Mark Mishalanie didn’t know what was about to happen next. A day before, he didn’t even know he’d be on TV at all. But there he was — on TV, high-fiving the Mayor of Flavortown himself, Guy Fieri, in the repurposed market on Guy’s Grocery Games.
Mark was more used to being behind the camera, working as a Consultant Chef on a number of Food Network shows. “I was the guy they would call and ask if something was too cruel and unusual for game shows,” he told The Outline. “I would test it out in my own kitchen and then tell them what I felt, whether they listened or not was up to them.” For this particular episode, a contestant had gotten sick at the last minute. Mark, who lived a short flight away from the studio — a fake market built in a 15,500-square-foot warehouse in Santa Rosa, California — and was familiar to the company thanks to his consulting work, got the call to step in. “It was pretty much a 24 hour turn-around.”
Guy Grocery’s Games is a cross between Supermarket Sweep and Chopped, where chefs are given cooking challenges — anything from “make a classic sandwich” to “don’t spend more than $6.33” — and are allotted half an hour to grab ingredients from the aisles of Flavortown Market and cook up three plates for the judges. The show, as well as the mechanics of TV cooking, were familiar to Mishalanie, but on this day, there was a twist: a cooking partner, Stacie Wetering, a chef from Pascagoula, Missouri. They worked together dutifully to get through the first round, incorporating peanut butter & jelly into a dipping sauce for steak frites, which the judges called “ingenious.” The second round began with a game of “Grocery Golf”: The chefs played a hole of mini golf to determine which two proteins they would build the dish around, coming up with smoked oysters and hot dogs. Then, Guy decreed that the rest of the ingredients would all have to begin with the letter S.
Mark and Stacie served up seared scallops and sweet potato hash, incorporating hot dogs into the hash and making a sauce from the smoked oysters and shitake mushrooms. Judges praised the cooking of the scallops, and the overall conception of the dish, and the two were declared the winners over food truck chef Quincy Wise-Dorbolo and French born hotel chef Mark Guizol who had spent the episode fighting with each other. Then, for the pièce de résistance, they completed the cart dash around the market, finding every ingredient — something that never happens on GGG! — and winning the total prize of $20,000.
In the end, it wasn’t much of a problem for Chef Mark, who now works at the James Joyce Irish Pub in Durham, North Carolina, to settle into the show on barely a day’s notice. He had more pressing matters on his mind: his daughter, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer when she was two. “I have four children. My three oldest never had so much as a broken bone, or more than a head cold,” Mishalanie said. “To go from that to being told your two year old has stage four kidney cancer is... that’s a lot to wrap your head around.” The money he won from the show was funnelled straight into her treatment. “$10,000 against $850,000 in medical bills is a drop in the bucket, but what it certainly did do was breathe a little bit of life and hope into myself and my family, and give us something to distract from an otherwise really dreary scenario.”
Cooking game shows — aside from Guy’s Grocery Games, you can add Chopped, Cutthroat Kitchen, Cooks vs Cons, Kids Baking Championship, and many more — perform these tonal shifts like they’re speeding towards a hairpin bend. One moment, Ted Allen is telling a line cook from Dripping Springs he needs to incorporate black garlic into a dessert; the next, you’re learning that cook is competing to fund his wife’s chemotherapy sessions. Most game shows now end with a cash prize, compared with the gleaming showroom of cars, boats, round trips, pool tables, toasters, and so on. Watching someone compete for a dishwasher is nice, but if they lose, they’ll still be able to wash dishes with a little bit of effort. Watching someone compete for $20,000, when they really need that money, makes you feel like you’re watching someone’s final attempt to survive in society.
For all of TV’s evolution, the game show is a format that could survive the apocalypse. Its initial inception in the post-war era coincided with the rise of the American middle class, and the commodification of the nuclear family. For Chef Mike Marina, who cartwheeled onto Guy’s Grocery Games back in 2016 hoping an appearance on the Food Network would help him rediscover his passion for food — he’d become disillusioned with the industry whilst working as an executive chef in New Orleans — the format had always had an allure. “Growing up one of my favorite shows to watch was Supermarket Sweep,” he said. “My great grandmother used to babysit, and when she did, I’d always watch Sesame Street. Right after she’d turn the channel to The Price Is Right. I was always excited to watch the wheel spin.”
Over the years the game show has changed iterations, and made inroads from daytime to primetime, but a lot of the beats we see in game shows were laid down fifty or so years ago. Even the “sob story”, which seems like a conflation of the game show with the more contemporary reality TV format, originated on Queen For A Day, which ran from 1956 to 1964 . Contestants, always women, would relay stories of their financial and personal hardship to the audience, judged by a clapometer. Whoever was deemed most in need would have prizes bestowed upon them.
Travis Tveit laid his story on thick in front of the cameras on his own visit to Flavortown Market. At the time, he was working as a baker at a fine dining restaurant — “I wouldn’t have even called myself a chef,” he told me — and, without the money to afford a car, had to walk 40 minutes every day to work, telling the show’s hosts that sometimes he had to literally beg to be driven home at the end of a shift. These kinds of sacrifices are not uncommon in the food industry, and given that there are no shortage of workers trying to take anyone’s place, the appeal of financially fast tracking one’s career invites them to compete on these shows.
Then again, contestants can always take liberties with the truth. “I needed a car, but the situation wasn’t as dire as they made it seem,” Tveit said. “There was no desperation for money. I just wanted to try and win a competition and be on TV.” Despite crashing out in the first round, he was able to leverage the notoriety of the show — and perhaps the perceived desperation of his situation — into some local news coverage, and a career shift. He started a a private chef business, which led to more coverage, and eventually his first head chef job, at The Iron Goat Brewery in Spokane, Washington. “It actually changed my life considerably… and I drive a pretty sweet BMW now.”
In cooking shows, it matters less how good at preparing food one is, and more about their ability to overcome the obstacles. Cooking — which most watchers presumably do for leisure, or to feed their loved ones — morphs into an act of survival, the one thing that will rescue these chefs from a society increasingly pushing people toward the margins. (One rare exception is The Great British Bake Off, which a notable because it’s so bereft of drama.) “Don’t panic. Just cook,” was the advice given to former Navy Chef Jacoby Ponder whilst competing on Chopped, which attempts to hamstring its contestants through the use of mandatory mystery ingredients. Ponder’s episode happened to be a military special, and so the ingredients were similarly themed — freeze dried beef in the appetizer, survival candy in the entree, pilot bread crackers for the dessert.
It was challenging, but complicated by another factor: Ponder, in the end, didn‘t really want to win. The eventual winner of the $10,000 prize, Chef Robbie Myers, had recently been medically discharged from the army, and was suffering from PTSD. The episode was filmed around Christmas, and at the time, his house and car were up for repossession. “I think I found out about half way through,” Ponder said. “It really changed the atmosphere. I was still gonna try and make a great third dish, but at the end I was glad he got the money.”
On TV, the world of the kitchen is fraught with peril, and not to be taken lightly. Countdown clocks make every second pulse with tension — one wrong decision, and they go home with nothing. We can safely assume that for every case of a life being changed, there are many others that leave the studio and go back to square one. And yet the promise remains, because people will always think they can beat the house. (Sometimes, the house is even encouraging: Mike Marina says that Guy Fieri gives the GGG contestants advice as they’re looking, willing them to succeed.) Professional chefs will think they’re in control, because the tasks are similar to what they do in normal life, and that they can carefully make their way to victory, as though they are simply crossing a bridge one step at a time. Cross, and they’ll pay for that chemotherapy, or that mortgage. Everyone watching can see how great the fall is.