'Top Chef' Stars Talk Reality Show Psych Evaluations, "Cheftestant" Secrets

Michael Voltaggio and Magical Elves' Dan Cutforth joined the L.A. Food Bowl panel, where the chefs revealed questions they had to answer to make the cut for the Bravo competition: "Did you ever want to light a cat on fire?"

Among a trove of secrets spilled Friday night in Beverly Hills at a panel discussion featuring former competitors and a producer of Top Chef, the most fascinating was the existence of a grueling psychiatric test that potential “cheftestants” on the Bravo series undergo.

Questions posed by psychiatrists — in an attempt to weed out people who might prove unstable under pressure — include, “Did you ever want to light a cat on fire?”

Luckily, none of the participants on the panel hosted by Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold reported answering yes. Held at the Paley Center for Media as part of the 2018 Food Bowl, a monthlong series of city-wide feasts, food-focused conversations and markets, the panel featured notable winners and almost-winners of Top Chef, including chefs Michael Voltaggio, Brooke Williamson, Bruce Kalman and Marcel Vigneron, along with Dan Cutforth from series producer Magical Elves. 

At one point in the wide-ranging conversation, Cutforth threw shade on a competing food competition, Hell’s Kitchen, saying it is hardly a serious culinary enterprise.

“Our friends make that show and they consider it a comedy show,” Cutforth said. “Seriously, I’ve heard them say it.”

When talk turned to why Top Chef doesn’t have as many lingering “food porn” shots of beautifully finished dishes as programming like Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Cutforth said the show tries to focus more on story and personalities than shining shrimp. But Voltaggio spilled another secret, saying that Top Chef does make an effort at producing camera-ready plates.

“We make one extra dish for each competition,” said Voltaggio, the winner of the show’s sixth season. “It’s the one that’s going to be shot, not eaten. We don’t worry about making it taste good.”

Vigneron, a finalist from season 2, became well known to viewers for trying to include food foam in seemingly every one of his dishes. It made him so famous that even when he was not the featured chef at the renowned Jose Andres restaurant Bazaar in its early years in Los Angeles, patrons would ignore Andres and demand photos with Vigneron. This led Voltaggio, who had not yet been on Top Chef and was also working for Andres, to gripe. During the panel talk, Vigneron recalled replying, “Michael, just go on the show and you’ll have this too!”

“No,” Voltaggio replied at the time. “I’m like a real chef. I don’t need that TV show.”

Vigneron won the argument with his comeback about the power of Top Chef to put a chef on the map. “I said, ‘Michael, do you want to work for Jose, or do you want to be Jose?’” 

Putting potential participants on unscripted television through psychiatric tests is a prudent and common practice (although fans of UnReal might conclude the tests are designed to toss out sane people and keep only the most volatile personalities). 

In the case of Top Chef, the psychiatric test is what got Vigneron on the show. When casting for season 2, Cutforth said he had initially passed on casting Vigneron because he looked too much like another contestant. But when one chef failed the psych evaluation four days before shooting was to begin, Vigneron was brought on in his place. 

And given the same test.

“They stick you in a room with a psychiatrist for two hours,” Williamson recalled. “It’s awful. I cried because that’s what I do, and I failed my first test!” Eventually she made it to the show and won season 14.

“They ask you things,” Vigneron recalled, “like ‘Do you see things other people don’t see?’

I said, ‘Yeah, I have really good vision.’ They said, ‘No! We mean things that aren’t there!’ ‘Well the question didn’t say that!’”

In the end, the show made all of them players in the restaurant business in Los Angeles, where the Food Bowl is showcasing what a powerful food city it has become. Whether it’s a pricey sold-out dinner at the Hotel Bel Air hosted by stalwart Wolfgang Puck or a fried chicken extravaganza in Chinatown where Howlin’ Ray’s Nashville hot chicken sandwiches were the star, the high-low mixture of cuisines and far-flung influences display what makes the food scene special.

At the end of the panel, Williamson said Top Chef has created a community not just among viewers who seek out restaurants run by competitors, but also among the chefs themselves. 

“We’ve all been through something that no one else has,” she said. “Even though we’re really different people and chefs, we share this.”