D.C. resident, chef, and business owner Danielle Harris can add streaming star to her resume starting today. Celebrity chef David Chang is executive producer on Hulu’s playful new cooking show Secret Chef, in which 10 contestants — everyone from international professional chefs to Instagram-famous influencers — vie for a tidy sum of $100,000.
The chefs, however, are completely isolated from each other in their own kitchen amidst a wandering labyrinth connected by conveyor belts. Guided by a somewhat-goofy animated hat called “Cheffy,” the chefs must perform culinary challenges — not for judges, but for each other. After the challenge is complete, each chef blind tastes all of the other dishes in their own enclosed studio kitchen, giving anonymous grades in private. Only at the end of each episode do the chefs receive their grades and get the boot or not.
Harris’ peripatetic culinary career started like many: as a dishwasher. She worked her way up to sous chef, did a stint at art school, and then worked with Iron Chef Stephanie Izard in Chicago before coming to D.C. in 2015. After a stint at Capitol Hill’s short-lived Emilie’s, Harris took a leap during the pandemic and opened carryout sandwich shop Little Food Studio in Petworth (849 Upshur Street NW). There she names sandwiches after her culinary muses (her mom, aunts, grandmothers, and partner), who all instilled in her a deep love for food.
Starting a food business in a pandemic still didn’t prepare her for a reality TV cooking competition, in which the producers kept the contestants completely in the dark.
The producers found Harris the modern-day way: via DM on social media. After conducting a filmed interview, Harris had to record a 20-minute, nonstop cooking video and was ultimately chosen out of the competitive pack of candidates.
Harris admits she had no idea what the show was about until cameras started rolling. “It was kind of wild,” she says. The contestants’ reactions when they explore their own solitary kitchens are of genuine surprise. “They wouldn’t tell us how to prep or what clothes to wear,” she says.
Filmed on-set in Atlanta over three weeks, the contestants are put through a series of challenges, judging each others’ dishes in secret, and try to figure out who would cook each one based on their personality or experience. The 12-hour filming days were exhausting, she says, but exciting.
Surrounded by passionate chefs like herself (who still keep in touch via a group chat), plus a diverse production staff that included lots of people of color, she says the networking experience was a rewarding one. (Harris is also a vocal advocate for representation and recognition of chefs of color in the restaurant community.)
One of the biggest challenges? “Judging the show’s food [myself] — having to brace your stomach for eating 10 plates at 10 a.m.”
Back in D.C. at Little Food Studio, she reports sales are up on her salads, sandwiches, and morning pastries, and she hopes her Secret Chef appearance lets people experience her “cheffy” skills firsthand.
To celebrate the 10-episode series premiere, Harris is hosting a public outdoor watch party on Thursday, June 29, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The show will air at 7 p.m. on a 21-foot inflatable screen. The event is BYOC (bring your own chair).