For most people, placing a trash can is an aesthetic decision, but for the producers of “Crime Scene Kitchen” it is a crucial strategic element.
That’s because this competitive series, hosted by Joel McHale and now in its second season on Fox, is equal parts mystery and baking. In each episode, teams of bakers decide what to cook by exploring a recently used kitchen, looking for clues about whatever dish was being prepared prior to their arrival. With nothing but those (often literal) breadcrumbs to guide them, they head to their kitchens and try to recreate the mysterious object. The team farthest from the original plate goes home.
The drama often arises from the investigative skills of the bakers: it can be delightfully heartbreaking to watch a team make a perfect key lime pie only to discover that they should have made something called “runway pie” instead. The producers strive to inject that tension into every challenge. “You have to create a target dish that resonates with the audience, but you have to be able to confuse (competitors) who have a lot more knowledge than people back home,” Conrad Green, “Crime Scene Kitchen” executive producer and showrunner he told IndieWire. “In an ideal world, one or two teams get it right and one or two teams get it grossly wrong.”
Hints are as vital to the game as the pots themselves. The challenges are filled with “food clues,” such as an icing stain left on a cake pan, and “puzzle clues,” such as recipe cards with key ingredients written on them. And all of this is processed before the cameras roll. As part of their seasonal prep, the makers run a test kitchen, inviting amateur and professional bakers alike to play early versions of the games.
“It’s really amazing,” said supervising producer Andrew Vicinich, who is instrumental in the design of the challenges. “We have an idea in our head of how it’s going to work, and then when we run it four or five times, we learn things. We learn about different dials we can turn – if we put these two together, it could lead to a type of laminated pasta. But if we separate those elements, then what happens? We approach it somewhat scientifically, just altering specific details and seeing what the results are.”
As they’ve learned from game testing and filming the first season, the producers have made the new episodes even more challenging. There’s usually something important in the trash, and it’s always tense, waiting for players to find out. But now it’s not even guaranteed that players will know the trash is there. “In Season 1, we were worried that they wouldn’t be able to find all the clues, so we probably didn’t hide them all that well,” says Vucinich. “There were garbage cans just outside in the open. But this time we put the trash can under the (kitchen) island and some teams didn’t even find it until their second episode. That was great.”
Similarly, that boardwalk pie (aka Atlantic City pie), which has a salty cracker crust, inspired a dastardly hint in the season 2 premiere, in which the bakers had to lift the blade of a food processor to see a piece of cracker hidden underneath. Only one team did it, and they were the only ones who made the right dessert. “We spent a lot of time refining the visibility to make that piece of salt,” Vicinich said, noting that his team includes culinary experts and reality show challenge veterans. Laughing, he added, “We probably overthink to some extent, but it seems to work.”
For Green, that cracker crumb epitomizes both the thrill and horror of doing show business. “We were terrified that no one would figure it out,” she said, noting that for all their preparation, the producers can’t control what happens once the teams look for clues. “Once you have two or three teams that are just all over the place, and nobody gets it, you think, ‘My God, we really blew this.’ But then it’s brilliantly satisfying when you see (the mystery food) and someone has made something that looks like it.
Of course, the producers’ anxiety is a sign that “Crime Scene Kitchen” is working. If they aren’t a little nervous that none of the bakers crack the code, then neither will the spectators be. “That’s the point of the show,” Vicinich says. “We want people to be alert. Is it the dark sweet with the pretzels? Or is it the obvious graham-cracker-crusted cheesecake? No one knows which way is up, and that’s good.