Top Pot’s Mark Klebeck doing his thing on Food Network Challenge: Donut Champions.

These days, you can hardly turn on the tube without coming across some high-octane competition tasking toques to cook up thisorthat crazy concoction. The challenges are often rushed, the ingredients off the wall, and the drama amped up.

So what’s it like to appear on one of these shows?

I asked Mark Klebeck, co-founder of Top Pot. He recently competed on an episode of Food Network Challenge alongside Sara Beth Russert of Mighty-O Donuts and rolling pins from Denver and Daleville, Virginia. Here’s what he said about the experience.

1. The days are really, really long.
With 15 boxes of equipment and foodstuffs in tow, Klebeck flew into Denver on a Monday and immediately went shopping for fresh ingredients. On Tuesday he began filming what’s called “hero” shots: posed b-roll footage. Those were followed by two hours of interviews, a meeting with the judges, and time to set up his cooking space. On Wednesday the bakers arrived on set at 4:30am and by 6 the camera was rolling—and kept rolling until 8:30 that night. Thursday brought post interviews. All told, producers gathered 130 hours of footage between the four contestants and edited it down to 44 minutes of airtime.

2. You can prep all you want, but it won’t necessarily pay off.
When Klebeck committed to the Food Network, he wasn’t sure what show he’d appear on, he just knew to block off certain dates. To play it safe, Klebeck spent eight days in the kitchen with TP’s lead baker. He’d get up at 1:30am, meet him at 2, and spend six hours rolling cake (and then head to work for a full day in the office). What you can’t prep for: how you’ll feel. Klebeck likens the competition to running a marathon; three miles in you might settle into a groove, but who knows what mile 18 or 19 holds. What else you can’t prep for: curve balls like having to cook with a mystery ingredient, or the the elevation in Denver, which threatened to turn leavening agents in the dough into “softballs.”

3. It’s not just the camera in your face that gets distracting.
Each contestant is assigned a field producer and a camera producer who watch his or her every move. It’s the job of the former to constantly quiz the contender. It’s the job of the contestant to answer each question in complete sentences without looking at the camera, all while continuing to compete. “You’re juggling a lot and trying to give them what they want as far as content,” says Klebeck. And let’s not forget the ever ticking clock. “Emotionally and physically it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” So taxing that Klebeck lost about seven pounds during filming while prepping and filming (about two weeks total).

4. The judging session is as uncomfortable as you’d expect it to be.
Nice as they were offstage, the judges don’t hesitate to “rip you a new one.” Smile, suck it up, and remember it will be over in a matter of minutes, Klebeck advises. “You’re there and they totally mean business. You just can’t take things too personally."

5. The first you do after filming is…
Sit down? Cry? Nope: “My appetite came back—I just hadn’t been able to eat. All of sudden my stomach wasn’t hurting anymore. I think I went and scarfed down a cheeseburger. And a beer."

6. Keeping mum isn’t easy.
Klebeck filmed the segment in mid-November and it aired in April. Per a non-disclosure contract, that meant nearly five months of not telling his wife, coworkers, and toughest of all, Northwest Harvest, what went down. Klebeck had promised the local hunger prevention agency the $10,000 prize money if he were to win.

7. But when all is said and done…
Would Klebeck compete again? “Oh yeah,” he answers without hesitation. “Definitely.” It should be noted Klebeck often used the word “fun” throughout our interview—even if he did wrap up the conversation with this declaration: “If you can get through this experience, you feel like you can do anything. Because it literally beats you down.”

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