Food Network’s Tournament of Champions, the bracketed, March Madness-style competition between outstanding chefs, is a simple but effective formula: two chefs face off with their challenge randomly selected and their dishes judged blind.
Season three of the Guy Fieri-hosted show has kept that format but expanded: TOC’s bracket doubled to 32 chefs, and the new $100,000 prize is the biggest in Food Network’s history. Each two-hour episode (Food Network, Sundays at 8) now has four battles, which means more TOC each week.
From the upsets to watching the contestants in their trailers reacting to being judged by iconic chefs like Eric Ripert, Lorena Garcia, and Alex Guarnaschelli judge their food, I can’t get enough of what I think is Food Network’s best competition.
As I watch, though, I have questions. How do the randomly selected produce and protein magically appear in the pantry? How does the seeding work? How long do plates sit around before they’re judged? How does the kitchen get so clean so fast? Why was one chef DQed for missing randomizer ingredients but another was not?
Thankfully, executive producer Brian Lando of Lando Entertainment was willing to share answers. In a wide-ranging interview, we discussed everything from accusations of rigging to the schedule for filming.
At the start of our interview, Lando told me that host and executive producer “Guy [Fieri] isn’t an EP in name only. Guy’s a fully active, real-deal, hands-dirty, idea-generating, exception producer. When I say ‘we,’ it’s Guy first and the team that he built—including me.”
Why did TOC expand to 32 from 16 chefs?
Casting Tournament of Champions “was a little harder the first year,” EP Brian Lando said. They found “chefs brave enough to enter into the unknown” after producers “basically call[ed] friends and family: We have this crazy idea, you’ve never seen anything like it, it’s a one and done: you lose you go home, against all of your peers.”
For season three, producers had the opposite problem. “The reason why we expanded to 32 chefs is because we had so many people who wanted to do it. We could not figure out how to do it in 16,” he said. “There’s too many good talents to let them sit on the sidelines for a year.”
Lando told me that he thinks “TOC can keep getting bigger,” including expanding the bracket: “It’s not out of the question we do 64 chefs at one point.”
Among other possibilities are spin-off shows and a live finale, where fans could get tickets to come see the final match-up live.
But one thing will remain the same: highlighting great chefs. “You don’t really get to see them be the best that they are: the best, most innovative, most-talented, spur-of-the-moment chefs. That was really the impetus” for the show, he said. “If you know any of Guy’s shows, from Triple-D to Triple-G, Guy’s m.o. is to highlight others.”
How does seeding work?
“It’s not an exact science, but there is a formula,” Lando explained.
Those seeded in the #1 slot this year were season two’s final four, while those in the #2 slots went far in last year’s TOC competition. On the other end of the spectrum, the eighth seeds were the two play-ins from Guy’s Grocery Games and other chefs who are new to TOC.
For ranking those in the middle, several things are considered, Lando told me:
- wins and also scores from previous TOC battles; even if someone didn’t win, they may have scored higher than another chef who won their particular battle
- “other competition shows that we know are fully vetted,” whether that’s Chopped or Top Chef
- social media mentions, which includes producers “painstakingly” going through posts to see which chefs are mentioned
One sign that the seeding process is working: “This season, we didn’t have any chef upset about their ranking,” Lando said.
How is Tournament of Champions scheduled and filmed?
Once the 32 chefs are cast and seeded into the bracket, the cooking begins. But beyond those round-one battles, no one knows who will be facing off against who because of the bracketed format.
That sounds like a scheduling nightmare, but there’s a really simple solution.
Chefs who are cast “have to make [themselves] available for the whole two weeks” of production, Lando told me. “You can be out, unfortunately, on day one, or you can be cooking on the last night.”
Tournament of Champions films three battles per day, although four are shown in each episode.
In season three, no chef will ever cook twice on the same day. In previous seasons, however, those who made it to the finale may have cooked twice, on that day only. This season, though, filming for the final battle was on a different day.
“These chefs get really into it—as they should. It’s a full mind and body workout for them, so we prefer that they don’t go twice in a day,” Lando said.
Why isn’t Alex Guarnaschelli competing on TOC?
Alex Guarnaschelli isn’t competing on Tournament of Champions season 3 because of her new (and great!) Food Network competition, Alex vs. America.
“It’s really special when Alex cooks—so much so that we created a show around it. We wanted all of Alex’s cooking to be on the premiere of season one” of Alex vs. America, Lando told me.
She is, however, a judge on Tournament of Champions 3. “She’s an incredible judge,” Lando said. “It’s really important to us to cast judges” who the chefs know and respect: “When we turn on the monitor, and they see who’s there, that they know they’re in good hands, and they know who they’re being judged by is the best of the best.”
That is one of my favorite parts of the show, watching the chefs react not only to the judging, but just to who’s judging them. Producers and crew also love that moment, watching on their monitors. “You can’t help be drawn to it, because it’s so visceral,” Lando said.
Is Tournament of Champions’ randomizer really random?
The randomizer is the source of conspiracy theories and accusations that the show is rigged. But it is truly random, Lando said: “100 percent it’s random. It’s so important to Guy that there’s no funny-business behind the scenes.”
Some people have accused it of not being random because the same item never shows up twice. But there’s a reason for that.
The protein, produce, equipment, or style is replaced on the randomizer wheel after it’s been selected. “Our culinary team is so talented and creative that they have enough options that viewers will never see the same things twice,” Lando told me.
The way the randomizer actually spun in season one generated conversation and speculation that it wasn’t random. But the real reason is simpler: it was a last-minute idea.
Brian Lando told me that producers “were maybe two weeks out from filming season one, and we were talking about the challenges and how we were going to put these chefs to the test. And Guy comes up with the randomizer on the fly: What if we had all these wheels, and they spun, and it was the protein and the equipment? And he’s standing up, describing, and he’s showing us how he’s going to spin it—he’s reaching up and spinning air.”
“We only had 2.5 weeks, three weeks to build it. But it was during awards season and it was hard to find prop houses. We looked far and wide and we found someone,” he said.
There was one issue: “it didn’t have a stopping mechanism.” So that meant that, “on season one, by the time it stopped spinning, they [the wheels] were all unaligned, so Guy would have to manually align them.”
That’s no longer the case, because the randomizer prop was fixed: “All we did was put in a weight so when it’s done spinning, it snaps back to where it was between the lines,” Lando said.
How do randomly selected proteins and produce get into TOC’s fridges?
After Guy Fieri spins the randomizer, he counts down and sends the chefs scrambling into the kitchen to start cooking. In the fridges are the proteins and produce, alone on a shelf, while the required piece of equipment—whether that’s a waffle maker or an hot air popcorn popper—has appeared on their station.
If the randomizer is random, and the chefs are starting immediately, how is that possible?
Before I could even ask about this (it was perhaps the most burning of my burning questions), executive producer Brian Lando told me how it works.
“What happens is: After the randomizer lands—and it lands 100 percent for real, there’s no re-spins—there’s a two-minute break down where the chefs hear all the specific rules. Let’s say that there’s a piece of equipment that they must use, and they don’t know where it is, the culinary team will show them,” he said.
“We cannot stock the 20 proteins that we have there on that day in those refrigerators,” he explained. So “the [culinary] team takes the proteins from the back that were just spun and puts them in the refrigerator, and then it picks up right from there.”
Lando said that the break is less than two minutes—maybe 50 to 90 seconds—because the culinary team is so quick.
That’s incredibly fast in TV. Whether it’s on Survivor or Top Chef, contestants typically have off-camera time to review rules and prepare. We once saw this on a Top Chef spin-off, and over the years, we’ve learned how Jeff Probst and challenge producers walk players through challenges step by step and answer questions, accompanied by a CBS Standards and Practices executive.
The chefs are never given instructions about how to use equipment, however, and sideline reporters Simon Majumdar and Justin Warner will not give instructions, either.
What happens to food before and during judging?
Speaking of breaks in filming, I’m endlessly fascinated by how food is judged on cooking competitions where it’s not served to judges immediately.
What happens to the food? How long does it take to clean the kitchen? Alex vs. America showed some of that behind-the-scenes work, with producers rushing in to clean the kitchen after the cook, or swapping plates for judges, so I was curious how it worked on Tournament of Champions.
First, the entire kitchen is cleaned in less than five minutes.
“It’s like a pit crew. We are so fast,” Lando told me. “We actually rehearse the transition. As soon as the cooking’s done, everybody knows their exact roles. I would say that between the end of the cook and the first judge is less than five minutes.”
The judging order is based on the order the TOC competitors finish plating. “The chef that’s finished first—and this is a rule they all know—gets to be judged first. Chefs can use that an advantage if they want; if they want to finish they last because they prefer the judges taste the other dish first, they can do that also. It’s an extra element of game play,” he said.
The first dish is being judged within five minutes of finishing cooking, while “the second chef talks to the culinary team, and they’re given a whole array of ways they can store their food, whether it’s an ice box, in a freezer, in a fridge, in a hot box,” Lando said. “They work with the culinary team to store it exactly the way that they want.”
But even the chef who’s judged second doesn’t have their plates sitting around for hours. “They’re not waiting any more than 10 minutes,” Lando said.
That’s because the judging is very quick, so an episode of Tournament of Champions includes most of the judges’ comments. “We don’t cut out a lot. You see a lot of it,” Lando said. “There are other culinary shows that judge for hours on end. We don’t do that. The judges that we have are so good it doesn’t take them 20 minutes to come up with an opinion.”
How does scoring and judging work on Tournament of Champions?
The Tournament of Champions judges independently score each dish, awarding a maximum of 100 points:
- 50 points for taste
- 30 points for use of the randomizer ingredients and techniques
- 20 points for presentation and plating
Those scores—300 points total—are averaged together to get the cumulative number we see on TV, such as 83 points overall, and also the category scores, such as 17 points for presentation.
If there is a tie, the producers turn to “the raw scores,” Lando told me. “We don’t look at the averages, we look at the cumulative points for each category. In the event that those scores are exactly tied, we start with who did better, cumulatively, in taste,” and then if that’s tied, they move on to the cumulative score for the randomizer, and then if that’s tied, to presentation.
During season two, there was a perfect tie: the overall score was tied, as were each of the categories, during Jet Tila and Antonia Lofaso’s battle. It was, “to the point, every judge exactly the same, cumulatively and overall,” Lando said, so that’s why they cooked again.
To maintain secrecy, judges’ trailers are on the opposite side of the soundstage from the chefs trailers, and the judges also stay at different hotels, and have different call times. No one’s names are put on call sheets. “It’s a pretty elaborate operation to make sure we don’t spoil anything,” Lando told me.
Besides not knowing who’s competing in TOC, as Alex Guarnaschelli confirmed on Twitter, the judges don’t ever know whose dishes they’ve judged—well, until it airs on TV.
Why was Madison Cowan disqualified and Christian Petroni was not?
Tournament of Champions 3 had a first: Madison Cowan was disqualified because he didn’t have everything plated when time ran out.
A few weeks later, Christian Petroni forgot a randomizer ingredient, parsley, but he was not DQed.
The issue, Lando told me, was that “Madison didn’t have half an entire dish [plated, and only], three-fourths of the randomizer” items on those plates he did finish.
“In Christian’s case—and it happened also in season one with Darnell [Ferguson]—if there’s one element left off the dish … there’s enough there to be judged, but obviously it’s really hard to overcome missing a randomizer ingredient, as you saw, and he lost because of it,” he said.
Madison was invited back for season four, Lando said “Madison understood, and he was very gracious.”
That’s true of the other contestants, too.
“These chefs are just so gracious and respectful, and for me it’s one of the most-positive shows I’ve ever worked on because of that,” Lando told me. “As you know, as a fan and someone who studies non-scripted or reality TV, a lot of these shows have shenanigans behind the scenes, and sometimes people leave feeling like they were cheated or something was unfair.”
He added, “It’s the most-important thing we say to all the chefs before they come: This is going to be the single-most fair cooking experience of your life. What you see is what you get. There’s nothing behind the scenes that will get in your way. It’s all just about you and the randomizer and cooking your best.”