April 17, 2013 11:36am PT by Michael O'Connell
THR's 'Top Chef' Cruise Diary: Culinary Rock Stars Take to the Open Seas
Late last week, over various swathes of the Caribbean, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, 15 former cheftestants and a sold-out crowd of just under 2,000 sea-faring foodies lived out what may have been one of the most edible and immersive fan events in reality TV history, Top Chef: the Cruise.
Voluntarily captive on the Celebrity Constellation for four days, passengers schmoozed with past winners and favorites, watched live Quickfires and Q&As put together by series producers Magical Elves, participated in traditional cruise-type activities with a Top Chef twist and ate (and ate and ate) to their hearts' content – and likely to their hearts' dismay as well.
The Hollywood Reporter was part of a group of journalists invited to stow away on the boat, which dropped by Key West and Cozumel in between the various cheftivities, and document the official programming and the equally entertaining antics that inevitably go down when that many celebrity chefs are set adrift with fans willing to shell out between $749 and $5,999.
Here's just a little insight into what happened on the beloved Bravo show's maiden voyage:
1:45 p.m. -- After being forced to pose for what will be the first of many photos, I’m handed a glass of complimentary champagne... the last booze that won’t chip away at my imaginary child’s college fund for the rest of the week. The reception hall is lined with dozens of cardboard cutouts of participating chefs -- Malibu Chris! Brooke Williamson! That guy from Just Desserts! -- all leading to an imperial banner of larger-than-life Gail and Tom. This isn’t a Top Chef cruise. This is Top Chef: the Cruise.
2:20 p.m. -- Fellow cruisers are not kidding around. The ship is still two hours shy of pulling out of port and guests are already clamoring for photos with the chefs. Las Vegas' Mike Isabella and D.C.'s Angelo Sosa get roped into a unending line of photo ops. All-Stars winner Richard Blais, thus far avoiding the fray, dresses a burger for a small tyke at the main deck grill. Cheftestants, they're just like us.
3:10 p.m. -- It's the first sighting of non-cardboard Gail and Tom. They chat up the ship’s executive chef about the menu he has planned for the long weekend, an expected exchange that is somehow made ridiculously exciting by the fact that it's taking place on a boat.
4:05 p.m. -- My mandatory emergency drill is chef-free. If this ship goes down, my boring lifeboat is going to be full of civilians.
5:15 p.m. -- Gail, putting on her hosting shoes, introduces the cruise’s chef lineup. The recipient for the biggest applause is a toss-up between Richard, Seattle winner Kristen Kish and Fabio Viviani's Italian accent.
7:10 p.m. -- Texas winner and lover of skinny jeans Paul Qui shuns the more secluded dinner tables reserved for the competitors to dine among the people. A quick survey of the room has guests almost unanimously opting for Miami runner-up Casey Thompson’s raw Hamachi appetizer.
9:10 p.m. -- The latest Quickfire challenge is going down in the theater after a small army cleaned and reset the kitchen stage obliterated by the first group. Most everyone has been drinking steadily since the free champagne, and Fabio manages to burn bread in a pan that doesn’t appear to be hot. Mike and Angelo heckle him like The Muppets' Statler and Waldorf from an adjacent balcony.
10:45 p.m. -- People are posing for photos with the cardboard cutouts of the chefs while the actual chefs walk by. A woman laments her inability to Instagram while out to sea.
12:00 a.m. -- Top Chef Master Hubert Keller spins a wicked set of EDM and Top 40 mixes for a glow-stick-twirling crowd that would not look out of place in Coachella's Sahara tent. It supposedly goes on till 3 a.m., but I cannot stay up late enough to confirm.
11:30 a.m. -- Chicago contestant Spike Mendelsohn, whose D.C.-based Good Stuff Eatery soon expands to Philadelphia, is doing the local thing while at port in Key West. He meanders down the street, eating a slice of key lime pie.
2:00 p.m. -- After entertaining a small group with a cooking demonstration, Gail and Tom sit down and discuss the circumstances that led them to host their most hard-core fans at sea for four days. "You have to go into this without any cynicism," Tom tells THR. "It's really great."
3:45 p.m. -- Spike is playing guests in a Ping-Pong tournament. He’s dominating all of them, with the exception of a pregnant woman. You can tell she’s pregnant because we’re only 24 hours into the cruise. This time on Sunday, stomachs will be more ambiguous.
5:30 p.m. -- One particularly sauced lady, even by cruise standards, tells a crowd of ladies that she’s on the new Real Housewives of New York. They pose for a photo with her, and say that if she’s not lying (she is), they’ll be able to sell it to TMZ.
5:50 p.m. -- When asked to clarify her status as a Bravolebrity, the would-be Housewife pulls back and says she’s probably in the background of an upcoming episode of Million Dollar Listing. She falls back into the pool.
7:15 p.m. -- Top Chef New York's scallop-obsessed Jamie Lauren is not on the boat, but her scallops are. And after hearing about them incessantly for five years, they're actually quite delicious.
10 p.m -- The final Quickfire culminates in Casey holding a giant bowl of hand-whipped egg whites over New York winner Hosea Rosenberg's head for five seconds without dripping on him. The firm peaks give her bragging rights for the duration of the voyage.
12:15 a.m. - Celebrity karaoke in the Rendezvous Lounge includes no celebrities, but it is not without its entrainment value. A man passionately screams his way through Biz Markie's "Just A Friend," while the emcee attempts to lighten the situation with odd Wayne's World references. "Schwing?"
10:15 a.m. -- One of the more straightforward programs of the entire cruise, “Jogging With Richard Blais,” entails a group of 20-odd svelte overachievers running laps around the Lido Deck behind the jubilant chef while some less interested cruisers watch while smoking and sipping more cocktails. Richard could be a spokesperson for endorphins.
2:20 p.m. -- Washington D.C. fan favorite Tiffany Derry fields questions about the pea puree incident of season seven during a ceviche demonstration on Cozumel. It cannot be stressed how often that pea puree has come up – or how often it is mis-remembered. Neither alleged puree thief Alex Reznik or wronged puree chef Ed Cotton are on board, but Tiffany was in the kitchen that day. She classily refrains giving a formal opinion on the matter, but it’s clear where her sympathies lay.
7:10 p.m. -- The first round of Top Chef Jeopardy is Slumdog Millionaire’d by a teenage boy named Sam. His parents cry when he’s crowned the ultimate Top Chef fan for his encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise. The ever-stoic Colicchio is also visibly moved.
8:40 p.m. -- Part of the special “Dining in the Dark” meal, the San Marco Restaurant is filled with hundreds of diners wearing padded blindfolds that look like small training bras. Guests and chefs frantically stab at a chicken liver mousse, trying to discern the ingredients without looking at the plate. Almost everyone cheats during the subsequent courses.
10:10 p.m. -- Bravo president Frances Berwick joins a Q&A session with Tom and Gail to elaborate on the origins of "pack your knives and go." A former producer thought of it on the spot while filming the first elimination.
11:20 p.m. -- After teasing that his friend Milton’s band would be playing on the pool deck throughout the day, Renaissance man Colicchio bounds on stage in a Panama hat and straps on a guitar. The female passengers give him a reception fitting the ghost of Davy Jones, which only heightens when he starts shredding and singing. It’s a culinary rock reggae moment for the ages.
12:10 a.m. -- Seattle runner-up Brooke, whose husband graciously stayed back in their cabin to watch their son so the exhausted chef could blow off steam in the casino, promptly loses $500 and retires early in defeat.
1:47 a.m. -- A cruise staffer attempts to describe the ship’s room service menu to Kristen, who is, in turn, trying to convince him to let her into the galley: “No, I’m going to cook.”
Approximately 3 a.m. -- Success. The recently named chef de cuisine at Boston's Menton, having made her way into the galley to make a grilled cheese sandwich, intercepts a room service call from a cruiser. Kristen cooks the order and delivers it to their cabin door.
11:50 a.m. -- Alone in an empty dining room, Kristen is deftly tinkering away on a grand piano for what seems to be her own satisfaction. Presumably, she's slept at some point.
12:40 p.m. -- Teaching a handful of cruisers how to make the Hamachi dish served two nights earlier, Casey praises the ship’s kitchen staff for being overly accommodating… in everything but letting the chefs bring their own knives. Apparently it’s a security risk. (Magical Elves executive producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz tell THR a future cruise will have to include some manner of knife smuggling.)
1:50 p.m. -- Up on the Lido Deck, guests of the good ship Top Chef have not yet exhausted their questions for the show staff, and Colicchio takes a battery of hilarious ones. A woman who used to intern at his restaurant Craft has an inaudible query which starts and ends with, “I’m not trying to offend you.” Another man screams “Texas!” and begs Tom to take his sunglasses off. (It should be noted that this is the trip’s only full day at sea – and things got weird early.)
4:30 p.m. -- Now is probably a good time to note that there is an on-ship network that’s been airing commercial-free episodes of Top Chef continuously since we arrived on board. It's hard not to get sucked in, especially since it offers the only glimpses of an absentee Padma Lakshmi (scheduling conflict) and boat TV does not have The Masters (the golf tournament, not the Top Chef spinoff).
6:50 p.m. -- Paul makes the rounds during an intimate dinner with Bravo types and a few clients. His new Austin restaurant QUI is opening in mid-May, but he says the potential FOMO of missing the cruise far outweighed the stress of temporarily abandoning the preparations.
9 p.m. -- Angelo, who seems to have accrued the largest entourage over the course of the cruise, feeds an oyster to a female dining companion.
11:30 p.m. -- Milton makes a second appearance on the deck, sans Colicchio, while the chefs serve sweet and savory bites. It’s the first time almost all of them have been in one place, feeding the passengers their own recipes. Everything is devoured, though cumulative caloric counts for the weekend are now easily hitting six figures.
12:30 a.m. -- Everyone who can tear themselves away from the casino and hasn’t passed out from overeating makes their way to the atrium – this boat has an atrium! – for one last spin session with DJ Hubert. Casey says she’s trying to convince him to take on the moniker "Fleur DJ." (His Michelin star San Francisco restaurant is called Fleur de Lys… get it?)
7:00 a.m. -- As the ship pulls back into the port of Miami, the Top Chef cruise delivers its only disappointment. Instead of using the perfect opportunity to tell us to pack our knives and go, the cruise director comes over the P.A. to tell us we can have breakfast before disembarking. Maybe just something light...
Email: Michael.OConnell@THR.com; Twitter: @MikeyLikesTV