How To Prepare For A Cooking Show Competition, According To Top Chef Vet Tiffany Derry

If you're a fan of competitive cooking shows, you've likely pictured yourself in the contestants' shoes. Some viewers take things a step further, auditioning for a spot on their favorite shows in hopes of making a name for themselves. Still, nabbing the top spot isn't always the greatest reward, and many "Top Chef" contestants prosper after taking their leave. Take Tiffany Derry, for a start. The clever chef impressed audiences during her run on "Top Chef" Season 7, securing a fan-favorite award.

But Derry's brush with fame didn't end there. After "Top Chef," her influence grew exponentially across the food scene. Today, she's at the helm of two renowned restaurants in her native Texas: Roots Chicken Shak and Roots Southern Table, the recipient of two James Beard Award nominations. Plus, the accomplished chef still finds time to entertain her fanbase. Last month, she appeared as a featured guest at the first Honeyland Festival in Sugar Land, Texas, where she led live cooking demonstrations for guests. The event, sponsored by Pepsi Dig In, celebrated Black-owned food vendors, mixologists, musicians, and more.

Now, if you need advice on entering a cooking show competition yourself, you've arrived at the right place. Tasting Table met with Derry for an exclusive interview after her Honeyland trip, where the "Top Chef" alum filled us in on the secrets to her success on and off screen. From fighting stage fright to staying cool under pressure, Derry's insider tips will be invaluable should you ever find yourself on the chopping block.

Practice cooking at home ahead of filming

Whether you're considering applying to a show or just received a callback from its producers, it's never too early to prepare yourself for filming. The first piece of advice Tiffany Derry provided Tasting Table with addressed one of the simplest and most important skills you can hone. "Time yourself at home," she says. Even if you're ultra-confident in your skills around the kitchen, Derry says it's helpful to work on the basics before the cameras start rolling. "Practice doing small things, practice cutting a fish, practice cutting a chicken. Oftentimes, people don't realize how long it takes for you to get started."

With your cutting skills sharpened, it's time to look closely at other tasks. You might not think twice about picking out a measuring cup or walking to the pantry at home, but every step matters when it comes to the competition. "I used to know how long it would take for me to grab a cutting board and grab my ingredients out of the fridge," Derry tells Tasting Table. "I knew that four minutes in, I had to be cooking. And a lot of times, people are still figuring out the dish or looking around."

Keep a close eye on the clock

According to Tiffany Derry, having speedy skills won't help much if you're not looking at the clock. The nail-biting sequences we witness on television are only a glimpse of what chefs go through — and despite the old adage, it doesn't fly because they're having fun. "By the time you start cooking, that clock goes incredibly fast," she laments. "Thirty minutes feels like about eight minutes, for real. So I always say, 'Just get into the mode of timing yourself." No matter what kind of time-keeping device you use, get into the habit of checking it often as you cook.

Equally as important, Derry tells us, is mentally organizing your workload as you go. As you chip away at one dish, begin brainstorming what you'll need to do for the next. "[Think,] 'I need to be working on the main thing,' or 'I need to have this ready by a certain time,'" says Derry. "And then you can just kind of stay on a schedule." To get a feel for this type of routine, try watching an episode of "Top Chef" for inspiration. Take notes and recreate one of the show's challenges at home to ready yourself for the real thing.

Stay true to your style of cooking

A common error that Tiffany Derry urges competitors not to make is people-pleasing for the sake of winning. "Don't cook for the judges; cook for yourself," she warns. The chef speaks from experience. During the early stages of filming "Top Chef," she found herself falling for this thinking trap. "Sometimes, we have different people come on, and they start telling you what they're looking for, and they start telling you what's important to them in a dish," Derry tells Tasting Table. "And then you start tweaking the dish based on what you've heard them say." Use your discretion when it comes to accepting criticism, but don't try to become something that you're not.

With that said, Derry's the first to admit that it isn't always easy to brush off comments from the judges. "When you cook multiple rounds, you've heard the feedback, and then you try to switch [things up] — don't do that," the chef cautions. "Let me make that mistake for you. Cook your food 100% all the time. If you are true to what you do, how you cook, and your flavors, oftentimes, you'll succeed." If anyone can speak on this subject with confidence, it's Derry. Since wrapping "Top Chef," her culinary vision with Roots Southern Table earned her James Beard Award nominations for Best New Restaurant and Best Chef.

Lean into your nerves while filming

What if cooking on screen is calling your name, but you suffer from bouts of stage fright? Take Tiffany Derry's advice for battling nerves before filming. "I mean, get over it," she says with a laugh. "If you feel like there is something telling you, 'This is what I'm supposed to do,' you have to find a way not to let your fears keep you from doing the things you need to do." If Derry's words sound a bit blunt, it's because she's been there — and, she tells Tasting Table, it's still something she works to overcome. "Every single time I get up on a stage, every single time I'm getting ready to walk out on camera or compete, I feel the bubble guts. That's the best way I can describe it," she laughs. "I feel all of that, but I just kind of lean into it, and I keep going, and I don't allow that to stop me."

To shake those troublesome jitters off further, make use of your nervousness by tricking yourself into believing it's excitement. Too many times, Derry tells us, we get ahead of ourselves with worry. "It's not that others don't feel [nerves,]" she says. "It's just that others keep going. You've got to move forward even in that uncomfortable time." If you're still anxious about auditioning, try practicing in front of friends or uploading cooking videos online to warm yourself up to the idea. 

Keep your eyes on the prize

As with any competitive environment, you're bound to encounter drama — but Tiffany Derry explains that you can't let it affect your work. "Tensions do run high and some people are more emotional than others," says the chef. "If you're getting into it with others and somehow that messes you up, you're no longer focusing on your dish." This can be especially trying during team challenges, so work on grounding yourself in your free time between filming.

In order to succeed, Derry tells us, it's imperative to tune out background noise when the competition heats up. "You just have to find a way to rein yourself back in and be fully focused," she adds. Learning how to keep your cool and interact with other personalities is all a part of your winning strategy. Plus, forming positive relationships with fellow contestants can help you out in more ways than one — even after the show ends. "I made incredible friends for life," recalls Derry of her time on "Top Chef."

Enjoy the experience

After her time on "Top Chef" concluded, Tiffany Derry realized something special about her experience on the show. "As much as I cooked and competed and all of that, it was the best boot camp I could have ever been in," she says. "I learned so much about food, people, and different cultures." Participating in a cooking competition isn't always easy, but taking a step back and enjoying the process while you're there is important. In the end, you'll walk away with major winnings whether or not you earn the top prize.

It's no secret that working the back of the house can be transformative, but a show like "Top Chef" is the ultimate high-pressure environment. Being "put in the flash pan" pushed Derry and her cooking to new heights, pulling her out of her comfort zone. "At some point, you've got to step it up and start taking risks," she says. By rising to the occasion and giving it your best, you'll develop valuable skills – even some you might not know you had. "You just start cooking your way; you start trusting yourself differently. I learned so much about myself," the chef tells Tasting Table. Once you apply Derry's words of wisdom, you'll be ready for anything the competition throws at you.