Seth Caro, the famously volatile Top Chef Just Desserts contestant who dropped out of season one back in 2010 after suffering an anxiety attack during filming, says there was more to his departure from the show than a meltdown over having to use Breyer's ice cream instead of making his own. He told the New York Post that the show's producers put him through what amounts to psychological torture:
"The first few days in, I'm thinking, 'Is this fun, or is this a cruel experiment?' " Contestants, he says, average two hours of sleep a night, are fed at the whims of production, and can't talk to each other during breaks in filming— and those breaks can last six hours.
That treatment, Caro says, eventually led to a breakdown during an episode of the show. In a scene not shown on camera, he demanded his phone and wallet—which are confiscated from contestants when they start filming—and demanded to leave.
Here's how it played out on Just Desserts:
"I was physically prevented from [leaving]," he told the Post. "This producer had three cameras shoved two feet from my face. I literally slumped down in the corner and started crying."
After being removed from the "Stew Room," Caro had a panic attack and had to be tended by EMTs. A clip of them telling him to slow down his breathing made it to air, but his conversation with the producers didn't:
"They said, 'Will you film one final challenge?' I said no. 'Will you go on camera and say your goodbyes?' 'No.' 'Will you do a final on-camera interview?' 'No — I want to go home and never be on camera again.' "
Neither did the shocking treatment he says came afterward:
After production put him in a van, Caro says, he spotted a cameraman hiding in the trees. He jumped out of the van and was tackled by show security. "They took me back to the hotel — I was never arrested — and then they took me to a mental hospital, where I was put on a 5150 [involuntary psych hold] for three days. I was in my chef's jacket and socks. I didn't have my phone. No one from the network or the show came to see me."
Caro says his life was ruined by Just Desserts, and he's been unable to find work in the industry since leaving the show. He's working on changing his name so future employers and dates can't Google the unhinged TV version of him.
It's not just Top Chef, either. The Post talked to contestants on Hell's Kitchen who also felt the producers were psychologically manipulating them to make more exciting TV.
"I didn't get my period for six weeks after I left," said Jen Yemola, who competed in Hell's Kitchen 3. "My doctor said it was stress. I became borderline suicidal after the show — certain things about it made me feel poorly about myself."
As with Caro's Top Chef experience, Yemola says Hell's Kitchen's producers limited how much the cast could eat and sleep, and provided no emotional support during an intentionally stressful competition.
She'd do it again, though, for the same reason any reality star signs up for these inhumane ordeals: "Any exposure is good exposure."