I completed my application on the Saturday evening before the casting call, making a copy to keep on file (at the insistence of She Who Must Be Obeyed). After a good night’s sleep, I was up at 8 AM to put the finishing touches on boeuf bourguignon version 2.0. My plan was to have everything packed up and ready to go by 12:30, which would give me time to get to Create-A-Cook in Newton for the call at 1 PM.
By this point I wasn’t even bothering to open a cookbook. I trimmed onions and mushrooms, glazed them, reheated the beef and strained the sauce, and made croutons. I cooked the noodles last, leaving them a bit al dente, figuring the carryover heat in their container would bring them up to doneness.
I packed everything into a heavy insulated bag: noodles in one container, the finished serving of beef in an insulated lunch bowl, a plastic box with the croutons, a small container of chopped parsley, a serving plate wrapped in a kitchen towel, some serving utensils, a handful of paper towels, a large Tupperware bowl with lid, a strainer, and a thermal carafe filled with boiling water. The bottom of the bag was lined with a heating pad from an insulated Pyrex casserole dish carrier, a veteran of many school potluck suppers.
I put on some nicer clothes, got in the car, drove to Newton, found the location, parked the car, and was greeted by a line of people that stretched around the building. No problem, I thought, I’ve been prescreened. I headed straight for the front of the line and told the rent-a-cop that I had a prescreen invite.
“Back of the line, just like everyone else.”
“That can’t be right, that’s not what I was told.”
“You and fifty others so far. Back of the line.”
I would spend the next four hours standing on that line out in the cold. I guessed there were at least 150 people ahead of me, learning as time went on that many of the applicants had brought a friend of family member along for assistance or moral support. I readjusted my count to about 100 applicants.
I spent my time making the acquaintance of the people around me in the line. The fellow just ahead of me â€” I think his name was Frank â€” competed in local recipe challenges and cook-offs. I thought maybe I might be out of my league until it became clear that Frank was the exception and not the rule. After a while, we all started asking what dishes we were going to present. I saw a lot of Pyrex casserole cases, and a whole lot of cake carriers. Who brings a cake to a cooking show audition?
The line crept forward slowly. Soon people were seen leaving, having completed the audition process. Some of the friendlier competitors answered questions for us: Once at the head of the line, you had five minutes to plate your dish, then two minutes during which you answered questions while a judge tasted your dish. The questions seemed to be about general cooking knowledge, which made me feel much more confident.
Frank and I began commenting on the exiting contestants, many of whom were still carrying their plated dish. One disgusted-looking guy was carrying a wooden cutting board on top of which rested a sandwich. It was made with some sort of whole-grain bread, had some greens in it, and might have been chicken salad.
“Is that really a sandwich?” Frank asked.
“Sure looks that way. But it had better be the best goddamned sandwich in the world. Look at that guy: His friends have told him for years that he makes a kickass chicken salad sandwich, so he finally took them at their word and tried out today. Now he’s pissed off because the miracle sandwich was not well received. I can’t tell if he’s mad at the judges, or if he’s about to go home and beat up his friends.”
A cameraman from the local Fox affiliate stopped to talk to the woman in front of me, who was there with her teen-aged daughter.
“What did you make today?”
I couldn’t hear all of her answer, but the general idea was “blah blah squash blah blah rice blah blah organic blah blah healthy lifestyle.” Good luck with that; Gordon Ramsay hates that kind of food.
All this time, although I was moving closer to the front door, the length of the line remained unchanged. People kept arriving, responding to an open casting call notice posted on Craigslist.
Finally, after four hours of waiting outside and forcing myself not to open my bag and check the internal temperature, I was let inside, where there was yet another line. This one moved quickly, ending with someone from the casting company. He checked my name against the list of prescreened applicants, then sent me to the head of a very short, fast-moving line. I was given a name tag with a number: 119.
I was waved into a kitchen with a stainless steel prep table and told to plate my dish. I pulled out the carafe and tested the water temperature: still very hot. I poured some of the water into my serving bowl to warm it up. I poured some more water into the container of noodles, covered it, and gave it a good shake to loosen and heat up the contents. I set the strainer over the Tupperware bowl, poured out the water in the serving dish, then strained the noodles. I arranged the noodles in the bowl, then the beef and lardons, the onions and mushrooms, and lastly a few ladlefuls of the sauce. I garnished with the croutons and parsley, packed up all of the other prep stuff, and got ready to meet the judges.
How did the dish look? Like this:
“Wait,” I can hear you say, “That’s the photo of version one.” Yes it is. And version two looked exactly the same.
I was standing at the front of the judging queue for a few minutes, so I took the opportunity to check out some of the other plated dishes. I saw at least three beef Wellingtons, an obvious nod to Ramsay (cooking Wellingtons is the bane of Hell’s Kitchen contestants). A fellow in a Patriots jersey (number 12, Tom Brady) had a gorgeous plate, but it was just tuna tartare. What surprised me was the number of people who chose not to use white plates for their presentations. By contrast, mine stood out; others in line were pointing at my dish, another boost for my confidence.
People were being shown into the judging room four at a time, two for each pair of judges. When my turn came, I was directed to the judges on the right: two women, one with a big smile and one who looked bored out of her skull. I presented my plate.
“What do you have for us today?” asked Bored Person.
“Boeuf bourguignon,” I replied. She grabbed a plastic fork and ate a lardon, not the beef.
“Ooh, just like Julie and Julia!” said Cheerful Person.
I gave her a big smile. “Exactly. But I’ve been refining the recipe for twenty years.”
Bored Person sawed off the smallest possible corner of a piece of beef with a plastic knife, shredding it to bits. “How did you prepare this?” she asked.
“I’ll need more than two minutes to tell you, but I started with organic beef and hand-cured salt pork.” Inside my head, I was screaming Pick up a spoon and taste the sauce! The sauce, dammit!
Having eaten the beef corner, she pushed the plate away and turned her attention to the dish from the other applicant, who had not previously entered into my consciousness. It was a dull green salad plate crowded with a slab of what appeared to be meatloaf topped with two soggy mushrooms, with a side of overcooked green beans and a blob of what might have been mashed potatoes.
Cheerful Person had a question for both of us: “What would it mean to you if you won?”
“It would prove that after years of teaching myself how to cook that I could now cook like a pro,” I answered. The other applicant, a very large woman, started jumping up and down. “I’d be so psyched to win! I loves me Gordon Ramsay!”
And with that, I was done. The judges turned their attention to a rating form on which they evaluated each of us on a scale of 1 to 5, categories I couldn’t see because I was trying to read upside down while packing up. As I turned to leave, I saw Frank talking to the other judge, someone I thought I recognized. I turned back to Bored Person: “Is that Adam Reid?” I asked.
“Yes, it is.”
I could feel something unpleasant welling up in me. “I’m sorry, I forgot to ask. Who are you?”
“I’m Mumbledy Mumble, I’m a food stylist.”
“And I’m Ashley from Boston Casting!” chirped Cheerful Person.
I left the room and headed over to a table where I could deal with my dish of food. Now I understood why so many people carried their plates out: They had something that could be covered and taken home, but I would have to scrape my plate into the nearby bin, wipe it clean and pack it up to go. That bin was full of the stuff of broken dreams: beef Wellingtons, tuna tartatre, cake, meatloaf, lobster, salad (who brings a salad to a cooking audtition?), and now boeuf bourguignon.
While I cleaned up, I could see through the window in front of me, where Frank was still talking to Adam Reid. Adam Reid of Cook’s Illustrated. Adam Reid of America’s Test Kitchen. Adam Reid, the food columnist for The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. Adam Reid, laughing, smiling, chatting with Frank, eating the food, pointing at the plate and asking questions, behaving like a consummate pro.
I endured the walk of shame past the line â€” which was still as long as before â€” to my car. The guy in the Tom Brady shirt was asking anyone who knew “How did the Patriots game turn out?”
I had been following the course of the game on my phone. The Patriots lost badly to the Ravens. “You just lived the game,” I told him. “You froze outside for four hours, only to be met with bitter disappointment at the end.”
As I drove home, my fury mounted. When She Who Must Be Obeyed asked how I did, I exploded:
“Was my food tasted and judged by Adam Reid? No! It was tasted by a woman whose job consists of painting turkeys brown and sculpting mashed potatoes, whose most important kitchen implement is a misting bottle full of water and glycerine! A fucking food stylist!”
My sister, a professional dancer and veteran of hundreds of New York musical casting cattle calls, tells me my experience is absolutely typical, that I was lucky to get asked a few questions. My brother, a three-time Grammy award-winning record producer, tells me I was lucky to be interviewed by someone in the same industry.
Typical yes, lucky, maybe. But I can’t help but hear the famous words of one John Lydon at the conclusion of the last ever show by the Sex Pistols:
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”