For years now, Max Silvestri has been pulling double-duty, hosting his own stand-up show—Big Terrific with Jenny Slate and Gabe Liedman—and churning out hilarious recaps of Top Chef for Eater. His latest role, as host of Bravo’s new cooking challenge show Recipe For Deception, helps him bring those two seemingly disparate interests under one umbrella.
But how does someone like Silvestri learn to take his small-stage style to a bigger audience? Interested in both his process and his role models, The A.V. Club asked Silvestri to pick his five (or six, as you’ll see below) favorite hosts, the ones he has both admired and subconsciously drew from for his new role. While Marc Summers didn’t make the list—Silvestri said he’d come in a close sixth—what he came up with would, all Frankensteined together, make a pretty compelling superhost.
1. Alex Trebek, Jeopardy! (1984-)
The A.V. Club: You’re going with a classic right up top.
MS: Jeopardy! was probably the only appointment television my family shared when I was young. We always ate dinner together every night in a sit-down way until high school, basically, which was as unusual in the ’80s as it is now. This idea of sitting around a table and talking or whatever. TV was not allowed to be on, despite the fact that we watched a lot of TV. The only exception was when I was a kid was 60 Minutes, until when I was in the 4th grade. Then, Jeopardy! became the exception, so we were allowed to have Jeopardy! on when we ate dinner, which was the best.
Besides him being so in my brain, Alex Trebek really gets away with a lot. Do you think Alex Trebek knows more? He doesn’t actually know all the answers, but he’s also been doing the show for 30 years or whatever. So, he probably does know a lot of shit. He certainly has an attitude of knowing it, right?
AVC: Well, full discretion. I was on Jeopardy!
MS: You were? Oh please, oh man. This is great.
AVC: People who are good at Jeopardy! are good at knowing how the show has—I don’t want to say clues in the questions, but people who watch a lot learn how Jeopardy!’s questions are phrased. Alex has probably seen that phrasing for 25 years, and so he could probably make good guesses at a lot of things, even if he doesn’t know for sure.
I think that there’s an element of the Bravo show that’s like—I don’t actually know more about food than chefs. I’m not meant to be the expert on there. I’m not like Alton Brown saying “I studied the science of food,” or whatever. Everyone is in on it. But Trebek really manages the fact that he’s not saying he’s smarter than them, but also has a certain confidence of being, “I’m in charge, and I know how this works, so listen to me.” It’s a little smug, but you don’t hate him; I think that’s an important balance act in the Bravo show that I had to maintain. “Why are you deferring to me? You all have restaurants, and I’m a person that wears a blazer and tells you to stop what you’re doing.” I also have to have an attitude of, “Oh no! Pistachio is a seed,” or whatever fact I’m supposed to have.
AVC: But you’re like Trebek because you also have access to all the information. You can say to the camera, “Oh no, how could they do that?”
MS: I only have that attitude because an extremely well-trained culinary producer has informed me of every single fact about scallops or whatever. It’s a rigged game, but we’re all acknowledging the rules of this rigged game, and Trebek is the best at that.
2. Padma Lakshmi, Top Chef (2006—)
MS: Even though I spent a lot of years making fun of her on Eater, Padma Lakshmi is the queen of the game. There’s a lot I can’t take from her: I don’t look as good in a dress or a ponytail, but as much as she brings attitude and tasting and judging, a lot of her job is just saying rules. It’s just telling people what the rules are, and telling people when it’s time to stop. She has a thing in her ear, and she has to do all the gamesmanship of the game. But despite that, she’s a very vivid character.
I feel like that is important for a host. Part of the job is being an air traffic controller. It’s a lot of stop, start, do this. Warnings. Repetition, whatever. No matter how well it’s edited, that’s still all got to be in there so people at home are like, “They don’t have a lot of time.” She’s great at that. She’s such an essential part of the show despite mostly saying rules. A lot of what she does can be accomplished with graphics on-screen, but still, you want to watch her. If she were to leave the show, people would be so upset. People wouldn’t want to watch despite thinking they liked it because they like watching cooks.
I watched a lot of Top Chef and wrote a quarter-million words about it online over the years. Her hosting mastery has seeped into my brain.
AVC: Padma makes each episode of Top Chef feel like a party you really do not want to be missing. The food is great, the chatter is fun, she’s drinking…
MS: While Top Chef is not a silly show, and ours is probably a little on the sillier side, it’s also not a grave show. Chopped is a bit serious, both because the gravitas of Ted Allen and the vibe of it, and I feel ike Cutthroat Kitchen is like that, too. No matter how ridiculous the concept is, like “Well, they’re cooking with jelly beans,” or “They have to tie an arm around their back,” you still kind of feel like [gravely] “You need to respect your ingredients,” You know? It’s still got this kind of like…I wouldn’t say glumness, because that’s negativity, but it’s like, “Nothing can be more important than this!” I feel like Padma does a very good job, despite Top Chef being the premiere show celebrating restaurants in America, and chefs, and fine cuisine, of keeping it kind of lighthearted. She always seems like she takes it seriously, but it also always seems like she had two glasses of champagne right before she walked on. I’m not saying she did, but there’s a bit of, “Come on, let’s be serious here,” but in a way that feels a little tongue-in-cheek, even if she doesn’t mean to be.
AVC: You can also sense a little bit of contempt in her sometimes, which is always great. She hates the same chefs the viewers do.
MS: I don’t know enough about the history of food television to say for sure, but I feel like Top Chef figured out that you can only communicate the quality of a dish so much. You can show it; you can have people talking about the ways in which it’s good or bad, or how it tastes. It’s very hard for that to be the entire reason why people root for or root against whoever, and obviously there’s the personalities of the chefs, but you also don’t have a lot of time. This isn’t like a backstage show where you’re watching them in the Real World house or whatever. You bond yourself with Tom or Padma’s judgment of them as people, not just them as chefs. I don’t know anything about how to actually operate in a restaurant, so when a chef says something jackass about technique that I would otherwise miss, Padma raising her eyebrow and scoffing makes me think, “Oh, yeah, yeah. You shouldn’t do that. You’re right, I’m totally with you, Padma, and I’ve had that opinion this whole time and I didn’t just learn it right now from your intense judgement.” She brings no shortage of judgement to that show.
3. Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (1988-93)
MS: My picks are now kind of veering into comedy territory, just because that’s mostly what I spent my youth and formative time watching.
Number three is Joel Hodgson from Mystery Science Theater 3000. I almost could have picked Mike Nelson here. I’m not a real Joel vs. Mike guy, like I’m not not going to draw a line in the sand. I love them both. That show obviously very important in the way it formalized the culture of joking off other subject matter, if that makes sense. That’s a lot of what hosting is, reacting.
I think Joel taught me if the way you use a reference is funny enough, you don’t have to sweat over everyone getting what the reference is, too. I feel like as a kid, I didn’t get half the weird ’70s TV and Midwestern radio personality jokes that they were making on that show, but because of the style and way in which they made them, I certainly laughed along in the way that Louis CK has that joke about if you were born after 1980, Richard Nixon is something they say on The Simpsons or whatever. You don’t actually have a real point of reference. I feel like I backward-learned about a lot of culture through Joel and everyone else in the show’s complicated references. I think that’s fine.
The world of culture and audience is even more split up now, so the idea of, “Well everyone watches and knows the same things, so I just have to reference those things,” That’s never going to be the case ever. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing to 200 hipster comedy fans in L.A., or if you have a network talk show, everyone is different. So, make the reference, and the people who get it will really enjoy it, and as long as the joke is good, everyone else will appreciate that they maybe don’t get it, but maybe they’ll look it up, or maybe they’ll just move onto the next joke.
AVC: Maybe the next person won’t get that one, but they’ll get the next one.
MS: I realized I just phrased that in a way that made it sound like weird references inspire people to research? That’s not what I meant. As a weird kid, I certainly was like, “I want to understand more.” There was a Mystery Science Theater guidebook that they put out. It basically had a one-pager on every episode with some of their favorite riffs, and it broke down their remembrances of watching and writing about that movie, but then there was also this whole appendix of, “Here are 150 inside jokes that people always ask about that we’re going to explain.” It was so many pages long. Good for you guys, making a national show and jamming in so many references that were about the program director at your old job, that no one in the world could get, but you did not care that you were making a show for an audience. I just think that’s a great impulse.
AVC: That show surely inspired a lot of people to go see those movies, or to get into weird B-movie culture. That’s speculation, but maybe.
MS: I was not a cult movie head that then found my way to Mystery Science Theater 3000. It wasn’t like I was going to late-night movies or staying up to watch whatever. I liked it because I liked comedy, and then was like, “Oh, these are so weird and funny.” Everyone would agree that that show certainly inspired podcasts, or this or that, about having an opinion about movies being very funny. I wrote a column for Grantland for a long time that made fun of arcane Netflix movies. It’s now just a thing, but they were the first ones to formalize it. It was probably for the worse, too. I definitely remember people when I moved to New York after college staging their own Mystery Science Theater 3000-type things. Not everybody needs a microphone during a movie. Some people are especially well-suited to it. So, shame on you Joel and Mike! I take it back.
4. Gabe Liedman and Jenny Slate, Big Terrific! (2008-)
MS: Number four is a duo, and they’re friends, and I had a show with them, so this seems fake, but Gabe Liedman and Jenny Slate. They’re two comedians and actors and writers. We performed shows together. We had this show, Big Terrific!, or we still do, but even before we were doing stuff together they had a twice-monthly fake talk show at Rififi, which was this downtown New York venue. In a way, it almost sort of predated podcast comedy, but they were very influential to me. The idea of exhibiting your own world and projecting it to people in a way that is inclusive, but also just about you? I’m not phrasing it very well. That’s why people listen to comedy podcasts now. You’re included in a super funny conversation with people that you’re a fan of, and it feels like, “I’m hanging out with them.” They’re not hanging out with you; they’re talking in a way that is pleasing them, but also because comedians are all narcissists, they also know that they want it to be rewarding to listen to.
Gabe and Jenny doing that live have the confidence of, “We’re going to riff and tell stories just remind each other of stories that happened in our lies, and do weird whatever jokes,” and it’s not going to be off-putting to an audience, nor is it just for them. It’s a genuine exhibition of “We have a very entertaining rapport, and we think you’ll be entertained,” and I feel that’s pretty commonplace in comedy now, but it wasn’t when I first saw them. I think having the confidence on a show to have your own energy and jokes that allude to your biography with a cohost or your judge or whatever, people like watching that. It’s not weird anymore, so shoutout to Gabe and Jenny.
AVC: Yeah, it was probably very ballsy at the time. Not that it’s not ballsy now to think, “I think my friend and I are funny enough that people want to listen to us.”
MS: Totally. It’s just like Mystery Science Theater 3000 in that when it’s done well, it’s the best, but how do you know that your confidence is correctly placed? If it’s not, what a nightmare. There’s no shortage of people around that time that did similar vibes where it’s like, “Nope. You shouldn’t.” When it’s right, if you’re good at bridging the gap between performative and inclusive, and not being off-putting, it’s very successful. But also, if you’re bad at it, don’t do it. Don’t do it.
That’s the problem with a lot of comedy duos. You’ve probably found someone else that also thinks it’s good, so now you have a verified opinion, so you go up on stage or start a podcast, and you’re wrong. You’re wrong, and I don’t know how to tell you.
AVC: Gabe and Jenny have this thing where, as fans, you admire them, but you also feel like you could just fall in and be friends with them.
MS: I can’t put my finger on what it is. I guess because their rapport is so genuine, and because they’ve been best friends for forever, you really feel like “That’s how I would talk,” or, “That’s a better version of what I do with my friends.” It’s like with a ballerina or an ice skater. The hardest thing is to project effortlessness where the audience doesn’t quite realize how difficult it is. It doesn’t have that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “I just landed a backflip!,” sweaty, “I did it! I worked so hard on this,” kind of earnestness that, while impressive, can be a little off-putting. It doesn’t feel like, “You did a good thing, but it’s not what I do, and you’re trying very hard.” Gabe and Jenny, their shit is so good that you think, “Oh, that’s just what we do.”
They’re not even podcast people. It’s not like they’re in people’s ears every week where people say, “I’m obsessed with you because I listen to you talk for two hours a week.”
AVC: “I listen to you more than I talk to my friends.”
MS: Exactly. God, that modern thing of hanging out with people when you realize that all their stories are about things they heard on podcasts, and then become self-conscious about not wanting to reveal where they heard that thing. “Is this also from a podcast?”
You go to Gabe and Jenny’s Instagram comments: “This is me and my friends. Can we hang out with you, please?” It’s like the opposite of old school film stardom where people were capital O others that are mystifying in their talent and their mystery and just make you want to know more. I guess TV people are like that, too, but now it’s like, “I feel like I know them!” Well, you don’t.
AVC: Well, you do.
MS: Yeah, I do. I do. And I’ll tell you, guys, they’re just like your friends, and if you could just have five minutes with them, they would be your best friend, and it would be the most satisfying thing in the world. It’s just about access. You just need to charge them after a show or an appearance, and talk very fast, and explain why they’d be best friends with you, and they’ll listen, and if your reasons are good, and I bet they are, it’s all going to work out.
AVC: It would also be good to maybe just see them in a restaurant and look at them awkwardly like you were watching them, but then never say anything. Famous people love that.
MS: Exactly. They like that energy. Or, just say that you’re a fan, and have no follow-up, because that also leads to very easy conversations.
AVC: Famous or semi-famous people love it when you treat them like they’re not people.
MS: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
AVC: “They’re at a restaurant? A fucking restaurant?”
MS: I always think of that “Jack Handey Deep Thoughts.” I’m going to fuck it up, but it’s like, “I want to give the president a chocolate revolver as a gift, but he’s pretty busy, so I’d probably have to run up to him and give it to him really fast.” That I think about all the time. I don’t know why it made me think of that.
5. Conan O’Brien, Late Night With Conan O’Brien (1993-2009)
MS: My fifth pick is “early Conan.” That’s not me judging later Conan. I still love the stuff he’s doing on TBS, especially now in this current late-night landscape. I love that they continue to do weird sketches, and it’s not just making Jennifer Lawrence wear a Whac-A-Mole costume or whatever. I say early Conan just because that‘s when watching a late-night show was essential to me. He’s the funniest in a million ways, and this article doesn’t need to be rehashing it, but as a host, he was the first guy, I think, that could be a host in a way where, as a host, you have to ask questions and be engaged and try to be charming and informed, be he would also go off on mini-one man show digressions that were about himself or his own insecurities. I don’t think anyone really did that then. Now, it’s more common.
Your job as a host is largely to engage with other people, and to be interested in what they’re doing. Conan is able to split that with taking opportunities to shine the light on himself and make it all go better by being funnier, because Conan is funnier and smarter than everyone that is on his show. It’s hard to display that without coming across as smug or grandstanding. I think he’s always done a very good job of balancing that. Someone tells an okay story, and then he does a weird act out of a part of it, and it feels like, “Oh, we just told a great story together!” No, your story was okay. Conan was very, very funny, but the audience and probably the guests feel as if it was teamwork. That’s a very impressive thing.
AVC: Both Conan and Stephen Colbert do a great job at throwing to pre-arranged guest stories.
MS: Yeah. “So, you drive when you’re in L.A.?” It’s an art to get there, and it’s also an art to let the guest hit their little punchline. If you’re smart and cutting, the easiest instinct would be to poke holes in the story or ask questions or just mess with what they did, but I feel like they’re very good at always adding to it. It’s this very generous thing that is probably more generous than they should be, but it never shines a light on that the prepared story is just okay, and that the guest does not have as much charisma as Stephen Colbert.
When I was really a Colbert fan, it was his The Daily Show years, and that’s not quite hosting, so for the purposes of this very formalized, structured list, I decided to go Conan, but they’re the best.
AVC: For Recipe For Deception, how do you guide yourself as a host? Did you think about how you wanted to act as a host going in?
MS: Ultimately, the job of the host is to provide the bones of the story. The stage whispering I do on screen is not necessarily happening live in-person. My attitude with hosting is anything that the show needs and is asked of me, I will do, but try to do it in my own voice as much as possible, and then I try and never have the fear of adding more and doing my own stuff. Ultimately, each show is 10 hours that’s cut down to 42 minutes. I’m not in control of that, so I’m not going to be self-conscious about, “Well, I really have to act this way or act that way.”
I was not thoughtful in that I just was like, “I want to react the way I want to react. I want to make the jokes I want. I’m going to treat these people as if I were talking to them in real life,” in the sense of yeah, make jokes, but stay likable. I want them to like me. Regardless of being a likable host, I would want a human I was interacting with to walk away being like, “Oh, he’s funny and charming. That’s nice.”
Alton Brown is a true expert. He had a show for many years, he researched, wrote cookbooks. Regardless of maybe not having a restaurant, you would never question his how much he knows. Our show is perhaps more for the amateur enthusiast than super foodies. If you’re super into food and want to watch all those shows, our show also does that, but I tried to target the audience of a hungover person that watches six episodes of Cutthroat Kitchen in a row and can’t turn it off. It’s not because they’re obsessed with restaurants; it’s a compelling format and fun to watch chefs struggle.
I think a network would have liked me to project myself more as a food master for the purposes of establishing authority in the show. That was the one thing I was like, “You know what? I really feel like there’s a line we can toe.” I’m in charge of the running of the game. I hopefully keep things moving in a fun and easy way in that I am enthusiastic about food, but not the authority here. I’m not a know-it-all.
I think an audience will be okay with that. They’re not going to be like, “Well why is this guy hosting? What are his bona fides?” I don’t think that’s how we watch television. Why is anyone on television? No one should be. It’s a very stupid business.
So, that was the one thing I was very thoughtful about and I’ve always resisted pushes toward being that. I’m not an accomplished food writer. I made fun of Top Chef and Rachael Vs. Guy for a bunch of years online. That does not establish me as a restaurant critic, and that’s okay. Having a passion for the format of food television separate from the culinary world is as valuable, or maybe more valuable in this scenario. I’m going to lean into that and not try to pretend that I know more facts about avocados than these people who make their livings in kitchens. This show or any TV competition is already such a false construct that why push it even more that way? These guys are really cooking, and they do really want to win money, and the rules are real, so why fake the other stuff?
AVC: You tweeted the first night the show aired that you fought with Bravo for months about whether you were going to use the word “foodie.”
MS: I won. After we filmed the show, I had this intro. It’s two seconds at the top of the show where I’m basically establishing why I’m there, where I’m like, “Hello chefs, I’m Max Silvestri. I’m your host.” I think when we filmed it, that’s all I said. “I’m your host, Max Silvestri,” and then went into another thing that got cut. They just really wanted a line that established my authority. I think they really wanted me to say, “I’m a food writer, and I’m a major foodie.” I was like, “I’m not going to say ‘foodie’ not because of any sort of snobbery, but I feel like we’re kind of past that word.” I would never call myself that. I don’t want to make a show for people who are obsessed with that word. I think it’s a better thing for our show to not be like, “I’m your host! I’m a foodie.” It’s better all around, but it’s a shame there isn’t a better word for knowing slightly more about food that other people. We’ve got to work on that. Ultimately, it was back and forth, and what we landed on was something like, “I’m a comedian, and for years, I wrote about chefs torturing each other,” whatever. It was some sort of vague allusion that I’ve paid attention to chefs competing.
It was a long road, but I’m just glad the show does not begin with me say, “Hi, I’m Max Silvestri, and I’m your host and a major foodie, so I’m ready for you guys to get your food on,” or whatever. That’s not what Bravo pitched; I don’t mean to throw them under the bus, but that was my fear. I think I got away with never once saying that word on set or in voiceover.
I don’t know. I spent a lot of time in a booth saying weird words. It wouldn’t surprise me if they could just cut it together, and the next episode has me saying “foodie” in a way that they totally fucked me over, because they can if they want. But you get my reservations about that word, right?
AVC: Yeah, I get it. I have reservations like that about “hipster” or “indie,” because they just don’t mean anything anymore. People call themselves foodies if they like good hamburgers. We all like good hamburgers. It just doesn’t mean anything.
MS: Yeah, so does everybody now, and that’s the whole point. Hipster, I guess that’s vaguely like, “I have opinions about some things sometimes.” It’s strangely almost never used. The only people that ever used those words about other people probably could have easily applied them to themselves. They kind of only exist in weird, half-disdained, half-unselfaware spaces. It’s sort of better for those words not to be used. Hipster, indie, foodie: We’re past those labels, I think, and no one is using them right.
AVC: That’s an executive hosting decision if I’ve ever heard one.
MS: Look, I’m all about compromise. I have no backbone there. That was the only thing that I dragged my feet on that I was like, “Guys, no. I can’t. I’ll do almost anything else, clearly. Watch the show. But I just can’t call myself that. Please let me walk away with some small dignity.”