How 'Top Chef' Remains the Top Culinary Competition on Television 10 Years Later
Ten years deep, Top Chef is still one of the most prestigious cooking competition shows on television – and we’re not being hyperbolic here.
The show continuously brings in the top executive and sous chefs in the country to compete – of course, with some talented line cooks, pastry chefs, and self-taught cooks in the mix as well.
“I remember in our very first season being really nervous, Tom and I talking about what if the industry laughs at us? What is this doesn’t work?” Gail said. “And the exact opposite happened. They saw that we were a show about real restaurant chefs, chefs who do this every day. Because we set that standard…it made the industry take notice.”
Tom told us, “I always said I wanted a show I could be proud of and that my peers want to come on. And I knew right away when I started getting calls from chefs like Daniel Boulud saying, ‘Can I come on?’ That’s when you know you have something.”
To-date, the show has 25 Emmy nominations under its belt with two wins – one for Outstanding Picture Editing For Reality Programming in 2008 and one for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program in 2010, the latter beating out The Amazing Race and ending its seven-year winning streak in the category.
“I don’t think there’s any other competition show out there that can quantify the number of successful contestants,” Gail said. “How people have become household names and opened restaurant empires from coast to coast.”
She’s of course referring to people like Richard Blais, Stephanie Izard, Michael and Bryan Voltaggio, Mike Isabella, Fabio Viviani, and countless more, all of whom have opened successful restaurants across the country.
Not to mention, season five and eight’s Carla Hall is one of the co-hosts on ABC’s The Chew.
“What I like about it is that every season is different. We’re always trying something different, so every season is new,” Tom said. “And for other personal reasons, it’s like going to summer camp. We shoot for about six weeks, tops. For ten years, it’s a lot of the same people on the team…It’s sort of like seeing old friends that you see once a year. It’s a lot of hard work, but we have a lot of fun together afterward – a lot of the team are musicians and I play guitar and sing, so we get together and play.”
But that’s not the only thing that keeps him coming back to judges’ table.
“Knowing you can make a difference in someone’s life…that’s the kind of stuff that you look back on,” Tom told us. “You don’t think about it so much until someone tells you what the show means to them. That’s something you can’t throw away and take for granted. To look back over 10 years and 14 seasons, those are the moments I’ll remember.”
Top Chef premieres TONIGHT, December 1 @ 10/9c on Bravo.
ALSO MUST READ: The judges dish on their favorite seasons, chefs, and more!
Click inside to see the rest of our conversations with the Top Chef judges…
This year, the show is headed to Charleston, South Carolina where the cheftestants will be challenged with Southern cooking.
“Because the show is about food, you really get to see the city through the eyes of the chef,” Gail said. “We really call on the deep cultural touchpoints of that city and the traditions of that city.”
“We are a big production and there’s a lot of moving parts,” she added about what goes into choosing where to shoot. “We work really closely with a lot of people on the ground – the tourism board and the city government – to find the best place to make it work.”
“We’ve been wanting to go to Charleston for a few years,” Gail continued. “Charleston is such an up-and-coming food scene. There are so many talented chefs and great restaurants, considering its size.”
Tom said, “I’ve been a big fan of Charleston…I spent a lot of time down there over the last 15 years and I just love it as a city. There are great restaurants down there. More from a historical and cultural perspective…each city sort of plays its own role in our show. Sometimes shooting in a big city, it doesn’t show as much. But in a smaller city like Charleston, I think the history and sense of place really comes through.”
The show is known for bringing in big guns in the guest judge department – everyone from Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert to Emeril Lagasse, Art Smith, Wolfgang Puck, Joel Robuchon, and the aforementioned Daniel Boulud have all shown up to judge various competitions.
“They come to us, more often that not, because they are fans,” Gail said. “They see what the show has done for the contestants and the guests who have been on it.”
“The first couple seasons, we had some amateur cooks and they really couldn’t hang,” Tom told Just Jared. “They couldn’t think fast enough. Or they weren’t fast enough with the knife. There’s something different about a professional…I was kind of leading the charge on that, if we want to make this different and have more credibility, we need to have pros. So I think that comes through. And people know when they come on [as guest judges], they aren’t going to be made fun of, they are not there to clown around. They are there to give them honest feedback.”
“I’ve been a fan of the show for years and like all other chefs, I have always looked up to Tom Colicchio,” Graham told us via email. “That said, a chance to move over from the competition side to the judging side was a no-brainer.”
He added, “Top Chef is the gold standard when it comes to cooking competition shows. You have professional chefs that put it all on the line, and the viewers at home tend to be foodies that appreciate and understand that level of culinary artistry.”
Tom had a similar sentiment when it came to Graham, whom he had never met before the show.
“I met him in passing, but I never never spent time with him,” Tom said. “And I gotta say, I liked him a lot instantly. He’s smart and he also…there’s a certain amount of being around production. Some guests kind of freak out about it, but he was just really comfortable with our production team. Just really smart and fun. We have so much down time and he’s really into music, so it was really cool to hang out with him.”
He continued, “I think also, it’s always good when you get a sense that the person up there critiquing isn’t saying stuff just to get a zinger in or saying something to make them sound cool. He’s just giving really good, honest feedback. That’s what I’ve always said – you have to be honest. These people are putting their lives on hold to come compete. They are really busting their ass, and you should be honest with them. I got the sense that he cared a lot about that.”
The dynamic at the Top Chef judges’ table has always been one of seriousness, playful moments, and all-around passion for food.
“We got along great, I feel we each have our own style, beliefs, thought processes but at the end of the day the chef who cooks the best wins,” Graham said. “I tend to focus on creativity and understand why they made what they did (thought process) as opposed to their technique. Also as a past contestant I think I can easily put myself in their shoes which gives me a different unique perspective.”
“Graham‘s one of the most articulate people I know about food. I’ve known Graham for a while,” Gail told us. “He’s a Food & Wine [magazine] ‘Best New Chef.’ He’s also a really passionate food fan. It was great to bring a new perspective to the judges’ table.”
This season there’s a bit of a cast switch-up as well, as eight former cheftestants are coming back to compete against newbies. With prior knowledge of how the competition works, also comes added pressure to perform on the plates.
“I think it goes both ways; returning contestants might have an idea as to what the judges like but at the same time the newcomers are coming in without any preconceived idea so they’re apt to cook more freely,” Graham said.
“Part of the challenge is just navigating that kitchen and if you have people who know how to do it, there’s so much you can learn from them,” Gail said. “And they all come back for different reasons. Sometimes it’s because they love the adrenaline rush and sometimes it’s because they have a cross to bear and issues to settle with themselves or other people. But they also see how powerful it is as a promotional tool.”
“There’s definitely added pressure,” Tom added. “Most of them, when you ask them why they came back – you know, this is hard as hell. It’s 16 hours a day every single day, creating, being critiqued – you’re exhausted. It’s physically grueling. So they know it’s a challenge. I think a lot of the chefs the second time around, they really want to win. They came close in their seasons and they really feel like they can win. So it’s a lot of pressure. But on the other hand, they know the ropes too.”
“People like Sam Talbot, who hasn’t been on the show since season two, it was great to see how his cooking has changed,” Gail told us. “They all evolved so much. He’s a totally different person now…Or Sheldon [Simeon] from Hawaii, who was a finalist in his season and one of the most talented, interesting chefs we ever had on the show. He could have easily won. To see what he’s going to do differently and what he’s doing now in his life as a chef, it just makes for great television.”
“Sam, for me, was hard because I know Sam. He lives in New York. I’ve hung out with him. And now I have to judge him again. Quite frankly, this whole judging thing…everyrone thinks every time I walk into a restaurant, I’m judging every restaurant. I’m not that critical (laughs). I know what these chefs are going through, but it’s my job on TV. So all of a sudden I have to be critical of someone I know? It’s hard.”
Top Chef premieres TONIGHT, December 1 @ 10/9c on Bravo.
- Reporting by Sharon Tharp