Creating "Food Porn": How "Top Chef" Makes Viewers Love Food They Can't Taste

What makes the food on Top Chef look so good? Sandee Birdsong, the show’s supervising culinary producer, talks to Co.Create about what goes into creating the show’s signature "food porn."

There isn’t much doubt that Top Chef is one of the most acclaimed reality competition shows of all time. Since its debut six years ago, it’s helped shape foodie culture and made dozens of up-and-coming chefs, and the veterans who judge them, into stars. It’s spawned two spin-offs and won an Emmy. And now it’s about to start its tenth season, shot in and around Seattle, on November 7 on Bravo.

But if you think about it, part of the show’s success is a bit of a mystery, mainly because the viewer has no idea what the food on the screen actually tastes like. You can see the clothes on Project Runway, watch the vote on Survivor, and see who comes in last on The Amazing Race. But you have to take it on the Top Chef's judges’ word that the winners deserved to win and the losers deserved to pack their knives and go.

What helps in this regard is the show’s visual template, which includes lovingly shot close-ups of each dish created by the show’s cheftestants. If you’re a fan of the show, you know which shots we’re talking about: The dishes are shown against a white background, with the camera lovingly panning over its contents, often in close-ups that leave nothing to the imagination. They’re so seductive, the staff of the show calls those shots food porn.

According to Sandee Birdsong, a third-season cheftestant and the show’s current supervising culinary producer, getting these shots requires a balance of timing, speed and, in some cases, a little bit of derring-do.

During both the Quickfire speed round and the weekly main challenge, each cheftestant is asked to make an extra "food porn" plate, which is whisked away as soon as time’s up. "We take them back into an area where we have set up our food porn area and there’s everything there, from Q-tips to Windex, to beet juice, to an entire toolbox full of things that makeup artists use," she said.

Time is of the essence, as a chef may have created a dish with an element that just won’t look right unless it’s shot immediately. "So we look at the whole table and we say, okay, which ones are going to die here?" she says. "Is there a foam that might die or ice cream or whatever? We take a really quick photograph, and then we deconstruct the plate, if necessary. Take the ice cream. Put it in the freezer. Drop it in a little bit of liquid nitrogen. Take any fresh herbs that are going to wilt under the lights or under the heat… take those off. Put them to the side."

The dish is then put into a portable rig the videographers created that allows them to shoot the show’s signature "porn" wherever they may be, and video and stills are taken. Occasionally, a dish gets so screwed up or something gets broken--or, more damningly, the chef either forgets or has no time to make the extra "beauty plate"--and Birdsong and her staff have to re-create the dish themselves. Between still photographs from the live shot, screen grabs, and asking the chefs themselves, Birdsong and her staff have a lot of information at their disposal to re-create the dish if needed.

"In some cases, you don’t have to make the exact same thing," she says. "You can take any kind of doughnut or soufflé and turn it into something else. A sponge cake can be covered with something and turned into something else. So there’s a lot of that that goes into it. It’s few and far between, thank goodness, but yeah, we do that as well."

Birdsong’s team, which also helps design the challenges, then identifies and shops for the ingredients the chefs have at their disposal, includes mainly chefs, and the team has been with her since she started on the main show’s seventh season (she also works on spin-offs Top Chef: Just Desserts and Top Chef Masters). What you won’t find on her team are food stylists, mainly because, according to Birdsong, what the viewers are looking for doesn’t always need to look perfect.

"I think what we need are chefs that really understand the food and what is put together by that (cheftestant) to make it look edible and real. A lot of times, when you have a food stylist, they do things that aren’t as edible or don’t look as real."

But, like food stylists, Birdsong and her staff use some decidedly non-culinary ingredients to make sure the dishes look their best. Like the Windex she mentioned, which is used to wipe fingerprints off the plate. The beet juice is at least edible, though it’s generally used to touch up meat that has lost its rosy glow.

"The biggest problem that we have is when you sear a lamb and they serve it perfectly medium rare, by the time it sits there for a minute and it gets up under the light, that center is no longer a bright beautiful red," she says. If there is a meat product that they need to keep looking pink and juicy, they often take it off the plate and cover it in plastic to keep the meat from oxidizing and turning brown. "Then, once we pull that off, we take beet juice that we’ve made and we brush that red back onto that lamb chop."

In general, the food porn area is adjacent to whatever location the chefs are cooking in that week. Most of the time, that’s either in or near a kitchen. But that’s not always the case. In the upcoming tenth season, sometimes the plates had to be taken down the street from the filming location to be shot in the food porn box. Other times, the location itself isn’t ideal. For instance, says Birdsong, on one occasion during the show’s ninth season, shot in Texas, the staff had to use a public bathroom for the food porn shots.

"We were actually shooting in a working bathroom, where people would go to the bathroom and come around and go right back out the door and we’re shooting our food porn shots right there," she says. "It was really kind of funny." Texas in general was a tough shoot; in a behind-the-scenes video on Bravo’s website, you see Birdsong and her crew cart plates across a busy street to a refrigerated truck, as well as shooting food in a broom closet and that aforementioned restroom, where one of the crew apologizes after using the facilities during the shoot.

Making the plate look like the chef’s final product--even if that product is missing an ingredient--is the biggest challenge Birdsong and her team face. But nothing a savory chef can come up with has physically challenged her like what she’s had to do on Just Desserts, where often the only product available to be shot is what’s presented in front of the judges. In one challenge, she and her team had to take apart, transport, shoot, then put together layers of cheftestants’ wedding cakes before giving the completed cake back to the contestant for judging. But that wasn’t even the hardest part, as Birdsong sprung into action to protect a cake from a falling lighting rig.

"Instead of backing up, I jumped right into the center, caught the light from hitting the cake because I felt so attached to this thing the whole time. I mean, I’d babied it now for two days and now I’m standing up under this thing with a light and I turn around and everybody in the whole house… had windows across the entire backyard. Everybody was looking at me like what did you just do? But I saved the cake."

Besides the skills needed to save plates from destruction, though, what is the best skill Birdsong and her staff have learned from years of shooting food porn?

"I think I’ve picked up a ton of cooking techniques from being around these chefs and watching them and purchasing all the ingredients; but watching them cook and getting involved in that part of it, you actually learn, " she says. "So, I think that skill level of just now understanding cooking and cuisines, I could probably be a brilliant chef now, at this point."

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  • Tyler Stone

    A couple of em dashes make the following much more intelligible: "Birdsong’s team — which also helps design the challenges, then identifies and shops for the ingredients the chefs have at their disposal — includes mainly chefs, and the team has been with her…"