How do they make KFC chicken so deliciously crispy? What is in that Domino’s flavored crust? Ever wonder how to make your favorite chain’s prized menu options?
Todd Wilbur, host of CMT’s Top Secret Recipe , just so happens to specialize in cracking the codes to those recipes. In this interview, he explains where he discovers the secret ingredients, how his career got started with cookies and why pizza crusts are so tricky.
CMT: What is this show about?
Wilbur: I am trying to recreate an iconic American dish in a very short amount of time. I’m pretty much doing an impossible thing. Then it’s going to be judged by a panel of three people, compared next to the real thing — head-to-head with the real dish — in a blind taste test so they don’t know which is which. They’re going to try to figure out which is the real whatever-it-is: KFC, Domino’s Pizza, Dipping Dots. And there are stakes. If I win, something happens. If I lose, something happens.
So there are stakes involved?
Yes, there are stakes. I have this very short amount of time to do the impossible. So I need to get information to help me do that. And I’ll get information in various ways: talking to a food scientist, maybe somehow finagling my way into a warehouse that provides a certain special ingredient that’s otherwise impossible to get, maybe getting into an R&D [research and development] lab. They might show me how to make a cinnamon roll, and while I’m in there, maybe I have the chance to swipe a little dough. (laughs) So there’s a little stealing, a little swiping.
Whatever it takes?
Whatever it takes … that isn’t illegal. So that’s the show. Just trying to figure out these recipes any way I can in that short amount of time and hopefully fooling somebody.
Do you think this is something that the normal person can do? If there’s something you really like, how hard is it?
You mean to figure out the recipe? I don’t think so. It took me a long amount of time to get to this point — 23 years. I think that’s when I first wrote the first book 23 years ago, and it was published 18 years ago. I’ve learned a lot of tricks along the way, so I doubt that anyone could just go in and do it. But when I figure out the recipe, the final recipe, I make the recipes really easy. So those recipes, anyone could make. But to figure this out, I think it takes certain special skills and tricks and the ability to lie and steal.
So it’s easier to just buy the book?
Yeah. For sure. (laughs)
How did you get started on all this?
In the late ’80s, there was a chain letter about a Mrs. Fields cookie — it’s also been called the Neiman-Marcus cookie — with that bogus story on it — that someone bought the recipe, and they thought it would be $2.50, they’re charged $250. So she’s overcharged. She makes this chain letter. It spreads around the country. I saw that happening, and I saw how people loved secret recipes. I decided to make that recipe better. It was a terrible recipe. I had to tweak that. And that was my first recipe I figured out how to clone. So I just started making batch after batch of cookies and finally got a really good clone. I had a good time doing that. It’s like a game, like a puzzle. So that led to the Big Mac and then some candy bars and Cracker Jacks and Orange Julius and KFC. And that became the first book, which ended up being published in 1993, and then nine more books after that.
Do you think you have special taste buds to figure out what’s in a recipe?
Taste is only a part of it. Everyone’s taste buds are different, too, so taste is really only part of it. You have to be able to feel the food or a sauce, whatever it is, to see how viscous it is or oily or greasy. I love doing this — take a pancake, your version and the real one — and then squeeze it until the fat pools at the top. You can see if you have enough fat in yours, or too much. That’s the squeeze test. I think I invented that. You can do that with muffins or whatever.
So you feel stuff, you look at it, you hold it up to a light, put it in a glass bowl and hold that up to the light or smear it on a white plate, and you can see what little specks are in there. Magnifying glasses, microscopes — we’re going to use those on the show.
Has there been a recipe that’s more challenging than others?
Yeah, Pizza Hut’s pan pizza. Off and on over 10 years, I worked on that one. Finally put that in the last book.
You wouldn’t think a pizza recipe would be that challenging.
It’s just that baking is so hard. You’ll see that in the Domino’s show [of Top Secret Recipe], just getting the dough right. Dough is only six ingredients, but there’s an infinite number of ways to measure those ingredients out — or rise it, proof it, cook it. It’s just very, very hard to get it just right.
Do you have people saying, “Hey, can you figure out this one for me?”
I get that all the time. That’s what’s great about this concept of the show. Everyone’s got something that they always think, “Oh, I’d love to know how to make this thing.” Then they’re going to think back to me — and to the show. It’s going to be great!