Three years ago I saw a listing for a new cooking competition devoted to individuals that lived for snacks. So basically, me (here’s the proof). Without a second thought or really anything to lose, I shot my shot—it's not like I would actually get a callback, right? My phone rang within the week. I hesitantly said yes, and somehow found myself on the set of Netflix's Snack vs. Chef after months of casting requirements.
The premise of Snack vs. Chef revolves around 12 culinary experts (some chefs, some food scientists, some a little of everything—that's me) recreating the most iconic vending machine snacks followed by original snacks based on a certain theme. Yes, we all know about Claire Saffitz's series "Gourmet Makes," but, did she make her snacks with only an hour on the clock, minimal equipment, and with some added curveballs thrown in just for entertainment? Hard no. But the contestants on Snack vs. Chef did have those added challenges.
So how did we accomplish this? You'll have to keep reading to find out along with so many other skills I learned on-the-fly throughout the competition. Oh, and I should mention, I somehow I managed to win the entire thing.
Human Hands Are Not a Substitute for a Machine
Good grocery store snacks most often require some serious industrial machinery for a variety of reasons. Let's break down the Cheeto. Its unique shape is a result of a giant extruder pushing enriched cornmeal batter through a die at a rate that melts the corn past its boiling point until the mixture "pops" into its form. That same process also helps create the Cheeto's characteristic texture by building enough heat and pressure to give it a consistency similar to rice cakes.
But that’s not all: The signature Cheeto crunch comes after frying at 300 F followed by a bath in cheesy powder. Even consistently coating the Cheetos in the ideal amount of powder is next to impossible without the right equipment.
So no, your mere human hands are not a substitute for these powerful machines—and that’s okay.
Stabilizers and Preservatives Aren't So Bad (Really!)
I might as well get “Tapioca Maltodextrin” tattooed on my sleeve at this point. When I first learned we needed to make our snacks shelf stable, I refused. After all, you can't just Google how to activate these ingredients or specify ratios for a recipe. But with the help of the judges and a few cast-mates, I realized their function and how to do some pretty wild things, including turning confit vegetables into a rich seasoning in under 20 minutes.
I understand why someone would seek out food with little or no additives, but just because you don't know what something is doesn't mean it's always bad. And sometimes those ingredients are just labeled with their scientific name versus what we know them as. For example, sodium bicarbonate is a common household ingredient that you probably use more than you think. Its pantry name? Baking soda.
A Good Grocery Store Snack Is a Lesson in Science
In a deleted scene from Snack vs. Chef , Judge Ali Bouzari intensely inspected each contestant's gusher with a refractometer. When I asked my cast-mate Lauren Jude what exactly this is and what it’s used for she said, "It uses light to measure how much sugar is dissolved in a liquid—that value is indicated in degrees Brix. The higher the Brix value, the sweeter the product. A refractometer is very important to preserving quality control in the food and beverage industry."
So yeah, when it comes to grocery snacks, not only are specific tools usually required, it turns out that you also need a degree in Chemistry.
Texture Is Everything When It Comes to Snacks
Texture is one of the defining reasons we love or hate any food. Too chewy, hard, goopy, slimy, or insert any other polarizing consistency, and you eliminate a lot of your consumer base. But, get them just right and you have an irresistible treat on your hands.
When describing the complexity of textures, Bouzari says, "Crispiness only works when food is perfectly dry, and chewiness only works when food has a decent amount of moisture. If not done properly, the crispy stuff—the salmon chicharrón, puffed rice, etc.—would get slurped up by the juice from the fryer, and the whole thing would be a soggy mess."
So, all you have to do is get each texture just right, marry them together, and preserve their distinct qualities for about six months or so until consumption. Easy enough, right?
Snacks Are Ripe for Creativity
Entering the finale, I had no idea what I was making. What snack isn't already on the market? I was noodling it over while going in on a bowl of noodles, when it came to me. I began to dream of a snack world that showcased various noodle shapes, textures, sauces, and cuisines in an accessible way that also taught snackers about different cultures.
Sometimes the wildest cravings make the best snacks. We each have flavor combinations or obsessions that can lead to the big buck ideas. Plus, there continues to be innovations around sustainability (have you heard about upcycling?) and manufacturing capabilities that make us rethink the way we snack. I can't wait to see where my newly-minted snack company (S'NOODS!) goes in its first year—I also learned it's one thing to have an idea and another to execute it on a massive shelf-stable scale.