It might seem obvious that the casts of contestants on “Top Chef” and “Project Runway” consist of chefs and designers that are at the top of their respective fields, but assembling those groups takes more effort than calling people on “best of” or “ones to watch” lists. Samantha Hanks, who has been casting “Top Chef” since Season 7 and assembled the designers and hosts of the newly revamped “Project Runway” now has a system in place, but that doesn’t mean everyone is ready for their close up. Finding people for these shows requires a finesse that scripted CDs don’t necessarily need to persuade people who are pros in one industry to drop everything for a reality competition show. But the stars that result from their season-long residencies are a testament to her eye for talent and the benefit screen time can have on your career—acting or otherwise.
What are the casting processes like for “Top Chef” and “Project Runway”?
They are very similar because both shows are competition-based. But more important for my job, they’re based on the talent of the chefs and designers. A lot of unscripted shows look for somebody with a very big personality or something to that effect, but we’re looking for the best of the best in the country. It starts with a lot of research because we’re looking for someone with a very specific skill set. It’s not a traditional open call situation. We look up who’s been nominated for a James Beard award in every different region for “Top Chef” to know who the emerging chefs are. For “Project Runway,” it’s similar. There are fashion shows in large markets so we’re looking into who has been invited to those fashion weeks. We’re looking for who is about to become household names in their city or ideally are already household names in their city and are about to be known nationwide. We reach out and usually they’ve never considered being on television because they’re so caught up in what they do.
Both shows have such a great reputation for being authentic and true to the craft so we always get a very positive response. Then we travel the country. We publicize what we call meet-and-greets. Anyone is welcome to come. For chefs, sometimes we ask them to cook for us. Sometimes we just want to see a menu that they’ve done recently. We meet them, we talk to them in person. For designers, we ask them to bring outfits they’ve designed. We’re looking at what they’re doing right now in their careers. We look at where they’ve come, how they got to that position, and how many years they’ve been working at it. We then interview them. It’s a lengthy interview process because we want to know about not only their talent, but their personality. It has to be the right time in these people’s careers and they have to have a really unique and impactful story to tell.
What stands out to you in talent and personality?
For “Top Chef,” it is their talent first. They have to be able to cook. They should be able to cook a large range of things. If they’re a sushi chef, that’s going to be difficult because they’re going to be asked to cook French food and Italian food. We want to know that they not only know the basics of cuisine, but have a wide range of knowledge about different kinds of cuisine because that’s how they’ll be successful. We don’t want to put anyone on the show who doesn’t have a really good shot at winning. We want the caliber of chef to be consistent.
We’re going to ask a lot about food, a lot about where they trained, how they trained, who they trained under, what kind of things they like to make, what kind of things they’re good at—sometimes those are very different. A kitchen is a very unique place and we want to make sure our cast is representative of what we’re seeing in kitchens across America, so diversity is very important for us. Kitchens are some of the most diverse work environments, so that’s very important. We want to know if we’ve had chefs that started as dishwashers and now are the chef of cuisine in a restaurant. That’s an amazing journey. Your journey and your passion are very important. After talent is personality. You really have to have an interesting story and you have to be able to look me in the eye and tell a story, and smile and laugh and cry. We need to know all that’s there and you’re willing to share it with us.
How do you keep a long-running show like “Top Chef” fresh?
It’s tough, we cast once a year and don’t have an entirely new country of executive chefs turnover in that time. It’s about fostering the relationships we have, recommendations are key, and the research. I think “Top Chef” is one of the reasons food is so big. We tend to look in smaller markets and every year we find another city that’s emerging as a food city and that’s where we’re finding new talent. Female chefs are huge for me. Anyone is welcome to apply for the show and if there’s a sous chef who we think is a badass, we will look at them equally to an executive chef. We keep our eye on people, people that we saw a couple of years ago that we thought weren’t quite ready, we’ll reach back out to again and it just seems to work out. Again, it’s where they are in their careers. So two years ago they might not have been ready or able to do it, and now they are. In the last two seasons, the strength of the female chef and the amount of diversity we’ve been able to find opened us up to a whole new group of people who wouldn’t have considered doing the show. It is such an amazing platform for a cook.
Do you have a certain breakdown or personality types you’re looking for?
I don’t cast by stereotypes. I don’t feel like we need a villain or we need a hero, that’s just not how I do it. What is important to me, and what I task my team with, is diversity across the board. From cultural diversity to age diversity to geographic diversity. That’s what I want. I want to make sure we had a designer who is older and designers that were immigrants, which we do. I want to make sure we had a designer who was working in New York. In that way, I guess we look to make sure we have boxes checked, but it’s definitely not as pointed as, “Go and find me someone who fits this exact description.”
Would you say the same thing on the “Top Chef” side too?
Definitely. For “Top Chef” I would say I push really hard to have an equal number of women and men. That’s really important.
What might work against someone during the audition process?
In today’s world, people are so aware of reality television and the pitfalls of it. An awareness of that and being concerned about how you’re going to be edited or portrayed is not going to be helpful because you’re already in your own head and thinking about it from the wrong point of view, rather than how or why this going to change your life and your career. If you think too much about going on a TV show, I think you do yourself a disservice because you’re not being authentic and you’re not opening up entirely. If you hold anything back, it shows. It really is just you.
What are some of the challenges that come every time you go through one of these casting processes?
Convincing chefs and designers that are at the top of their game currently that they should do this. That they should step away from their career for four to six weeks and put their lives out there. That’s hard. A lot of people say, “Why? I’m successful as it is. Why would I do this?” So there are people that we really want and that we target and we admire and we call to convince them it’s worthwhile to leave their kitchens or their ateliers. That’s tough.
Are people ever shy about going on TV?
Definitely. There are people that are amazing cooks and amazing designers that are just too shy and we wish they were able to be a little more outgoing. That is a necessary thing. You’re going to have to give us your views and talk. The track record shows that going on these shows is going to help your business. You’re going to be around similarly talented people and we’re not going to make you look bad. I can say in all these years of casting “Top Chef,” no one has said they regret doing it.
For “Project Runway,” you cast the contestants but you also cast the new host, right?
We had a whole new group of people and some of them hadn’t done a lot of television.
What was your strategy or thinking behind keeping the profiles of the judging panel the same as in the original installment, but making it updated for today’s fashion world and finding people who would strike that right balance?
I love the show and have since the beginning. Having Karlie [Kloss, the host] is such a blessing. The bottom line is we just reached for the stars. We wanted the biggest supermodel, we wanted the biggest up-and-coming fashion designers. That’s what we wanted and that’s what I think we got. In terms of replacing Tim Gunn, there was really never another option. It was Christian [Siriano]. Christian is such a great tie to the brand, but also has made such an incredible name for himself and is different enough from Tim that we weren’t doing a carbon copy. We had all talked about Brandon from the beginning. He’d say it himself, he’s only had his line for three or four years, but he’s been so successful so he’s in this great position where he can speak to the designers about what’s it’s like to make that jump to being nationally recognized, but also remember the time when he wasn’t close enough where he can really relate to that. He has such a fantastic perspective. As for Elaine, we just felt like we needed another voice. We loved the four of them together—Christian, Karlie, Brandon, and Nina—and just felt that by adding another person from the fashion publication industry, but also somebody that has left that industry and is sort of a woman of the world, author, and influencer, not to mention a woman of color, would be the cherry on top. They all just sit so well together and had immediate chemistry. It felt like the right group and it came together very organically.
How would you say what you do is different from what a scripted casting director does?
Scripted shows are talent-based, so that’s the same, but I think somebody auditioning for unscripted, as opposed to actors, can just be themselves. I think it’s a much more vulnerable position for a chef or a designer because we’re just asking you to be yourself, rather than play a part. I think it’s easier for scripted casting directors because they are dealing with someone who has honed their craft in playing a character, so they know how to make it bigger or smaller or add an accent or whatever and I can’t ask a chef to be bigger. I can’t give notes in the same way. The audition process, I think, is very different in terms of what we’re asking them to do in the room. An actor goes in really wanting the job even before the first audition and I feel the same way towards and actor, I think unscripted candidates go in more hesitant. They start thinking, “Oh wow, this could be amazing! This could change my whole career.” Then they get the hunger that an actor has immediately.
What makes someone memorable to you in an audition?
Honesty. If we can tell that they’re being really honest and that they’ve opened up to us. Also, having a good time. Just being comfortable with yourself and with us. So many people, same with actors, are nervous when going into an audition, so it’s a joy when we have someone who can make us laugh or we can laugh with.