Randall Park Talks 'Top Chef' Guest Judge Spot and Cooking in Quarantine

Top Chef - Publicity still 2- H 2020
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

The current all-star edition of Bravo's Top Chef has tapped two very different stars for guest judge spots: Always Be My Maybe stars and writers Randall Park and Ali Wong.

Park and Wong will appear in this week's episode as guest judges during the quickfire challenge, which tasks the full cast of returning "cheftestants" (including former runners-up Bryan Voltaggio and Gregory Gourdet) with inventing their own spin on fried rice. The catch: Park and Wong have selected a wild assortment of ingredients for the chefs — see: peanut butter, frog legs and licorice — that they must use at least in part. The winner of the challenge? No spoilers, but according to what Park tells The Hollywood Reporter, "I do remember that there was very little debate about it backstage." In short, expect a clear winner for the quickfire ahead.

For Park, few things were clear about Top Chef heading into the guest judge role. While Wong calls out her Top Chef fandom over the course of her appearance in the episode, Park notes that he had never seen an episode prior to taping.

"I didn't really know what to expect," he says. "But one thing that did surprise me was the level of skill of these chefs. Also, I always believed these kind of cooking challenge shows were a little bit shaped in the edit, and maybe the chefs got a little more time to prepare than the audience is led to believe. But I learned that on Top Chef, all the limits placed on these contestants are real. They are very strict about it. And still, they all were able to create some amazing dishes."

Ahead, Park speaks with THR about hopping into the Bravo reality competition series' kitchen, what he's making in his own kitchen amid the global pandemic and what he's binge-watching in quarantine. (This time, spoilers: It's the same thing you're probably watching.)

Walk us through a day in the life of a guest judge on Top Chef, going from station to station and seeing how the sausage gets made — literally in the case of at least one dish.

I had a blast. In part because I was able to do it hanging out with my friend Ali. And [host Padma Lakshmi] was just so kind and gracious throughout it all, making us feel at home. While the chefs were preparing, Ali, Padma and I were literally just hanging out backstage, joking and laughing. And when we came out to test the food, we literally just went down the line, greeting each chef and then tasting their dish, one after the next. For me, it was really hard to be critical, because in truth, I’m not much of a foodie. I pretty much like everything. Only if something is absolutely terrible would I have had a strong negative opinion, but none of it was bad, like at all. Then afterwards, we all went backstage and decided on our top choices. Which again, was difficult for me, because I liked so many of the dishes. 

In the episode, you and Ali Wong talk a bit about your early days getting to know and work with one another, including a fried rice competition back in school…

Ali was a member of a college theater company at UCLA that I had co-founded years before she joined the company. One of the graduates of that company would put on a yearly fried rice competition, and one year, it was held at my apartment in Santa Monica. I believe that’s when Ali and I first met. Because we were all either in college or just out of college, we were all pretty poor, and the dishes usually reflected that, made with things you would find in the cupboard of a college kid. One of our friends submitted a chocolate fried rice dish. Just fried rice with chunks of chocolate in it. It did not win, but I do remember it being not bad. But again, I’m, like, the worst judge.

What were you hoping for from the chefs as they tackled the fried rice challenge, and what was your rationale for throwing basically the kitchen sink at them as special ingredients?

I was just hoping that their dishes would be good and distinct from one another. It would have sucked if all of them came out basically the same. But they really did put their heart and soul into the dishes, and each one really did reflect the personality of each chef. That was pretty cool. And as far as throwing the kitchen sink, it just made it more fun. It kind of reminded me of our old college fried rice competitions, basically just use whatever’s in the cupboard. 

What are you cooking and eating these days during quarantine? 

Like many families, we're doing a lot more cooking at home during the quarantine. When a lot of the supermarkets were packed with frantic buyers, and shelves were being emptied out, I found that it was a different story in our local Korean market. There, it seemed peaceful in contrast: no crazy lines, and pretty much everything was in stock. So, we’ve been making a lot of Korean food at home during the pandemic. Rice dishes, stews, etc.. One of the things I love to make is kimchi, so I made a huge batch. Definitely enough to last us throughout the rest of this quarantine. We’ve also been ordering a fair share of takeout, trying to support our favorite small businesses.

Any advice you have for aspiring cooks during this moment in history, and what advice do you have for consumers who not only want to get inventive with their own cooking but are looking to support the food industry at large?

My only advice would be put more chocolate in your fried rice. I don’t know, I’m not a cook! But I do think people should take a moment to appreciate all the folks in the food industry who continue to work, putting themselves and their families at risk, so that we can all eat. These are people that we really take for granted most of the time, but right now, they are real heroes. 

Top Chef fans are looking at the show as a source of comfort during this crazy time. What are you tuning into for your own comfort viewing?

Like most humans, I just finished watching Tiger King on Netflix. That was wild. Also, I’ve been watching a bunch of movies with my 7-year-old daughter. Mostly Disney stuff. We just finished watching Cinderella, the original animated version from 1950. It was actually my first time seeing it. I thought the animation was just so beautiful. And that wicked stepmother scared the hell out of me. Also, who the hell would ever wear a glass slipper? So uncomfortable. 

Watch a clip from Randall's Top Chef appearance below:

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.