5 Lessons From ‘Top Chef’ That Can Help You Write a Top Screenplay

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Photo Source: David Moir/Bravo

If you’re a fan of cooking shows, and particularly “Top Chef,” then you know the basics: never make risotto, never be front of house in Restaurant Wars, and pastry is always risky. But if we dig a little deeper, there are actually some profound parallels between the work of a chef and that of a screenwriter. 

Both artists are the only ones in their field who create something from nothing. Without screenwriters, the film industry would not exist. Without chefs, the restaurant industry would not exist. Both artists struggle to find a voice and to use that voice to execute and communicate their vision on the page and the plate. Both artists also understand that it’s not just an art form, but a business that must attract viewers, diners, and investors while still being delicious and entertaining. 

In fact, a studied observation of “Top Chef,” and the world of top restauranteurs, carries with it all the secrets necessary to write a top screenplay. Here are five lessons in particular that can help.

1. If you cook your protein wrong, you’re going home.
It doesn’t matter how great your dish is on “Top Chef,” if you cook your main protein wrong, you’re going home. Your main protein is the very basics of cooking. It’s the center of the dish and without it you have nothing. If you can’t do that right, you have no business doing anything else. What’s the parallel to screenwriting? Your protein is like story structure. If your story structure doesn’t work, if there’s not a clear story with a beginning, middle, and end, if you don’t know how to tell a story, then nothing else matters. The script won’t work and you’re going home. 

2. Never cook a scallop three ways, when you could cook it one way perfectly.
On “Top Chef,” any dish done three ways is always riskier than two, two is always riskier than one, and if you just do it one way, and execute it perfectly, you’ll win. What’s the parallel to screenwriting? Your script doesn’t have to be everything: it doesn’t have to be both a thriller and a comedy or a romcom with a surprise action twist. Just focus in on one thing and do it perfectly. 

3. Just because you can make pea foam doesn’t mean you should.
All the modern tricks and techniques of contemporary cooking are cool toys, but if they don’t serve a purpose on the dish, then they’re just toys and you’ll be sent home. What’s the parallel to screenwriting? Non-linear storytelling, voiceover, flashbacks, changing POV, multiple protagonists, etc. These are all great devices, but they only work if they are central to servicing the story you’re trying to tell. If they’re added on toys because you want to show off, you’re going home. 

4. Simple food is incredibly hard.
It’s easy to hide on gimmicks, to get by on “Top Chef” with flashy and “chef-y” dishes. Cooking simple food is incredibly hard because there’s nowhere to hide, which is why chefs often avoid it. One mistake and you’re going home. But if you do it well? You’re leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else. What’s the parallel to screenwriting? When young writers start out they want to wow and amaze with insane plot twists, crazy storylines, huge set pieces, flashy jokes, but the sooner you learn to tell a simple story and to tell it well, the faster you’ll realize how hard the job actually is and the better you’ll become. 

5. What makes you original is you.
Time and time again, people are afraid on “Top Chef” to be themselves, to cook their food, to find their voice, and instead they chase the idea of trying to please the judges to get ahead. Yet, time and time again the ones who focus on their voice, the ones who know what their food is, and start cooking what they love, always, always win the whole thing. What’s the parallel to screenwriting? Stop chasing the industry. Period dramas are in? OK, I’ll write one. Wrong. Does it excite you? Is it the very essence of who you are and what you believe and what drives you to tell stories? Then why are you writing it? Take the time to think about what you care about, what your voice is, what your stories are, and type that. You’ll always come out on top. 

There is a profound parallel in the artistry of crafting a dish and the artistry of crafting a screenplay. You have to take into consideration the constraints of the plate and the page. You have to take into consideration the tastes of your consumer who is purchasing your product, yet your voice and point of view have to shine through to distinguish it from others. It has to be pretty to look at but have soul underneath it, and all the components have to come harmoniously together to create one great product.

So the next time you dine out, or the next time you watch a cooking show, pay attention to the lessons on the plate as they’re not that far away from what we do as writers. Maybe if we can learn these lessons through a different lens, we can apply them the next time we sit down to type.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
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Alexa Alemanni
Alexa Alemanni is an actor and screenwriter. She has written for TNT’s “The Librarians,” sold to UCP for TNT, and played Allison on “Mad Men” for which she won a SAG Award. She teaches screenwriting at USC & NYFA and at her own studio: Bad Pitch Writers Lab.
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