers together. Whether you’re a viewer that likes our in the kitchen programming, which is our instructional programming that we have on weekend mornings and daytime, whether you more reality programming or more informational programming, or competitions, or history, any program you like in the food world, it’s always of interest, because all our top stars appear on this program. If you’re a daytime viewer, all of your favorite stars are on this, if you’re a competition viewer, it’s an extremely well done competition. People like it for so many different reasons. I’m only surprised – because I’m a behind the scenes person – I’m amazed by the range of people who stop me on the street, in airplanes, in airports, to tell me how much they love the show, and recognize me – I always forget that I’m on the show and people recognize me. That’s always a surprise.