'Top Chef' Grows Bigger Than 'Texas' With Season 9 Finale

11:43 AM PST 02/16/2012 by Leslie Bruce
Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

THR goes on set for the final three episodes of the Emmy-winning competition's ninth cycle, as the franchise prepares to launch a third spinoff and continues to boost Bravo profits.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It sounds like the beginning of a classic joke, slightly tweaked: An Indian beauty queen, three chefs and a reality TV crew are stuck on a glacier with an ice pick, a block of frozen food and a ticking clock between them and their next meal.

It's 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 10, and the sun has peeked out for the first time since the Bravo production arrived in Canada to tape the final episodes of Top Chef's ninth cycle. But the daylight is doing very little to raise the 20-degree temperature. Bodies are stuffed like sardines inside a tent atop a 30-foot snowdrift in British Columbia's Whistler Olympic Park, where Chef's "video village" is situated. Hand warmers, fleece blankets and propane-fueled heaters have been provided to warm a baker's dozen of Bravo brass and Magical Elves production execs as they keep an eye on their tentpole franchise. "This may be our coldest day ever on Top Chef," says Dave Serwatka, Bravo's vp current and cross-platform productions, who has been with the series and subsequent spinoffs Top Chef Masters and Top Chef: Just Desserts since the March 2006 debut.

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Padma Lakshmi, 41, the series' host for eight cycles, strides into the tent on stilt-high-heeled snow boots and second-skin-tight ski pants, her long black hair tucked behind a pair of cashmere earmuffs. "I'm wearing seven layers," she volunteers, and on cue, her stylist lists them: an undershirt, a silk top, a silk cashmere top, a turtleneck, a vest, a fur and a jacket. Serwatka offers Lakshmi a bar of chocolate. "Oh, yes!" she says, pointing to her open mouth with leather-gloved fingers like a slender, 5-foot-9 baby penguin.

Meanwhile, outside the tent, the three remaining "chef-testants" are competing in the episode's second challenge: extracting ingredients that have been frozen into ice blocks and cooking them on burners. "We were going to give them 30 minutes to break the ice and prepare a dish," says Magical Elves' Casey Kriley, one of the show's executive producers, "but after testing how long food took to thaw, we upped it to an hour." As she scrutinizes a monitor, Kriley radios a set producer to keep an eye on a contestant (who cannot be identified for spoiler reasons; the three-part finale was set to begin Feb. 15) who is flailing with her pick, gloves on: "We don't need her to injure her hand!"

So why are contestants chopping away at ice on a snowy slope? In the competitive, constructed world of Chef, why not? Having announced a 10th cycle in February, Bravo's series has found success delivering a reliable, if not formulaic, recipe: Pour a layer of suspense over stylized drama, add dollops of quirky personalities, then garnish with ample sprinkles of product placement. These days, Chef averages 2.8 million viewers a week (down from a cycle-five viewership of 3.9 million in 2008) and has spawned two offshoots. Now Bravo is expanding the franchise with another: Life After Chef, a docuseries following popular past contestants. Along the way, NBCUniversal continues to earn big bank -- estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars -- by selling the show's format overseas. With seven international iterations (Canada, Finland, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain and the Middle East), overseas fans are treated to such exotic challenges as the one recently aired on Finland's Top Chef Suomi in which chefs cooked a meal using traditional livestock (the winner was a lamb's-neck dish).

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With Bravo's profits at $300 million for 2011, partially thanks to product placement and shameless merchandising, Chef is as profitable as it is prestigious: Although its ratings trail those of the Real Housewives franchise, it remains the only show ever to beat CBS' The Amazing Race at the Emmys, taking home the 2010 award for reality competition. Says Frances Berwick, president of Bravo and Style Media, "The Emmy put the show on the same playing field as shows like Survivor and American Idol that, frankly, have a much greater critical mass."

Which doesn't mean it's too high and mighty to pimp itself out. Oft-criticized for its arguably too-blatant product placement ("You must now convert your dishes into a soup using a Swanson broth," Lakshmi told contestants during a cycle-five Swanson-sponsored Quickfire challenge), the show also has created a vast world of licensed merchandise. Viewers can purchase anything from a Top Chef ice cream scoop to kitchen knives from places like ShopBravo.com and Sears.

According to Steven Ekstract, group publisher at License! Global magazine, Bravo received 8 percent to 10 percent, totaling well into the millions, on wholesale royalties from all logoed goods sold in 2011. "It's not just an added revenue stream," he says. "It's free advertising." In addition, a product-placement consultant for an L.A.-based entertainment-marketing firm tells THR that sponsors from Quaker Oats to Campbell's pay as much as $1 million to be placed in a show; such longtime sponsors as Toyota and Whole Foods appear in nearly every episode. "The commercial business is dying, so advertisers have to be much smarter about how to reach consumers," says Ekstract. "It's a way for producers to monetize and pay for the show."

Berwick and Bravo executive vp talent and development Andy Cohen admit to the financial benefits of "organic" product placement, but neither sees any reason to hide it. "Our audience is very educated," says Berwick. "We're not trying to pull anything over on them with subliminal messages. If it makes sense, we will show it." Cohen concurs: "It is what it is."

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It also can cause the occasional headache. In October, Magical Elves filed suit against the Texas attorney general for releasing documents that showed the governor's office had agreed to pay the show $400,000 for "the integration of [the state brand] in Bravo's production of Top Chef cycle nine," according to the Dallas Observer. While the fallout from the suit is unclear, it's worth noting that after more than five years in operation, Chef has remained fairly squeaky-clean, especially given the woes of reality television. Minor media skirmishes such as cycle two's runner-up Marcel Vigneron's 2008 drunken-driving arrest or, more recently, cycle nine contestant Ty-Lor Boring's nude photos for male art magazine Headmaster have posed little threat to partnerships or ratings.

Beyond its validation of alternate revenue generation, Chef has revolutionized a once-sleepy genre: food television. Although it wasn't the first food reality show (Food Network's Iron Chef America bowed a year earlier in 2005), Chef has spawned an explosion of imitators. Today, there are countless food shows, from TLC's Ultimate Cake Off to Travel Channel's Man v. Food. Still, in Chef  's favor, some of the culinary world's most elite members -- chefs like Eric Ripert of New York's Le Bernardin and Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco and Las Vegas -- have made the show a favored destination for guest appearances. Alumni contestant restaurants from cycle-one winner Harold Dieterle's Kin Shop (a New York Thai eatery) to cycle-four winner Stephanie Izard's Chicago spot Girl & the Goat (just try to get a weekend reservation) have become well-regarded places to dine. "We initially were scared to death of becoming a laughingstock," recalls judge Gail Simmons. "But the food industry really embraced the show and saw it as a great vehicle for their brand. Some even ask to come on the show."

Susan Feniger of Santa Monica's Border Grill agrees. "The show has had a really positive effect for the industry. It's created a food culture," she says. Seconds her longtime collaborator Mary Sue Milliken, "The series has the credibility because it features the best in the industry."

Perhaps because of the show's financial success, "Top Chef is always stretching the boundaries in a way no one else does," says Magical Elves' Dan Cutforth, an executive producer, referring to one of the cycle's final contests, in which the chefs compete against one another in an Olympic-style biathlon to win more ingredients. (The concept is an example of NBCU's synergy between Chef and the Olympics, though the Summer Games will air next on NBC in July and August.) "The chefs walked up in this snowy park to the front of this beautiful ice sculpture in Whistler, and [judge Tom] Colicchio said, 'You can bet they don't do this shit on [Food Network's] Chopped.' "

Of course, like all good dishes, Chef began with basic ingredients. Sprung from one of the five core cylinders established by the network's original series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (food, fashion, design, beauty and pop culture), the show has come to embody the exploitation of the habits and obsessions of the bourgeois that began with Bravo's 2004 rebranding. Seeing the success of the network's fashion competition series Project Runway, Lauren Zalaznick, chairman of NBCU entertainment and digital networks and integrated media, enlisted Magical Elves to do for food what Runway was doing for fashion. Berwick remembers there being reservations about producing a food competition show. "It felt like we were moving into an arena that was completely untapped," she recalls.

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Given their marching orders, Cutforth and Elves producing partner Jane Lipsitz began exploring food culture and testing how it could translate into interesting TV, but not without a hiccup or two. "During the first season, a chef told me that the crew was holding up the food in order to shoot it," says judge Tom Colicchio. "I went back to the producers and said, 'These chefs are working their butts off; you can't serve us their dishes cold.' " The problem was quickly remedied, says Cutforth, who credits the glitch with the birth of "food porn" (each contestant is required to plate an additional dish for production to shoot, so as not to compromise the integrity of the competition).

"Top Chef swung the door open to the kitchen for a mass audience," says Simmons. "It's a food show, but it's a television show first. It needs to be entertaining -- balance the drama and tension, but also be a fantasy. It's all of the deliciousness without any of the calories."

Riding a wave of pre-crash financial excess, where surplus income went hand-in-hand with restaurant dining and foodie culture, the producers have in post-crash years modified some of their choices to fit Olive Garden budgets by integrating such food products as Healthy Choice and Campbell's soup to suggest that good food doesn't have to be pricey.

The audience has stuck, and the formula is so successful that Bravo keeps cloning it. After Chef hit its stride with more than 3 million viewers in March 2008, the network created the franchise's first extension, Top Chef Masters, which has aired three seasons and recently averaged 1.7 million viewers (up 7 percent from the previous season). Expanding the portfolio further, Top Chef: Just Desserts debuted in September 2010, adding 1.5 million viewers to the Chef-verse. Web series Last Chance Kitchen was simultaneously shot alongside Chef this cycle to bring eliminated contestant and fan bete noire Beverly Kim back to the finale. Given its popularity, Cutforth says it will be shot again during the next cycle. And Life After Chef will premiere this year, following four of the show's most popular contestants -- Jennifer Carroll, Fabio Viviani, Spike Mendelsohn and cycle-eight winner Richard Blais -- in their professional and personal lives post-Chef. Unlike the mothership, this show adheres to a traditional serial reality format.

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Back in Olympic Park, only one chef-testant can win, and all that stands between the remaining two competitors and the Top Chef title is that very non-kitchen biathlon: cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The grand prize is $125,000, a Food & Wine magazine feature, a showcase at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and the kind of national exposure that can cinch restaurant success. ("Bryan Voltaggio's Volt was on the brink of closing," says Colicchio of the cycle-six runner-up's Frederick, Md., eatery. "Now, you can't even get a reservation.") After completing two ski laps, the chefs each receive five bullets to fire at ingredient markers on the range. If they miss or want more products, they must do another two laps. But as darkness creeps across "video village" and the level of athletic skill causes the segment to lag, Cutforth increases the bullet count. "Give them 10 shots each," he orders. "We don't have enough time for them to do another lap." The tension builds: Will the producers have to reimagine the challenge to make for better viewing? (Challenges sometimes are scrapped altogether because they too closely mirror those of previous cycles. "It's becoming more and more difficult to come up with new stuff," says Kriley. "Fortunately, we have a lot of talented people who can come up with genius ideas out of nowhere.")

Not to worry: As the chefs begin their descent to the shooting range, one contestant loses her balance and, arms flailing, hooks her ski pole on the other chef's ski. Within seconds, both are in the snow -- one face up, the other face down. A roar of laughter erupts from the production tent, followed instantly by a debate as to whether the first contestant meant to trip the other. The general consensus: No, but it sure does make for fun television.

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