Just over a month ago, I read an email sent to the American/French Meet-up group that I’m in. It said that a cooking show was looking for an American with kids who celebrated Halloween. My kids had been bugging me about being on this show where one kid is put in a maze blindfolded and the other talks them through it. So I thought, Since the kids are dying to be on t.v., I’ll see if we can do this one. I wrote them back, saying that we celebrate Halloween with a big party since my son’s birthday is the day before. And then I forgot about it.
A couple of weeks later, a casting agent called me about being on the show, I talked to her for a few minutes, and she told me that the idea was shooting a Halloween party at my house, for which these chefs would cook, and my kids would invite their friends, all dressed in costumes. So I’m thinking I’d be there in the background, watching the cooks, welcoming the guests, and eating some really nice food.
And then I watched an episode. And about died.
The show is called Norbert & Jean: Le Defi (which means “the challenge”). And it is basically a normal person (e.g. me) challenging two chefs who won Top Chef and filming a whole show where they come up with amazing ideas and show me how to cook them. At the end of the show, the normal person’s friends/family come to taste the food and guess what the challenge was. What I then realized was that 1. I was supposed to be the centerpiece of the show, not just someone in the background, and 2. I had to do something I’m not very good at (cooking), and 3. I had to do it in another language (French).
By this time I had gone too far to back out: I had told my kids they were going to be on t.v. Also, I have a personal rule that if faced with a scary situation (scary…not dangerous), I must do it every time. If not, it’s an experience lost. Life is short. I had to do this thing.
I signed the papers they sent me, sent pictures of my apartment (which was too small, so they ended up renting a bigger place), and made the casting tape, for which I memorized a whole page in French and spit it back out to my iPhone’s camera while sitting on my couch. In it, I was giving the chefs their challenge: to make a whole meal out of pumpkin—one that my kids (who hate vegetables) and their friends would like. Keep in mind…I didn’t make up the challenge. If I had, I would never have included pumpkin on the menu. It was sure to fail.
Fast forward a couple of weeks. It’s Monday morning (yesterday) and I wake up after 2 days of a head cold with NO VOICE. I’m talking none. I quickly text the casting agent and producer and ask what to do. They write me back and tell me I have to come, they can’t cancel the whole production unless it’s something really serious. So I gargle with hot salt water and try singing under a hot shower, and by the time I arrive at the rented apartment in the north of Paris, I’m able to croak out a few words in a low, scarily amphibian voice.
First I meet Marie, the producer who’s in charge of my part of the filming. I had already talked to her on the phone, and she is super nice and doing everything to make me feel comfortable. She passes me on to the sound guy, this gorgeously sexy French guy named Hugues (“Hugh in English,” as he said) who proceeds to stick his hand up the back of my dress.
I’m wearing a little wool dress, tights, and knee-high biker boots. The only place Hugues has to attach the power pack is to the top of my tights, and then he has to run it up the front of my dress and attach the mic inside the neckline. And any time it shifts around a bit, Hugues has to come adjust it. So basically I have this hot French guy sticking his hand down the front of my dress all day long. Funnily enough, I don’t complain.
Next, Marie takes me outside, where I have to recite what I recorded on my iPhone, but this time into their camera. I have a hard time remembering it, and there are lots of cuts as I say one paragraph at a time, and proceed to get my own age as well as that of my kids, totally mixed up. (I can’t remember numbers. Depending on which take they use, I will be 45 or 46, Max 7 or 8, and Lucia 6 or 7.)
After that, Marie takes me inside to a bedroom where a camera and lights are set up, and begins interviewing me about my expectations, what I think the chefs will be like, and whether or not I think they can meet the challenge. We get through it okay, with her prompting me and helping me with difficult words. (I have to repeat her questions, since you don’t see/hear the interviewer, and parts are unpronounceable.) It’s at this point that I start sweating. I’m not nervous, it’s just that the lights are so damn hot that by the end my hair is drenched. After the interview is over, I go to the bathroom and rummage around until I find a hair dryer, and it is my best friend for the rest of the day.
At this point, the chefs arrive. We film a bit where I let them in through the front gate. I try to say, “Hi,” but my voice comes out in a squeak, and they just look at me strangely. They then find a wheelbarrow and use it to push each other to the front door. I don’t know what to do, so I just pretend that nothing’s wrong, and let them in the house.
Then we go to the kitchen and get started. The lights are about twice as hot, and I immediately begin melting. Sweat is streaming down my face, and when I catch a look of myself in the mirror later, my skin looks kind of pinky-red—kind of boiled lobsteresque. I’m following these guys around the kitchen, not sure what I’m supposed to be doing, and they start pulling all this crazy stuff like lighting each others’ aprons on fire and spraying whipped cream all over the place.
I don’t know about you, but I—when faced with madmen—back up and stand out of the way to watch the show from a distance. We’re about a half-hour in, when Marie comes down the stairs and says, “Amy, you have to interact more with Norbert and Jean. Ask them questions. Tell them if you think your kids are going to like stuff. Say something!”
So I throw myself between them, which is dangerous because I get a face-full of herbs (which they use to dry my sweat), get a “French kiss” from Norbert (where he bites into an onion and tries to kiss me), and am forced to dance around a pumpkin in the middle of the room.
I try to be a good sport. I really do. The guys are SO nice, and each time we cut, Norbert is talking to me, asking about my kids, comparing stories about his kids, asking about my books, telling me about his cookbooks, and introducing me to all of the crew as, “You know that woman who wrote Harry Potter? Well Amy’s an even bigger writer than her!”
Jean takes me aside halfway through the day and tells me I’m the classiest (or most elegant, something like that) girl they’ve ever had on the show. Which makes me wonder if it’s because I look so shocked every time they tell a dirty joke, and trust me…they tell some doozies. Or because I can’t loosen up. Because I JUST CAN’T LOOSEN UP. Once Norbert even tells the cameras to stop, turns to me, and says, “Amy you’ve got to loosen up. We’re all friends here. We’re having fun.”
And it was fun. But it was like watching a circus. Circuses are fun to watch. But I’m not the type to jump into the big ring and start juggling bowling pins. As far as I could tell, I was clearly wrong for this show. They needed another clown to play with, not an uptight American writer who was sweating rivers and spoke with the voice of a laryngitic frog.
We taped all day, and during one break someone ran out and got me some special lozenges that they hoped would bring my voice back. That worked a little, and I was able to keep wheezing out words until the last bit of taping: the tasting.
My kids arrive with their babysitter, as well as friend and fellow author Anne Nesbet, and school mom-friend Corinne and her kids Brune and Loup. The kids are all dressed up in costumes, and are filmed coming through the garden. At this point, Jean leans out a window and sprays Max with whipped cream, Max freaks out, and they have to find him another costume.
By this time my hair is hanging in wet strands around my face. I am so hot, you could cook an egg on my forehead. I lead all of my guests to a table decorated with Halloweeny stuff, and bring in the first dish. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to tell you what recipes they made before the show is on t.v., so I’ll just say that it was something really pretty, and everyone oohed and ahhed over it, and Max wanted to try it first.
He leans over, takes a sip out of a straw, and then sits up and gets this horrified look on his face. Then he does something that will make every mother out there cringe: he spits it back out on the plate. But that’s not all. He then opens his mouth and starts dry-heaving. I grab him by the hand and pull him to the other side of the room before he can throw up in front of the t.v. cameras. Someone takes him upstairs, and I return to the table, wild-eyed, praying that Lucia won’t have the same reaction as Max. Thankfully, she goes the polite route and says it is “a little bit good.”
I won’t give you all of the details, but the rest of the tasting is more of the same. The boys refuse to taste anything else. The girls are polite about it, and the grown-ups love everything and say all the right stuff. It is after 10pm when the taping finishes, and I send the kids home in a taxi with the babysitter so that I can finish up.
During the last interview, my voice breaks and dies a croaking death. The chefs and Marie kiss me goodbye and I take a taxi home. I arrived that morning at 8am and get home at 11:30 pm. It has been a long day. A crazy day. A day of insanity and surreal events. I text a couple of friends to tell them how horrified I am, and they talk me down off the ledge. And late in the night I am finally able to forget about it and fall asleep.
The next day Marie calls. “Oh my God, your voice sounds even worse,” she says. She asks if I was traumatized, and I confess that yes, I was moderately traumatized. I tell her that a wool dress and tights might have been bad clothing choices, and she agrees.
“So, if you’re not able to hear my voice in the show, and seeing the bad reaction of the kids to the food, do you think they might just junk the show and not televise it at all?” I ask hopefully. “No, they’ll televise it for sure,” she says. “I’ll let you know when it’s showing.”
I get off the phone and think about how it was definitely an experience. I had a really nice time with everyone when we were off-set. My kids got their wish of being on t.v. I got a great photo of the chefs holding my books. And I even learned how to cook a few things. But most of all it made me incredibly grateful for the job that I have: writing books while comfortably tucked into my cute little apartment or neighborhood library.
I might get weird looks on the metro if anyone recognizes me as the sweating, hoarse American who didn’t know how to whip cream, but inside, I’ll know I’ve done something scarier than most of them have. And I survived.