What It's Really Like To Compete On Beat Bobby Flay

Chef Cam Waron reflects on his experience competing in a cooking game show.

Being on a cooking game show seems like it would be stressful, to say the least. You've got a limited window of time to cook, you're in a kitchen you're not familiar with, and your fierce competition wants nothing but to beat your ass in a cook-off. In the long-running Food Network series Beat Bobby Flay, two contenders compete against each other in an elimination challenge to see which of them has a fighting chance to defeat former Iron Chef Bobby Flay in a follow-up round of culinary showmanship. Winners get the bragging rights—and in the culinary industry where competition is absurdly intense, respect is some serious social currency.

Chef Cam Waron, culinary director at Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago, recently appeared as a competitor on Beat Bobby Flay (season 31, episode 5). HBFC is a popular restaurant that specializes in everything the name implies; the bird is great, but dousing your chicken with a pat of sweet butter takes it over the top.

Waron also owns a company called Tubers Donuts that slings potato doughnuts in fun flavors like lemon pepper and poppyseed, which you can buy at Waron's wife's restaurant, TriBecca's Sandwich Shop. He also happens to be a neighbor of mine, and he and I, along with Takeout contributor John Carruthers, collaborated on a charity popup in 2021.

While Chef Waron's episode of Beat Bobby Flay aired on September 1, it actually taped in October 2021. Waron spoke with The Takeout about his time spent on a high-stakes Food Network game show—but don't worry, Beat Bobby Flay fans, there are no spoilers ahead. (Refreshing, I know.)

The Takeout: How did you end up getting on Beat Bobby Flay, and what was that process like?

Cam Waron: Over the years there's been quite a few shows that have reached out to Honey Butter, and every time, it was like, nah, dude, I don't want to do that stuff. And then the pandemic hit, and my wife [was] opening up her restaurant, and someone reached out at my moment of weakness.

I like that show, because I like that idea of everybody gathering around to beat one guy. So I was like, screw it. I'll just fill out the application and see what the hell happens.

TO: So this was your first TV appearance.

CW: Yeah, for sure. It started out with filling out information, and then there was a Zoom interview where they asked, "What food do you cook? What's your background? What do you like to do on your days off?" and things like that. I think it was just to see if I was a stone-cold weirdo or not.

And then a little bit later they reached out to do another; I think it was one of the producers. They had a similar setup, a get-to-know-you-interview, and after that, they were like, "All right, we'll keep in touch!" Eventually I got an email that was like, "You've been picked!" I was like "Holy shit!"

TO: What motivated you to say yes to filming this show, as opposed to the other opportunities you'd been offered?

CW: It was because my wife was opening up a new restaurant. She does sandwiches, and through the pandemic I decided to start making potato doughnuts. When everyone else was making sourdough, I started making these potato doughnuts, and that would be a complementary portion of my wife's business. When this opportunity came up, it was like, here's a way to hopefully kind of get the word out that my wife is opening this cool place.

TO: Do you think you achieved that goal?

CW: I think so. It definitely aired better than what it felt it was like. I kind of had this thing in my mind that it was going to be, like, 10 minutes of me fumbling around with a sad tuba playing in the background. When I actually watched it, I said, oh damn.

TO: How long was the taping? What was it like?

CW: They picked me up, flew me out to New York, got me a hotel, and it was kind of hilarious. I was waiting in the lobby—it had to have been, like, 4:30 a.m. I come to the lobby, I see another guy there with what looked like one a tool box, so I figured all the show participants would be in this hotel. I sat down and was like, "Oh, are you going to be in the show too?"

And the guy was like, "I got this drywall project down the street," and he talked to me about 10 minutes, about how early he gets up, gets all the stuff ready for this drywall thing, and I honestly ate it all up. This guy's really got me hooked. And at the end of the story, he was just like, "What's this show thing?"

And then I looked up, and there's a guy with a knife roll just standing there, and I was like, "Uh... oh. He's gonna be on the show." But I got a very early education in drywalling.

Then we got into separate Ubers, which got us to the set. From there they kept bringing us into separate rooms where different people would talk to us. Every single person I talked to couldn't have been nicer. It really was a great experience from the production team, to the person who would get you ready for the sound check, all of that stuff. I was really impressed, man.

TO: You must have been stressed. Were you nervous?

CW: I was nervous because I'd never done anything like that before. But they made me feel super comfortable and I kept thinking: what was the worst that could happen? I could look like a jackass? I have a lot of experience in that. It seemed like something that would be a fun thing to do and luckily, it ended up being just that.

TO: Were you oriented to the show's kitchen before you started competing? Because you're cooking in a kitchen that looks like a toy set. Learning to find the stuff you need seems like it could be really disorienting.

CW: Luckily they had one person that grabbed me, and another person on [competitor chef Quincy Randolph's] side, and walked [us] through the fridge, the pantry, and the equipment. It was probably only like a three- to four-minute walkthrough, but they made sure to mention everything. Of course, you're so overwhelmed that you immediately forget all of it. But that was helpful.

They said, "We just want you to know where everything is, like if you're looking for vegetables, or if you're looking for seasonings, so at least you have an idea." That was before the taping started. Otherwise if they just blindfolded you and dropped you in, everyone would have really weird dishes.

TO: As the viewer, it seems like a contestant has to come up with a creative dish as soon as they see their secret ingredient. Is there a pause in production so that you can think about what you're going to do? Or do you have to determine a dish right away?

CW: It couldn't have been more than, like, three minutes. I think that they do want you to turn it around pretty quick.

TO: Did you have any idea of what you wanted to make beforehand?

CW: I did have a couple ideas in my brain of something that I thought might be a catch-all. So if they gave you a fish, you could do this, if they gave you a fruit or an herb, maybe this would be a good direction.

I had a couple things. I didn't have one single idea, and I was going to make [the secret ingredient] fit. But I also didn't want to have no idea and be the guy who's just cooking, and is just like, hmm...

TO: Because you only have 25 minutes to do it.

CW: It was a straight 20 minutes. And they really hid the secret ingredient until the last second. Bobby had it behind his back to make sure nobody could see it until the reveal happened. They wanted to stay very true to that.

TO: Did the ingredient reveal shock you, or were you relieved when you saw it?

CW: I was glad that I was familiar with it, because it could have been something I hadn't worked with before. It could have been truly a mystery ingredient.

TO: How much interaction did you actually have with judges and Bobby Flay? Were there prior introductions, or were the judges separated from you?

CW: You do your entrance, and when you come out, they're just there. I didn't know who the judges were going to be until I came up to my little station and I looked up, and there's Bobby and the judges. There's no meeting before that.

TO: Do you feel like they whittled away anything you wish had been included?

CW: Not really. They ended up using a good amount of footage where I wondered, is that too out there?

TO: Did you have a good time being on Beat Bobby Flay? Would you do it again, now that you know what the production cycle is like on these shows? 

CW: I thought it was super fun. Being able to get a free trip to New York, and being able to stay out there for a couple days and meet cool people, and do this thing that I would never have ordinarily done, was totally worth it. I don't know what it's like on other shows, but on Beat Bobby Flay, they were really fucking cool to me.

You can watch the episode of Beat Bobby Flay featuring chef Waron by purchasing it on YouTube, catching it on the Food Network, or watching on Discovery Plus.