Max Silvestri hosted one of Brooklyn’s most popular comedy shows, Big Terrific, for nearly seven years alongside fellow comedians Gabe Liedman and Jenny Slate. In that time he grew as a part of a budding scene of Brooklyn comedians who have now all but abandoned their Brooklyn apartments for homes in Los Angeles. He spent much of his time in New York writing recaps of popular cooking competitions like Top Chef, and after writing what he estimates to be about a quarter million words on the subject, was selected to participate directly in the genre.
Silvestri has taken on the role of hosting a new cooking competition on Bravo entitled Recipe for Deception, premiering this Thursday, January 21 at 10pm ET/PT. In the show, Silvestri will lead four new chefs through a series of elimination rounds in which they must surmount the challenge of cooking while having no idea what their main ingredient is. Based on the world-renowned icebreaker “Two Truths and a Lie,” the chefs will attempt to guess this mystery ingredient by asking one another three yes-or-no questions. To make this more complicated, their opponents will answers strategically with two truths and one lie. Finally, eliminated chefs will have the opportunity to rejoin the competition by trading essential information about the ingredient for a chance at the grand payout: $10,000.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Silvestri over the phone about his decision to leave New York for LA, how his dog helped him make that decision, the future of Big Terrific, and how all his years recapping Top Chef helped prepare him for his latest role as host of Recipe for Deception.
I hear you just moved out to LA!
I did. I moved in the fall. Lovely, here. Everyone has moved here now, I think. Are they still doing live comedy and stuff in New York?
No, it’s actually completely fallen apart, I’m sad to say.
Oh man, a part of me feels bad because I kind of set the place on fire on my way out. But, also, it’s a little satisfying to know that the medium of performed comedy has come to a close in the cultural hub of the entire world.
Right. It couldn’t go on without you.
Yeah. You know, you never want that to be the case but it’s like, you can’t be unhappy and alone for the rest of your life.
Exactly. Seriously, though, that is kind of the feeling. When talking to someone who’s moved out to LA there’s almost a feeling of talking to somebody who is gone “beyond the veil.”
[Laughs] Yeah. “Is grandpa there? Does he have a show at Largo?” Yeah, I think there’s like a real… Obviously, I know New York is great and it’s exciting to see how that grows and changes every two or three years. But, there is a funny vibe where as people move west and I watched my class of people and class of people above me that we were friends with, all move before me and all kind of have of this idea of what even happens in New York? It goes both ways, where they just sort of, like, Truman Show style just leave New York and everybody just breaks down the back lot and it’s like “We don’t need this anymore!” Everyone is the star of their own movie.
The other thing is, whenever people go out to LA they always say they’re going to be bi-coastal and they’ll be back in a couple years. I feel like that just never happens.
Yeah. That happens one out of a hundred days of the year. I think it’s really difficult and expensive to pull that off, obviously. I’ll just have a brownstone in Carroll Gardens and a three bedroom mid-century place in the hills. I’ll just go back and forth. To be honest, unless you’re a wildly successful actor in like film and short-term cable shows, you have to set roots somewhere. It’s hard to do. The whole reason LA is seductive is that the life is in a lot of ways, the domestic aspect of it is pretty easy living. People get really sucked into their routine and the same group of friends and their homes… If you’re that kind of person that is now less active and dynamic and social than you were in New York, and you think you’re going split your time across two coasts? Yeah right. But obviously yeah it would be great to be bi-coastal. I mean I want to be in Boston and San Francisco. I feel like both are very active and creative communities.
So you don’t actually see yourself coming back to New York all that often?
No, no. I’d love to. I think also because I was one of the last of my group of my friends to move… I waited until I was very ready to move and wanted to. There was a little bit of insecurity and a little bit of hedging. They’re like, “Oh, no, I’m moving for this but would love to come back.” Prepping themselves, I guess, for a possible failure. But I was never was going to wholeheartedly move. I lived in New York for nine years and am I going to move again in nine years when I potentially have a family? Like I’d love to move to New York City with a small child. It’s just a city built for that.
So yeah, I love New York, I want to come back a lot. But, it’s a city that is very fun to experience as a visitor for four weeks a year even more than as a resident that’s trying to get to an audition on time and drop off laundry or whatever. I feel like I continue to think that New York is the better city but also I don’t want to live there.
Was Recipe for Deception the reason that you moved out there?
No, no… This was filmed before I moved. We filmed this back in the spring. The reception was happening out here, I had a couple writing projects, writing developments, and my writing partner was out here. I had stuff that I wanted to sell out here. It just kind of… All my friends were out here. It’s just sort of like, “I think it’s time” but I think my list of reasons kind of got to the point where I could no longer be doing any work in New York. All the work was in LA, even though I could do it remotely and travel back and forth. Why am I spending a lot of money to maintain a 560 square foot apartment with a dog and girlfriend so that I could commute once a month to LA and stayed in a weird, smelly Airbnb? “Must be cat-friendly!” I was just laying on stuff. So, I’m in my early thirties and I’m ready to be a little more rooted. I was just ready for a change of pace. Nine years is good amount of time in New York.
And I’m sure after a certain amount of time it becomes less about trying to convince yourself you should move to LA and more about trying to convince yourself you need to stay in New York.
Yeah, absolutely. I think if you’re a curious, social person, which hopefully you are if you moved to New York as a young person, you do get cursed with FOMO. You have that Fear of Missing Out in New York; you have access to everything. You have places to go, concerts, and culture and movies. Having those serendipitous Friday nights where you’re at a bar on the Lower East Side and “Oh, this person is over here, I’m going to walk ten minutes and meet up and have this unexpected thing.” I think those were things that were just less and less in the rhythm of my life. Like, I go to the grocery store and pet store a lot. I feel like I’m not fully taking advantage of the wonders of New York. Instead, it’s just like a small, tight place where as soon as you get a puppy, you realize how much garbage there is on the streets and there’s only so much energy I have for clawing chicken wings out of my dog’s throats every morning. You know what? Fuck seasons. Seasons are cool but I want sunshine 300 days a year, I want to live in a place where people don’t eat chicken wings in their cars and throw the bones out the window. I don’t understand that impulse. What is this grab-and-go chicken wing culture that I live in? I don’t think this is my life anymore.
So it was the dog that got you to move.
[Laughs] Yeah, I honestly think it’s a dog thing. I really think me getting a dog accelerated me being ready to move. And also I suddenly became a real house dad and really aware how dirty it is here.
And I’m sure it also feels a little bit more like becoming a full adult with a comedy career.
Yeah, there was a total… This is no judgment on staying in New York, this is from my personal past of doing what is comfortable, like, oh, “I’ve got this weekly show and people come out to it every week. I’ve got an audience. That’s still there. I’ve got the work and I go to LA.” The rhythm became a little like, “Okay, I could keep doing this for another two years.” But, what has really challenged me or changed me in the last year? How does the place I’m in affect that? The fact that I know the group of collaborators I’m around. I feel like if I make this change, I’m going to be pushed harder and pushed out of my comfort zone as a performer and as a writer and I think I need to get serious about that.
Do you think you’re going to be getting more involved in standup specifically or are you planning to branch out even more? I mean, you’re already pretty well branched out, but…
I’m well branched out but I think I would like to do a lot of really neat things that are different from standup. I’ve gotten to write an NBC pilot, I’ve gotten to write a cable thing, I’ve gotten to host this cable show, and I like using different “muscles,” and I’m a pretty ADD person, such that I like being able to shift my focus. “I’m going to this show and this is fun and it’s about keeping this energy up and now I’m going to go do this!”
I think since we wrapped up Big Terrific in New York in the spring, I sort of put standup on pause to focus on writing and other things. I want to get really good at this. I want to put all my energy into this and not be distracted. It’s been a really great experience but I don’t think I realize how much I loved standup. And I’m very down for compromise. I think all creative pursuits are aided by limits and constraints and by having other voices help you out. That’s obviously what hosting a TV show or writing a network show involves. It is about “How can I spin my voice into this new arena?”
And as challenging and good as it is, it also has reminded me how uncompromising standup has the potential to be. This is kind of the one place where you’re like “Well, I feel like that word needs to two syllables so that this whole bit is half a second longer.” I think that those sort of format discussions don’t really pop up in standup in a way that’s like free. I think now that I’ve gotten settled in LA and through with this big project, I’m very, very excited to dive back into it. We’re starting to do Big Terrific out here and I’m excited to get back on the road a little bit and just talk and no one is allowed to interrupt me.
You’re reviving Big Terrific in LA?
Yeah, I mean it’s never going to be a weekly showcase again. I think that chapter of it correctly ended in New York after eight years. But Gabe and Jenny and I remain crazy good friends and all love standup and all love the energy of that show. I think it’ll continue in LA, it’ll continue on the road, and at festivals. It will be more about the three of us which is a funny thing to say because the show is already plenty about the three of us. So we’re leaning into it even further. We bring friends on when it’s appropriate, but I think because we’ve all done standup in other contexts as well, we also realize how much more fun it is on the road and in general when we’re together. So we’ll do that much as possible in this new year.
Recipe for Deception is along the lines of the shows you used to recap, right? Like Top Chef and all that?
Yeah, it is. It’s a pretty funny and surreal evolution to have six, seven years of writing about Top Chef and then I wrote about Rachael vs. Guy. When I went on the Top Chef cruise to write about it for a year and looked up I realized that I wrote a quarter million words about Top Chef over a half decade. That’s a lot of time and energy from an outsider’s perspective. And through the crazy route of showbiz or whatever now I’m hosting a show where Top Chef is our lead-in. Our show premieres after Top Chef in two weeks and I got to be on Top Chef this season as a guest diner sitting next to Tom and everybody and they were like “What do you think of the pork?” with all the cameras having dinner, it’s like, this is a very funny task.
So yeah, I think the reason our show happened is because the world has changed. Top Chef was just the premiere food competition show. It’s something that has elevated food and restaurants and chefs in the mind of the average American public, and not just fancy people in New York and LA and San Francisco. It’s kind of thanks to Top Chef that a lot of people know and pay attention to food that aren’t necessarily super obsessed with restaurants. It’s just kind of become a normal thing. It’s not just for food nerds or foodies. Everyone has an opinion and would rather eat good food. It’s gotten to the point where it’s just kind of normal. It’s just another part of life. But, I think our show steps in and gets to take advantage of that different vibe now and it’s a little bit more tongue-in-cheek about what a food competition is and the attitude towards the chefs and rules and everything else.
Our job is not just to celebrate them and say “Let’s all bow down at the temple of restaurants and culinary greatness!” because I think we all know they’re great and we love them. It’s something you can watch at home and even if you’re not tasting the food, you’re like oh, that scallop is raw! We all can do it. We’re amateurs now. Our show is kind of like a more humorous and fun look at the world of food than maybe other things on the air today. It’s only because you couldn’t pull that off five years ago. You couldn’t have a show that sort of gave a hard time to the chefs or whatever because people watching were super intense foodies. Now, everybody watches this stuff. We all are hungover and watch Cutthroat Kitchen marathons and it’s like “Where did my life just go?” It’s just very fun to be involved in that sort of thing.
Right. And you’re adding a new element to it that just takes it beyond cooking and all that. You’re adding this whole quality of cunning.
I hope I’m bringing my famous cunning! No, I mean, this is a show that challenges chefs, in weird specific ways. There is no other show where you have chefs spending the whole show cooking and not knowing the main ingredient they have to use is. That’s not something that’s inspired by a restaurant kitchen. It’s something that got inspired by making an entertaining show that puts chefs in an uncomfortable position. I think it is fun. I think it also makes them work outside their comfort zone and get in each other’s heads. They lie to one another to kind of “out-think” the other and it’s sort of fun to watch everybody outside their comfort zone. Except me, I’m very much in my comfort zone. I love rules and making fun of chefs.
You’ve been prepared for this moment your entire life.
Oh my God yes, I’ve been doing it in my living room for years and it’s crazy I’m here.
I’m sure it’s really intense to visit your apartment.
My girlfriend is not happy with how much shit we’ve got hooked up. I’m like, “Babe! We need these lights, okay!? It looks better under hot lights.”
Photo by Mindy Tucker.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.