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Ten years ago, Bravo introduced a different flavor into the culinary-competition-show landscape. Top Chef eschewed the usual pageantry, shiny personalities and screaming drama already seen on the likes of Iron Chef or Hell’s Kitchen.
Instead, Top Chef‘s passionate, tattooed warriors presented a gritty and grounded view of what makes our favorite restaurants tick. These so-called cheftestants were on the front lines of making precise, artful cookery, but the best part was the potential to actually create these imaginative dishes in real life. By virtue of demonstrating their prowess on TV, an overwhelming number of Top Chef alums — and not just the winners — have gone on to have hugely successful careers at top restaurants.
“We’re bringing real chefs who then go on to open restaurants that do really well,” chef, series judge and executive producer Tom Colicchio tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Multiple restaurants and multiple James Beard Award winners, Food & Wine best new restaurant and best new chef winners, there are Michelin-star restaurants: They’re serious chefs. It’s not about some personality, it’s not about who can be the most outrageous; it’s about who has the most talent.”
Even among the newest slew of pro cook-off shows such as Knife Fight (from Top Chef season-two winner Ilan Hall), Cooked and Cutthroat Kitchen, it’s Top Chef that is the gold standard. It draws award-winning chefs as guests, has inspired several spinoffs (Just Desserts, Masters, Duels) and even has won a much-coveted Emmy.
Colicchio spoke with THR about how Top Chef has evolved, the season 13 finale on Thursday and why neither he nor fans are ready for the show to pack its knives and go anytime soon.
Can you think back to when this started and what attracted you to doing Top Chef?
I’m sure I said “no” about three times, and then I finally agreed to do it. I got a sense that they weren’t doing a show that was sensationalized and that it was about actual talent. The other reason that I agreed to do the show was that, from the very beginning, the producers said that they would have no input on who wins. We weren’t going to be a bunch of pawns, and they weren’t going to make decisions based on ratings or personality.
What is Top Chef‘s biggest incentive for these chefs?
It gives them instant marketability. They get pretty deep into the competition, so when they’re looking to raise money, it just becomes easier. But also, if you look at the amount of chefs, if you look at any reality TV show, and if you compare those and what they’ve gone on to do in their field, whatever they’re competing in, there’s no track record like Top Chef.
Now that MasterChef Junior is doing so well, do you think the Top Chef Junior idea will ever be revisited?
A long time ago, before MasterChef Junior was on, we had kicked the idea around because there are so many kids who we meet when we’re out who love the show. But now I’m not sure. We have a different budget from network TV, and kids on set can only work six hours at a time, they have to have tutors. We shoot five weeks, six weeks and we’re done. Also, every [adult] chef who comes on the show, if they get halfway through it, they’re all beat, and they start to talk about how tired they are, about how grueling it is.
What did you initially think about the concept for the web series Last Chance Kitchen, which allows eliminated chefs a chance to return to Top Chef?
I loved the idea from the beginning. What I think it really does is — I think some of the chefs may really take risks because they know they have a safety valve. I think back to [season 10 winner] Kristen Kish. She stood there, and even though someone else was responsible [for a mistake], she said, “Nope, I’m not going to go there. I’ll take responsibility, and I’ll go down.” I think chefs can take a risk. Also because it’s less produced, you get a good sense of the chefs when they’re on Last Chance Kitchen. They’re a little lighter, they’re having fun.
Season six with the Voltaggio brothers was one of the most iconic and entertaining. Do you have a favorite season?
Yes, that Las Vegas season. That was the deepest pool of chefs that we had, meaning that we had eight that could win. They have an edge, they do things differently, they look at food differently, they’re very quick. … But as far as the competition, I think the current season is my favorite. You’re seeing chefs enjoy the game, you see the love of cooking. It’s almost like a new breakout season for us.
Are there standout dishes that stick with you, either good or bad?
As far as the good, [season-nine winner] Paul Qui did a very simple dish of vegetables. There were some artichokes and leeks with a simple dashi. It was stunning. There were only two dishes that I spit out. One was caught on camera. We were in the desert in Las Vegas, and it was about 110 degrees. We were served more-than-room-temperature raw fish. It was pretty gross. There was another one that didn’t get caught on camera. It was a clam, and it was kind of warm, as well, with lychee, and something about it just made that gag reflex go off. (Laughs.) We don’t get a lot of bad dishes.
It seems like the level of competition draws a lot of celebrities to this show. What have some of them said to you?
Liev Schreiber said to me, “I love the show. One reason I watch it is the process by watching someone get an idea and instantly put it into practice and onto a plate is fascinating.” That was a great compliment, it was a great compliment to the chefs.
Can you discuss the reasons why you cooked for the finalists on Thursday’s Top Chef?
The moment wasn’t about me cooking so much. It was about the chefs eating a meal because when they’re sitting there eating, they start talking about food, they start thinking about what they’re going to do, they start thinking about what’s in front of them.
How would you assess this season’s finalists: Jeremy Ford and Amar Santana?
If someone actually spends some time working under a world-class chef, I know they’re well-trained. Jeremy works for Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Amar worked under Charlie Palmer and Gerry Hayden. A chef like Charlie Palmer is bold with strong flavors and more of an American sensibility, whereas Jean-Georges, his flavors are very light, very complex and has much more of a European sensibility. So I would expect that each chef probably has very similar styles to their mentors.
How much more life is in Top Chef?
After this season, I think we’ve still got a few more years left. The one thing I love is that it’s not formula, where we’ve done the same thing from day one. Every season, there’s always something different that we’re doing. For example, the format at the Judges’ Table is different, having the chefs out there now when we’re deliberating and critiquing. … So I think, as long as we put that effort in there and it remains fun, we’ll have a good five years more for our run. I can see us getting to Top Chef 20.
The finale of Top Chef season 13 airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on Bravo.
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