'Top Chef's' Players Reveal Its Recipe for Success
This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Seven years after debuting as the network's dining-world offshoot of Project Runway, the series — its current cycle is set in New Orleans — will mark its 150th-episode milestone Oct. 30 with a guest-judging appearance by Glee's Lea Michele, a fan of the show. THR gathered Top Chef's stars and behind-the-scenes czars to dish about igniting the show's initial spark — and the challenge of maintaining its fire.
FIGURING OUT THE INGREDIENTS
Andy Cohen, Bravo executive vp development and talent: After Queer Eye for the Straight Guy hit big, we ended up developing in its five spaces: food, fashion, pop culture, beauty and design. We were looking to do for food what we had done for fashion with Project Runway.
Frances Berwick, Bravo president: We wanted to look at food with that same very sophisticated audience.
Gail Simmons, judge: At the time, it was a foreign concept. The only other competition show was Iron Chef, which was a very different format.
Dan Cutforth, Magical Elves executive producer: [Magical Elves co-EP] Jane Lipsitz and I got a call from Bravo — "Were we interested in doing a food competition?" We started talking about the culture of chefs. They work during the time when everyone else is having the best times of their lives. We realized that there's a lot of competition and camaraderie, a friendly rivalry.
Cohen: I remember when we started shooting. I was so surprised by how dramatic chefs were and how much they drank.
Padma Lakshmi, host: I had pitched another food show to [NBCUniversal executive vp] Lauren Zalaznick at the time, and she thought it was a little too highbrow for the network. But she said they were interested in getting into the food space, like MasterChef, which at the time was British and hadn't been taken over by Gordon Ramsay. I'd seen it and was interested.
Cohen: The big problem we thought we would face is that the viewers at home couldn't taste the food. That was why we needed judges like Tom Colicchio [chef-owner of the Craft restaurant franchise] who were credible so that the viewers would believe what they said. He was an unlikely choice — he wasn't flashy. He was straightforward and clear but had a nice demeanor.
Tom Colicchio, head judge: My first response was, "Absolutely not." I saw the format, and I liked it, but I was still gun-shy because there were other reality food shows early on that didn't work. But I thought if we could do it without pandering and show what chefs really go through, then I was all in.
Lakshmi: There's a whole network that does nothing but this. We had to disrupt the market in a real way.
Colicchio: This was an industry I had been in for 25 years, and I didn't want the industry to laugh at it and think it was a joke. I couldn't have it. After the first season, I had chefs like Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud wanting to guest-judge. It was that quick.
THE SERIES' AUTHENTIC FLAVOR EMERGES
Berwick: At the start, we didn't have contestants prepare food both for the cameras and the judges. Now we do.
Simmons: The food had to be hot. No shellacked turkeys or ice cream really made out of lard. Most important was the issue of time and temperature. You really did have an hour to make it if we said so, and that food was brought out hot for it to be judged, even with the complicated technical challenges of lighting and sound on a set.
Cutforth: Most competitions don't do that because it's difficult, a drag. But that absolutely came from Tom. It had to go hot to the judges' table.
Emeril Lagasse, judge: We bitch like hell if there's a dilemma. We don't want the presentation to wilt, for the food to get cold. Tom's a stickler. He doesn't put up with that. He has carved out this road of food being as perfect as it can be.
Simmons: Tom would get very grouchy.
Hugh Acheson, judge: It gives good insight into the pressure of a real kitchen. It shows that in true life, chefs go, "Oh, yeah, that's happened to me, too." It's the first show that documented our industry in that way.
OTHERS COPY THE RECIPE
Cohen: The big legacy of Top Chef is how beautiful Magical Elves made it look, stylistically. It was a food show that blew everything out of the water on other networks. If you look at the Food Network pre- and post-Top Chef, it's totally different.
Colicchio: The production value of what we do is far and away above anything on the Food Network. Nothing looked good there. The sets were bad.
Cohen: I think Chopped borrows a lot editorially from Top Chef.
SELECTING THE CHEF-TESTANTS
Cutforth: Initially, we thought, "Maybe home cooks could compete too."
Berwick: The big difference is that, in season one, you have a couple of rookies who wouldn't have made the cut anymore because the standard of competition is so high. That's become the standard of the show: people who have skill and can think on the fly. Your brain has to move incredibly fast for some of these challenges.
Simmons: These are chefs who are at the top of their game.
Cohen: Getting really talented chefs is so crucial. Our viewers can tell, and they care. And [if we don't], it irritates Tom, and I never want to irritate him.
Lakshmi: It's not Top Cook. "Chef" means to command a kitchen.
Berwick: We aren't casting for a villain or a princess. We are casting for really good chefs with colorful personalities who first and foremost are talented.
Cutforth: It is a challenge, then again at the end of casting, we're fighting about who we don't want to leave out.
WHAT'S WORKED, WHAT HASN'T
Berwick: We got some feedback that we weren't testing the right skills when we went to Whistler and had people skiing and shooting [to obtain ingredients needed to make their food].
Cohen: I can't believe we just started doing it 11 seasons in, but we now have a monitor in the stew room, so you can see them reacting to what the judges are saying, usually in horror and shock. It's a fun and different overlay.
Berwick: When you get to 150 episodes, you use the location to drive the challenges. In Seattle, you use the produce, as opposed to being out on the Louisiana bayou with alligators. It helps us evolve the show.
CHEFS WATCH IT
Cohen: I was eating in the private dining room at Babbo at a birthday for Natasha Richardson. This was maybe season three, and Mario Batali knew everything about the show. He was speaking as a fan. I knew then that this was huge. Not to mention the parodies on Saturday Night Live.
Acheson: In the industry, we'd try to race home and watch it.
Cohen: The ratings on re-airs at 2 a.m.: The number just pops. It's because the kitchens are letting out. Every chef I ever meet says they watch the show.
PLACE IN THE FOODIE ZEITGEIST
Cutforth: There's been a boom in fine dining in the U.S. that's coincided with the rise of Top Chef, so that's helped. Also, Top Chef is the gold standard if you're trying to make a name for yourself in and out of the kitchen. If you do well here, you're on TV for 17 straight weeks, so you have the chance to plant yourself in the popular consciousness.
Colicchio: My theory is that everyone woke up from the cocaine haze of the 1980s and decided to entertain themselves at restaurants. So everyone started collecting the gizmos and knives and chefs, who became part of the conversation. The ones on TV just became the inflection point.
Lakshmi: I realized it had really saturated American culture when tweens started coming up to me: "Me and my sister did a QuickFire competition for my mom for Mother's Day, and she had to pick the best one!" Or girls having an amuse-bouche at their slumber party.
Colicchio: It went from becoming part of the foodie culture to part of the pop culture.