Producing hit TV shows for Food Network, Travel Channel and network television: It has to be the best job in the world. Right? All you do is taste food from brilliant chefs and give them their cue when it’s time to go on-camera. Or is there possibly a bit more to it?
If you’re in media, you’ve most likely guessed correctly. The answer is: “Yes, there are endless behind-the-scenes responsibilities to a producer’s job.” They might need to story-produce drama from dozens of hours of existing footage, or solve missing ingredient problems on the spot, or interview people at the post-elimination, most tragic moment of their lives. A huge part of a producer’s job is to sidestep disasters and clean up after the unavoidable ones. The job description is an ever-changing combination of uber-support and uber-creative responsibilities, and you have to have a unique personality to thrive.
In this installment of the Niche Expert, we interview one such personality — veteran television producer and writer Crystal Bahmaie. With credits that include producing and writing for ‘MasterChef’, producing for Disney, and six seasons as Senior Producer on ‘Chopped’, Crystal has built an incredible resume in food TV. She’s as candid about the work as anyone could be, not to mention funny, practical and totally real. We hope you enjoy our off-the-cuff chat about the world of food TV.
You are a food TV producer. Do you get to eat all the things? How much time do you get to eat all of them?
I get to eat a lot of the things. Sometimes things are gross, or you saw someone’s gross hands touch them and you’re like, “Nahhhh, I’ll pass.” You don’t get a lot of time to do that, but sometimes they make you lunch or, when you’re really lucky, a host or judge makes you a little something. That’s the best!
Do you stay in touch with the chefs from ‘Chopped’?
Sometimes, yes. Some you just hit it off with one and you spend a few long days together, so it makes sense. Many invite you to come to their restaurants. One hosted my friend’s baby shower, because he met her during the shoot and knew they had a private room that wasn’t being used. It’s a great network of people to know.
Please share the most or least glamorous task you ever performed in the role of TV producer.
On one show, on the first day of the season, a chef was being shown where everything was and just projectile vomited everywhere with no warning. Such glamour! I’ve also cleaned up bloody kitchenware after someone cut themselves.
You’re also a writer. How do writing and producing feed your creative soul differently?
I love to write but I also hate to write. Having to write something on a deadline is often hard for me, and I procrastinate ,and then rush and stress. With producing it’s more collaborative, and I am better at managing time. I love pitching challenge ideas. The funny part is when I pitch a challenge idea I love and it’s assigned as a script, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, now I have to write this.” But writing it always makes me understand the details in a better way.
Explain how the sea change from cable TV and old-school production companies over to digital and real-time and short-form affects a boots-on-the-ground producer?
Whoooooo-boy. Firstly, I would say that you see a lot more 25-year-olds saying they’re editors and producers now. But they’re not. And so what those two titles mean seems to be shifting. Also, those people aren’t getting the same rates as people like me, but their title is the same, so it’s confusing on paper.
The other thing is that people hear “25-second Instagram video” and think it’s so easy, but those are actually harder to track through delivery than one entire episode that is a contained unit. Short form also tends to go live much faster. Sometimes an episode of TV will air a year or more after we shoot. That never happens with digital.
For brands that are looking for video content, what’s the most important piece of advice you can give them?
Understand that you get what you pay for. If you give a very tiny budget, you’ll get something that reflects that. If you want polished content that represents your brand in the best way possible, you will need to budget a reasonable amount for it.
Also: Know up front how much branding you want involved in the videos. Some want very little or even none, and some want a lot more, but once it’s shot it’s very difficult to change that.
For you, what is the key difference between working for a cable TV show and working for a brand?
Honestly, they can be really similar. Both usually care deeply about making good content, and the same caliber talent/chefs seem to do both. I am doing branded right now, and it’s not obviously branded in any way; in fact, it’s being made like a full show with several episodes. So the difference is getting harder and harder to spot.
Has your work made you appreciate food more or like it less?
More! I love food and cooking and was already pretty good at it, but I am so much better now and make a broader range of things. I have even gotten my dad, who is very set in his cooking ways, to roast some Brussels sprouts sometimes.
My husband watched an episode of ‘MasterChef Junior’ (because my job leaks over into my life), and a kid made a rack of lamb. And he was all, “If a kid can do it, I can!” And he totally made one, and it was delicious. He never thought about making that before.
What’s the most exciting thing happening right now in the world of content creation?
I think this is a real heyday of content that hasn’t been seen since cable was invented. So many places making content, so many places to watch it. Things are being made today that never would have gotten a chance 10 years ago. I see some things on Netflix or Amazon that I think would never get by a network exec, and that’s awesome. Downside is that I never have enough time to watch all of the things that I want to.
For all the readers who are fascinated by this chat and want to see more of your work — please brag on two projects you’ve done recently that make you proud.
I wrote/directed and produced a web series for Patrón that came out very well this summer. It’s tiki themed.
‘MasterChef’ and ‘MasterChef Junior’ were an immense amount of work, but such an opportunity to be creative and have fun on set.
(Editor note: In 2018, Crystal was a producer on ‘Master Chef’ Season 9 and a writer on ‘MasterChef Junior’ Season 7.)
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