Benny Rivera Talks Foodtastic, Food Art, And Giant Gingerbread Houses - Exclusive Interview

Like so many of us, you probably grew up being told not to play with your food. One of the newest shows to stream this season, from Disney no less, is totally turning mom's rules on their head. Carrotsbroccoli, and all your fruits and veggies aren't just for eating. They're also for creating, and the results will completely blow your mind. The magic all happens on "Foodtastic", available to stream on Disney+ starting today.

The food competition features actress Keke Palmer as the host. She explores the worlds and characters behind some of our favorite Disney classics, and then teams of food artists use their skills and their own love for Disney, to create over-the-top, elaborate, totally edible sculptures and art. Each episode and challenge is centered around a different theme, including "Cars," "Star Wars," "Toy Story," and more. Everything is made out of food, and anything goes in these kitchens. It's unclear if this show will actually leave you with a craving, but we're certain you'll never look at a plain old salad the same way again.

Food art experts Amirah Kassem and chef Benny Rivera oversee the whole competition and choose the winner of each episode. Mashed spoke exclusively with Rivera, who has built his own reputation as a master of food art as a celebrity cake artist in New York. He revealed just what we can expect from Foodtastic, and shared details from the behind-the-scenes (which included 16-hour filming days). Rivera also dished on how and why we could all get a little more creative in the kitchen, especially with the holidays fast approaching.

Foodtastic is a whole new world of food TV, according to judge Benny Rivera

This is just unlike anything I've ever seen. What can we expect from Foodtastic? What is the show?

Oh, my God. Expect the unexpected. It is the very first time that the TV has a show like this. There's a lot of competition shows already on different networks, but this is the very first food art competition. What you're going to see is a lot of stress, a little pressure, but a lot of some amazing work that the contestants are going to create using food. You'll be amazed with the mediums that they're going to be using. They're going to use fruits, vegetables, candies, cookies, cheese, pasta, you name it, and it's going to be in the show.

Are there rules for making these creations or is it just anything goes?

Anything goes. Everything is inspired by a Disney character and a specific movie. They have to tell us a story, too, with the piece that they're going to be creating. They have to be very careful in how they play with the characters because you know how Disney characters are. They have to stay true to who they really are.

Wow. There's an added challenge of making a storyline on top of creating a piece of art.

Correct. But the beautiful thing is just, they are all very talented people. They're professional artists. It's just, the beautiful work that they all put together at the end of each episode, is just mind blowing.

I imagine that this is no quick process. How long do these creations take to bring to life? How long are you guys filming?

I mean, the actual competition lasts for 16 hours. They start and they just have to jump right away, just nonstop. It's a very intense competition, and you're going to see it through their faces, the stress that they feel, but it's a very healthy competition, and there's no drama. I mean, the drama that you're going to see on the actual episode, in some of the episodes, is just because it really happens because they probably are running out of time, or something is falling and they were not expecting that to happen. Everything is real, nothing was scripted or built just for the show.

Benny Rivera says food art means a whole lot more than just playing with your fruits and veggies

You serve as sort of a food art expert and you're a judge on the show. How do you guys determine the winner?

It's very tricky, because I'm more the judge for the technical aspect of the elements of the competition. I had to make sure that if the contestants are going to work with chocolate, they do it with the proper temperature. If they're going to build something with watermelons, they have to build a structure support system that is able to hold the weight, all the pieces that they're going to build. All those technical elements I'm kind of keeping an eye on. Amirah also is keeping more in the storyline, the colors they use. I have to say, I mean, it wasn't very easy to pick a winner at the end of each episode, because I mean, they all did an amazing job, but we didn't get into a fight deciding who we want to win.

What would you say it takes to be a master of food art? What are the top things you have to keep in mind?

I think it's experience in the field. It's something that you gain with the years working and competing too. I mean, I'm a judge now, but in my past years I had the privilege to be in that position too. As a judge now, it's an advantage for me because I've been on both sides, so I know the stress that they're going through. As a judge now it's kind of hard because you just want to jump there and help them when they need the help, but you can't do that, but it's about experience, and having the ability and the experience to work with all those different mediums through the years.

You mentioned you've seen both sides of it. The competing, you know exactly what's going on in their mind. How do you stay focused and motivated for 16 hours? What do you tell yourself to get through that process?

Listen, I think the key important part of this is just to plan and organize the work that you're going to do. Some people, unfortunately, they just jump into the competition and don't have a plan. I think always for this kind of competition, you have to set up a plan clearly. From hour number one, hour number two, all the way until 16 hours, so what are you expecting to cover and do on each specific hour? Because then if you know that you're close to the end, you can go back there and say, "Okay, we are a little behind, so let's just skip this and look for a shortcut." It's about planning and organizing yourself on the team.

He says filming Foodtastic was a nail-biting process, but a fun one

These are such intricate, very precarious designs. I know there had to be disasters along the way. Are there any memorable moments from behind the scenes that you can share?

I am not allowed to share a specific moment because it's part of the excitement, and you have to see the entire show. But there were a few occasions that I knew that there was...the contestants were setting themselves up for, not a failure, but to work with a specific medium that I knew wasn't going to work in that specific way that they were going to use it. We were just like, when we were judging them or just giving our advice to them, so we had to do it in a way that we are not telling them completely clearly, "Hey, this is going to happen." But just to help them in a very indirect way, just giving a clue. But there's a few occasions that you're going to see that some of the mediums, or the ideas, that they wanted to bring to light didn't work.

What's it like working with Keke Palmer? I know she brings such an interesting storytelling aspect to the show as well.

She is so talented. I mean, she can sing, she can dance, she can act, she's just, she's truly a star. Working with her and Amirah, actually, it was just a blessing, because she's just felt like we worked together before and we connect immediately and we feel comfortable with each other. We kind of knew where we were coming from when we needed to say something. Also, the beautiful thing was just how hungry Keke was. She wanted to learn. She was amazed and blown away by the work that she was seeing. It was just awesome to see that.

Benny Rivera shares on bringing ingredients to life

Were you a fan of Disney before doing this show?

All my life.

What was your favorite movie to see brought to life?

My favorite movie is The Lion King, but there were other episodes that it was just like, I was blown away by the work.

Did you guys eat any of the creations after judging?

No, this is just for an art exposure. It's just like, we're not going to eat. Nobody's going to eat that kind of food.

What are some of the most surprisingly useful ingredients when it comes to building food art?

I would say that probably cheese in the way that some people use it. Because I know it wasn't going to work in the way that they wanted to use it, but there were some cold techniques that I saw that I've never seen before. Some people, I mean, some of the crazy ingredients that you're going to see are pasta, cheese, broccoli, but in a way that it's not in their natural form. It just translates the original form of the medium and they use it in another form. It's really cool.

I guess it's easier to use a lot more raw ingredients than cooked ingredients?

Definitely. I mean, the raw ingredients have a more stable life, and also the shape is more strong to work with.

Chef Benny Rivera on how we can all get a little artsy with our food

Foodtastic is coming out right in the middle of the holiday season. This is the time of year that brings a lot of people together around food. What are some ways we can all get more creative with food together at home?

It's funny that you say that because it's true. I mean, like kids for example, sometimes kids don't like vegetables. If you present those vegetables in a beautiful way on the plate, they probably feel connected and say, "Oh, my God. It looks so beautiful. Let me try." That's a way for the vegetable to get into their eyes and then into their body because it can be easy for them to eat it. It's also about how you place the food on the plate. It's just positioning the food on the plate. It doesn't have to be something crazy. It can be something simple.

Do you have a quick food art trick we can try at home?

Yes. Actually, in one of the episodes, I think I was showing Keke how to cut an onion. Instead of using an onion, just like cutting it in half and putting it on the plates in rings, you can just cut the onion in half, but using the knife carefully in kind of like a zig zag way all around. When you pull it out, you're going to have that shape and then you can start moving the rings and it creates a beautiful flower. It's the little things like that, it just takes the presentation to a completely different level.

Chef Benny Rivera dishes on his latest cake masterpiece

You're a master of food art, obviously off the camera, you run City Cakes as a celebrity cake artist. Where do you draw the inspiration for your creations?

Everything. It's just crazy because I'm always walking around and looking around and I always see everything in food art. In cake, in sugar. It's just crazy how my mind works. It's just like if I go to a store and I see a bunch of fabrics I immediately think about, "Okay, how am I going to translate that design into a sugar concept, or into a cake, or into a food art." It's just like elements that you have all around you.

The world is your candy store now.


What is the most difficult piece? The most difficult cake, or piece of art, you've ever worked on?

I just finished, it was a headache. It's funny that you say it. This year we created an eight-foot-tall-by-eight-foot-long gingerbread house for the lobby of "The Nutcracker," at the Lincoln Center, for the entire season. It was just a massive piece, but it was full of food elements. It had popcorn, it had coconut, it had sugar, it had chocolate. We had to do it in two weeks. It's just, it's crazy because you think, "Eh, two weeks," but not when you work with food elements. The food elements don't work or react the same way that a piece of wood would work. There's a lot of things that can happen. I would say that has been the most crazy and challenging project so far.

All episodes of FOODTASTIC are now streaming on Disney+.