JWU Food TV Veterans Dish on ‘Top Chef,’ ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ + More

Reality TV Panel with JWU Chef-Alumni
JWU alumni Keese Chess, Roberto Franco, Paul Damico, Barbie Marshall, Kevin Sbraga, Joe Chiovera, Scott Liebfried, Joshua John Russell + Julius Searight at the Reality TV Panel

From “Top Chef” and its many spinoffs to “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Chopped,” food reality TV is a very big business.

Many chefs have launched their careers thanks to TV show appearances. But how do they really feel about the experience? JWU Alumni Relations recently hosted a panel of reality veterans to talk about the intense, often surreal world of foodie TV.

The assembled chef-alumni received a warm welcome from the afternoon’s MC, John Robitaille, executive-in-residence of JWU’s Larry Friedman International Center for Entrepreneurship. “There’s a lot of ‘stah powah’ here today, as we say in RI.”

As he sat down with Paul Damico, group president of Moe’s Southwest Grill’s parent company, FOCUS Brands, Robitaille quipped: “Field the tough questions for Paul Damico and softballs for everyone else.”

1) Paul Damico, “Undercover Boss”
A call [for “Undercover Boss”] came from out of the blue. I said, “Sure, why not?” It was a long process — 3 hour interview to start. 3 hours of being grilled by producers. They take you down the rabbit hole to find cracks in your life they can expose either as drama or comedy. They also want to see if you can cry — because if you don’t, they won’t pick you. Then they sent casting directors to interview 600 employees to find people whose stories would resonate with mine.

Paul Damico of Moes/FOCUS Brands

[Producers] want to see if you can cry — because if you don’t, they won’t pick you.” - Paul Damico, Moe’s

We set up a fictional backstory for me, a ruse. Employees thought my character owned a restaurant and was trying to learn about fast-casual Mexican. The idea was that he was filming a potential TV pilot.

We hit the road for 15 days. The crew never told me where we were going next. They had Go Pros clipped all over the restaurants, where it was business as usual. They didn’t want anyone acting out of the ordinary. 

The final segment was 44 minutes, edited down from 150 hours of tape. I saw it the day it aired. It turned out great for our brand; franchise sales tool off. Twitter and Facebook took off. We also did a “Where are they now?” episode that was about changing the lives of people at our company. [Damico “paid it forward” for a number of employees who appreared in the episode, including setting up a college fund for Damon, a single dad who showed particular promise as a teacher/trainee.]

2) Scott Leibfried and Barbie Marshall, “Hell’s Kitchen”
Note: Leibfried served as Gordon Ramsay’s sous chef for 10 seasons. Marshall was a S10 finalist.

Scott: It’s intense, around-the-clock for 4 months.

Barbie: As a contestant, it’s at least a 6-week commitment. My kids dared me to do the show. I’d lost my husband and was working in catering. We made a deal: I’d do whatever it took to get on Hell’s Kitchen and they would do the same to pursue their dreams. The show airs in 31 countries. It’s such a platform — you can use it to build your brand. I did.

Barbie Marshall + Scott Liebfried of “Hell’s Kitchen”

‘Hell’s Kitchen’ airs in 31 countries. It’s such a platform — you can use it to build your brand. I did.” -Barbie Marshall

Gordon (Ramsay) was very kind and dedicated. He didn’t yell at me that much — he’s not even the most aggressive chef I’ve worked for! [laughs] You’ll get different answers from other contestants depending on how they behaved on the show.

Scott: The skills I learned at JWU — professionalism, passion for the craft — definitely helped me.

3) Roberto Franco, Keese Chess + Julius Searight (AKA “The Gourmet Grads”), “The Great Food Truck Race”
Keese: The process was fast! I got a Twitter message regarding the “Great Food Truck Race,” then the producers called + told me I had 24 hours to find 2 others.

John Robitaille: They set traps for you guys.

Julius: At 5am they’d say, “Pack your bags!” And you’d have to hustle.

Berto: We’d have to check the truck every morning. And what sent us home was an empty propane tank — even though we’d checked the truck that day.

We’d get stressed and bump heads. Teamwork really does make or break anything!

Keese: But it was a life-changing road trip. We all learned so much.

Julius: Learning that it takes dedication and hard work to get where you need to go. When Keese came to me, I was trying to launch my own food truck, but I needed to learn the business of running it. “The Great Food Truck Race” helped me get closer to my goal. [Searight plans to launch Food 4 Good, his mobile food truck, later this summer.]

Pictured l-r: Roberto Franco, moderator John Robitaille of JWU’s eCenter, Keese Chess, Julius Searight

I was trying to launch my own food truck, but I needed to learn the business. ‘The Great Food Truck Race’ helped me get closer to my goal.” -Julius

4) Kevin Sbraga, “Top Chef” S7, Joe Chiovera, “Guy’s Grocery Games,” Joshua John Russell, multiple shows
[The panel opens with clips of each chef on TV, including Joshua clicking his heels together when it was announced he’d won.]

Joshua: That was totally unplanned! [laughs]

John: Joe, how did you and your sons get on “Guy’s Grocery Games?”

Joe: My son wrote an awesome letter to the network for Grocery Games. They asked if I cook with my kids. I said yes. I went to casting. Six months later they called on a Saturday, and said, “You have to be here on Monday. And bring your wife.” My wife gets excited — she even got a haircut. Then they call back and say, “We just want you and your sons.” But with reality TV you have to just go with it. In the end, it was an incredible experience.

Audience question: Kevin, why were you so surprised when Padma [Lakshmi] announced you as the winner on the “Top Chef” finale?

Kevin: It was so ridiculously hot, it was 4am, it was hard to hear! I looked surprised because I really wasn’t sure I’d heard her right.

I’m not a TV guy — I don’t really have the personality for it. But I decided to try out for “Top Chef” because I’d been unemployed for 18 months. Right before “Top Chef” I got a fantastic job, and they were really supportive and let me go on the show.

Now I’m about to open 2 restaurants and I have 2 open in Philadelphia [Sbraga and The Fat Ham].

John Robitaille: Biggest takeaway from your TV experience?

Joe: Now I really trust my kids in the kitchen. They really hit it out of the park [on the show].

John: Would either of them consider JWU?

The big thing is that [JWU] adds a business background. Academics are really important!” -Kevin Sbraga

Joe: Maybe. Not so much Xavier — he just wants to eat!

John: Is there a lesson from JWU you always carry with you?

Joe: School ingrains professionalism in you.

Kevin: The big thing for me is that this school adds a business background. Probably 70% of my day is spent on the business, 30% on food. Which isn’t really what I signed up for, but there you go. Academics are really important!

Join the #foodTV conversation:

The Gourmet Grads
Barbie Marshall
Scott Leibfried
Joshua John Russell
John Robitaille + JWU eCenter
College of Culinary Arts

Kevin Sbraga, Joe Chiovera + Joshua John Russell talk about their surreal food TV experiences.

JWU alumni panel with Kevin Sbraga, Joe Chiovera and Joshua John Russell

Topics: Interviews Alumni Food TV