For not being a chef, Top Secret Recipe star Todd Wilbur spends countless hours in his kitchen and lab truck, where he deconstructs the ingredients of America's favorite dishes.
"I'm not formally trained in cooking. I just had to learn along the way for each recipe that I was making," he said during a recent visit to CMT. "I would research that particular kind of thing, and then I just knew how to make that. And it all added up."
So far, he's found success with KFC's Original Fried Chicken, Cinnabon's cinnamon rolls and Outback Steakhouse's Bloomin' Onion. He's also conquered Domino's Pizza, Dippin' Dots and Mrs. Fields' chocolate chip cookies. Plus, he's taken on the casual dining chains with attempts at Chili's baby back ribs and, for the season finale, P.F. Chang's chicken lettuce cups.
In this interview, Wilbur talks about the response from famous restaurants, the tools every home cook needs and his first professional job, which had nothing to do with making dinner.
Editor's Note: The season finale of Top Secret Recipe airs Thursday (Dec. 1) at 9 p.m., ET/PT.
CMT: What do the companies who you're cloning think about what you're doing?
Wilbur: So far nobody hates me, I don't think.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? I think they recognize that just because you can make this stuff at home doesn't mean you'll never go through the drive-through at KFC, or call up Domino's for delivery. It's just some fun stuff you can make at home when you feel like cooking. But it's not going to hurt their business. Actually they like the chatter. They like that we're out there talking about their companies and that's why they're willing to do the show.
Do you have a favorite recipe that you've been able to clone?
I always have new favorites as I go along. I just cloned the Starbucks cake pops, and that's my latest favorite -- the Starbucks Birthday Cake Pop.
Where can people get that recipe? Is that in a book yet?
Ahh, we haven't unveiled that one yet.
Your website has a video of a 2-year-old making cheesecake. What's the best way to get children involved in cooking?
Make something easy, like Rice Krispies squares, something like that. Also, keep them away from fire and knives. I would advise that.
Do you think cooking is good for kids to get into?
For sure! It's good for them. They love it because they get to do something that they get to enjoy later -- eat. But the hard part, though, is to keep them from eating it along the way as you go. It's like, "Stop eating the batter!"
For people that are cooking at home, what are the most essential cooking gadgets that you think everyone should have?
You know, the basics. My recipes aren't complicated, so just your basic stuff. No special equipment required. If you're trying to figure out how to make stuff, the fine mesh strainer where you wash sauces through there is great. You can wash sauces through there and see what chunks are in it. I use that all the time. I use a microwave a lot. That's important. Have that. But get good stuff. Measuring cups are usually not accurate. They're rarely ever right. The kinds that have the measures painted on them, those are never accurate. Don't get those.
What do you use?
Get OXO, the kind with the black handle. ... Those are accurate. You have to get stuff that's accurate. This is not an exact science, but you need all the help you can get to make this. People are going to get different kinds of ingredients from different parts of the country. Hellmann's tastes a little bit different than Best Foods' mayonnaise even though it's the same exact company. And follow instructions. That's the advice. Read the whole recipe through before you cook it, so you know where you're going. And then don't veer. If you want it to taste like the real thing, don't veer, unless you're trying to make something healthier.
What other jobs did you do before you got into all this?
Oh man. I've done a lot of stuff. Well, TV news anchor. I started at an NBC affiliate in Yuma, Ariz. That was the first thing I ever did in front of a camera, as an anchor and reporter making a whopping $12,000 a year. It was terrible. How did I even do that? And then went to Allentown, Pa., as a reporter at a whopping $19,000 a year.
And I thought up this idea about this book. I knew it was going to hit. I just had this feeling. I'd already sent it out to a bunch of publishers and it got rejected. That's when I did the news thing, but I knew someone was going to pick it up. So I quit my job in a leap of faith. On my apartment floor, I collated 30 manuscripts and sent them out, this time to 30 publishers, and got five offers. I took the best one, from Penguin, who had this guy named Stephen King. So I thought they were pretty good.
Then I ended up on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. [Penguin] only printed 10,000 copies and they couldn't keep up. That led to the Today show and a big spread in USA Today, and they couldn't even print them fast enough.
How many are you at now?
I'm at 4.3 million. It's a good thing I quit the news, right?