Out to dinner a few weeks ago, my boyfriend stops me in the midst of one of my characteristically charming monologues to tell me I have something on my face. “Pizza?” I ask, dabbing a napkin around my mouth. “Lipstick?” I ask. He frowns: “Uh, both? You might need to go to the bathroom.” There, staring into the mirror over the sink, I saw that I resembled the Joker if he’d been in a fight with marinara sauce and a tube of coral-hued L’Oreal Color Riche.
“How do the professionals do it?” I wondered as I scrubbed my cheek with a scratchy paper towel. Padma Lakshmi never has parsley in her teeth. Anthony Bourdain never had a coffee-stained shirt. Even Guy Fieri keeps it together while eating bacon- and ranch-stuffed jalapeno poppers. What are their secrets?
First, the golden rule: “Take small bites. Less is more,” Steve Dolinsky, food reporter for Chicago’s ABC-affiliate WLS, tells me. He says the tiny bites he takes on camera are deliberate—it’s not the way he’d normally eat.
That’s because on TV, there’s inherently a 5-7 second audio pause after a person’s taken a bite, as they’re chewing and swallowing. If a host bites of more than they can chew—literally—that gap widens and it becomes an awkward silence.
“Nobody wants to see you chewing for 15 seconds with your hand out like ‘wait one second,’” he says. “Then you start really speed-chewing, which doesn’t look good on camera. So if you don’t have another guest to pick up the slack while you’re chewing, you need to take very small bites.”
When it comes to staying stain-free, Dolinsky highly recommends The Lean when eating hand-held foods.
“My experience from eating a lot of (Chicago-style) Italian beef sandwiches is you’ve got to lean forward. I have no shame going two hands with a sandwich, either, because stuff is going to leak out and oftentimes you’re not seated at a table. You’ve got to be careful in the same way with tacos, too. Lean forward.”
Another pro-tip for on-camera eating: Assemble your own bite. That’s key for Ali Rosen, author of Bring It! and host of Potluck With Ali, which airs on New York City’s NYC Life. She says that often, a chef will try to put together a bite for her and will overdo it, cramming all the dish’s components into one forkful. She prefers to assemble her own food so she can keep the size manageable, even if that means taking multiple bites to taste all the ingredients.
“Especially in this Instagram age, restaurants are more focused on how something looks than whether you can actually eat it,” she says. “There are so many more dishes plated in such a way that they’re thinking about the photo, not how it’s going to get in your mouth.”
Rosen is also one of the few hosts I talk to who endorses the ‘putting-your-hand-over-your-mouth-while-chewing’ move.
“The hand-over-mouth thing is helpful if you have to do eat on live TV, and quickly,” she says. “But I grew up in the South, so I feel like being polite trumps most things.”
Most other TV hosts tell me they avoid that, because it’s not how most people eat in the real world.
“It reminds me of the original Iron Chef from Japan, where the judges would kind of laugh behind their hands. I don’t see people eating that way ever. It’s awkward,” Dolinsky says.
And worrying about where your hands are, or whether you’re blocking your mouth, and how long you should keep chewing—all that can backfire. Catherine Smart, a cast member on American Public Media’s Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Television, has noticed people tend to trip themselves up by overchoreographing their televised eating.
“Like most things on camera and probably in life, the more you overthink it, the more ridiculous you feel,” she says. “To be in the moment, taste it, and enjoy the food, that’ll make you look the least silly and your audience will actually want to eat what you’re eating.”
Top Chef judge Gail Simmons tells me despite her composed, neat style on camera, she never practices how she eats: “You learn as you go—and I’ve been doing it a long time.”
She also agrees that it’s crucial to be natural and honest when eating on camera, even when—or especially when—something isn’t perfect.
“We often get things like fish bones or shells in our food that we have to spit out. We try to do it gracefully but we also always acknowledge it on camera as it’s a flaw in the dish that needs to be addressed,” she explains. “Back in season six, Tom [Colicchio] had to spit out food that had gone bad once and then he warned us all to not eat it. I can’t remember if that was left in the final edit of the episode or not.”
Clearly a host’s on-camera persona also determines their prim or messy eating style. The Top Chef judges are uniformly composed and professional, while hosts of other shows like Man vs. Food or F*ck That’s Delicious are more apt to dig in with abandon. We’re likely to see Martha Stewart sip a careful spoonful of soup while Adam Richman rips apart a chicken wing. Ali Rosen says that because she’s usually playing a sort of interviewer role on her show, she can afford to take smaller bites and keep the focus on her guest.
“If you’re a host on a travel show, though, then how you eat is inherently an endorsement of the food’s quality, so the amount of it that you eat matters,” she says.
Are gender roles at play there, too? It’s easier for me to imagine Andrew Zimmern wholeheartedly digging into a Rocky Mountain oyster for his show than it is to envision Julia Child scarfing down coq au vin. Rosen agrees:
“There is a double-standard for woman. If we see women eating something in a going-all-at-it way, then it’s a sexy woman, not like you’d see Paula Deen or Ina Garten doing it.”
I recall my lipstick-smearing incident. What does that say about me? That I’m a young, vibrant woman who loves pizza and good times? Or that I’m a charm-school reject who should invest in smudge-proof lipstick?
No, my very kind TV-host sources tell me, everyone looks weird eating. The professionals just happen to have the benefit of makeup artists and post-production editors.
“Most people who are eating on shows are the hosts and producers and people who have a say on the final cut of it,” Rosen says. “If I look like a total asshole eating something, I’m not going to leave that in.”