How ‘Nailed It!’ Taught Chef Jacques Torres to Have More Fun
Thanks to his co-host and contestants, the renowned pastry chef has learned to embrace imperfection.
While Nailed It is a competition show, the goal isn’t actually to be the best and win the $10,000 grand prize. The goal, really, is to not be the worst. The three amateur bakers that step into the Nailed It! kitchen each episode are all varying levels of bad—at baking, that is—and while they attempt to recreate intricate cakes, often to hilarious results, the driving force behind the show is that food and baking doesn’t always need to be taken too seriously.
That’s been something Jacques Torres, one of the hosts and judges of Nailed It!—who is also an expert pastry chef and chocolatier—has had to learn. “The first time that we taped the show, I had heartburn looking at those bakers,” he laughs.
But Torres is more settled into his role now as a baking sage for competitors, as Nailed It! received its first Emmy nomination (for hilarious co-host Nicole Byer) and leans into another season on September 15. “In a way, it's very rewarding,” he says. “The advice that I give is real and when people fail, I try to tell them why and how they can do better.”
We caught up with Torres ahead of the premiere of the show’s sixth season to discuss the funniest moments he’s witnessed, working with comedian Nicole Byer, and why the zany formula—where people are intended to fail—for Nailed It! works.
Thrillist: I know you've said before that life is short, so eat dessert first. Has there ever been moments in the Nailed It! kitchen where you reconsidered this motto?
Jacques Torres: [Laughs] No. The show is fun—spending the day taping the show, interacting with the bakers, and being with Nicole Byer, who is a lot of fun and all the guest judges. I’ve never reconsidered that. I love the journey. The cakes are not always good. They’re actually pretty bad, but the whole experience is actually a lot of fun. So I don’t reconsider that because [dessert] is what [brought] me there, so I love it.
You mentioned Nicole and I know she has such a big personality and I feel like you're more of like the antithesis of her. Can you talk a little bit about how you complement each other?
I think Nicole is the complete opposite of me. Her knowledge starts where mine stops and vice-versa. She doesn’t bake, she doesn’t cook, she doesn’t know the chef world. But she’s amazing when you start to talk about any celebrity, anything happening on TV, in the comedy world, she’s unbelievable. And she’s very talented. So basically all day she’s a comedian—and Nicole is not [just] a comedian when she steps on the stage. No, Nicole is a comedian 24/7. She never stops making jokes, she doesn’t stop making people laugh. I just love spending time with her. When we tape the show, I try to go out with her to go cook in her place [or] go to restaurants.
What has it been like for you to witness the explosive viewership of the show over the years and even receive Emmy recognition?
In a way, it’s very rewarding. I try to give real advice. I try to be fun, but the advice that I give is real and when people fail, I try to tell them why and how they can do better. So I’ve always been a teacher and I try to teach, but it’s boring to teach. If the show was about that, it would be boring. So thank God Nicole is there and she makes it fun and she makes people laugh and the bakers are funny and the guest judge is always great. I think the casting is wonderful. A lot of time, I'm thinking, ‘Where do they come from?’ Because they are so special and so funny. So it’s just fun to spend the day like that.
As a pastry chef, a chocolatier, so much of your own work is about precision. How does it feel for you personally to witness the way that some ingredients are used in the Nailed It! kitchen?
I have to say that the first season, the first time that we taped the show, I had heartburn looking at those bakers. I was stressed when I was looking at the time and what they were doing, I was getting so stressed on my seat. I was moving all the time and I was asking, “Nicole, can I go help them? Can I go tell them, can I do this, can I do that?” Then Nicole was like, “No, Jacques, stay on your seat. You cannot go over there.” So that was actually funny.
Now I have a little bit more experience with the show and actually we need the fails. It’s fun when people fail, because that gives me advice to give them. I can look where they make a mistake and help them.
Do you have a favorite memory from the Nailed It! set?
The fails are what make it fun. I remember that one of the bakers mistook sugar for salt and put salt into his cakes. Nicole and I took a spoon of that cake and we ate it—and then we just looked at each other and spat the cake out.
Another time, Nicole ate a piece of the fondant that was blue and her tongue and teeth and everything, her mouth was blue—we laughed so hard at that. So we just have some great moments where the unexpected happens and everybody’s laughing about it.
So many cooking competition shows are really competitive and maybe a little bit mean, but I feel like Nailed It! is kind of the opposite. Can you talk about why this formula for the show works?
I would not be part of that show. I don’t like competition shows. I don’t like the drama. The last year and a half, there’s been so much drama in the world. We need to laugh and we need to forget the drama. So I never want to be part of a competition show where there is drama, or people crying, or people are mad.
When I got the offer for Nailed It!, it was different because someone goes home with $10,000. It's not mean. We make people laugh. We play with them, we give them advice and I did like the format and I really love the message behind the show. Behind those crazy cakes and the fails and the bad cakes, the message is this: Life is not perfect and not everything is perfect in life. So it’s ok. Do what you can and have fun in the kitchen. If you make cakes or whatever you're going to do in your kitchen, do it with your family, do it for the people that you love.
Some people never bake and they come on the show and they try to do it. And I think that's what makes the show interesting because it shows you that look, those people are very courageous. They never bake, they know they’re going to fail and they come on television anyway. I mean, wow. They are courageous.