A Chat with Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’ Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio

“Top Chef” returns to Bravo on Wednesday, March 12 at 10/9c with 16 new “cheftestents”, each one vying for the grand prize that will set them up nicely in their own restaurant.

The windy backdrop for the series is the great food mecca of Chi-town, home of pungent “Chicago dogs” dressed with mustard, bright green relish, chopped onions, pickled hot peppers, tomato slices and dill pickles and the famous crispy and gooey deep-dish style pizza.  The city is also home to some of the most sophisticated dining in the United States.  

 

Bravo’s popular reality show has the 16 hopefuls ready with knives sharpened and nerves steeled for this riveting series, which also has high-profile foodies and chef fans like Anthony Bourdain blogging and completely captivated.

Joining the new contestants is a former Indian model, stunning multi-lingual gourmand Padma Lakshmi, who sits alongside head judge Tom Colicchio, a renowned culinary figure and chef/owner, Craft Restaurants, also with judge Gail Simmons, of Food & Wine Magazine and judge Ted Allen, Emmy-winning cookbook author and TV personality.  

In what Bravo promises will be the most exciting season yet, some of the biggest and most respected chefs will guest star on “Top Chef: Chicago.”

Tom Colicchio- courtesy of Bravo

Tom Colicchio- courtesy of Bravo

The 16 “Top Chef: Chicago” cheftestants will be eliminated each week as they compete to out-do their competition.

The winning chef will receive $100,000 in seed money to help open a restaurant, furnished by the makers of the Glad family of products, a feature in Food & Wine magazine, a showcase at the Annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, a gourmet dream vacation in the French Alps, and will earn the title of “Top Chef.”

Monsters and Critics joined a few online journalists and was fortunate to speak with Padma and Tom on Wedsnesday:

What is the criteria for selecting the cheftestants for your show?

Tom Colicchio: We don’t select them. There are casting agents that select them. They – obviously they need to be chefs and – but I couldn’t really speak to the actual criteria.

Padma Lakshmi: I think our producers go out and look at resumes, look at videotapes, meet them, interview them in many cases, and make their decision from there. I think by the time that Tom and I get on set, we pretty much look at who they’ve already selected.

I mean, sometimes they may ask for input on a couple of chefs if Tom knows them or I know them because I know – we know the people they work for. But generally we don’t get involved in the casting process at all.

Tom Colicchio: Yeah. when they’re down to about 20, I get resumes. The names are blanked off just to vet them through my sort of normal process of hiring cooks and chefs in my restaurant.

So I’ll look at their pedigree. So  if I’m looking at someone that’s worked at a great restaurant but they’ve only be there for a month…

Padma Lakshmi: And that tells you a lot.

Tom Colicchio: It tells you a lot. And so if they’re trying to make a decision between two different contestants, they may – I may weigh in on one or the other. But I get them without names on them.

Follow up question to this – are these people primarily from the Chicago area or are they from all over the country?

Padma Lakshmi: They’re from all over the country.

Tom Colicchio: Yeah. If somebody – I mean if you go online there’s plenty of information about – in fact on bravotv.com all the bios are up already so you can see where they’re from.

Are you surprised at how many of the contestants really didn’t know how to make a classic dish?

Tom Colicchio: That always surprises me. It really does. But I think that’s indicative of culinary school these days and of young cooks and young chefs or what their focus is sort of coming up.  It used to be – back when I came up 25 years ago, you learn the classics because that’s what you were cooking in kitchens. But nowadays, I think there’s so much interest elsewhere.

I think they’re casting a broad net and that often they don’t have to go through those dishes and learn them. And I’m – we’re always surprised, yeah.

Are these contestants a lot better than what we saw in that first episode?

Tom Colicchio: Well I think on balance, these are the strongest,  I always need to sort of make sure I get this exactly right. This is probably the best talent pool. So as a whole, the talent runs a lot deeper than it has in the previous three seasons.

Padma, how often do you come across a dish or see ingredients that you just have no idea what you’re eating?

Padma Lakshmi: Well we often ask questions and we’ve constructed the challenges so we know what they have to work with. But yeah, there are times when I wonder what the mystery meat is.  Regarding the pizza challenge – the Quickfire — it was surprisingly one of the most difficult Quickfires I’ve had to get through just because of the sheer volume of food that I had to ingest.

When choosing who wins a challenge or overall the Top Chef, do things besides the cooking come into consideration because they are obviously going to be the leading cooks in their kitchens?

Tom Colicchio: No, nothing but the food comes into play. I mean, you know, Season One there were a lot of personality traits that we attributed to Harold as sort of being a leader. I mean, but that -well that just sort of was coincidental.  He happened to have those characteristics.

But we are strictly judging on food. And in fact, all of the reality stuff that sort of happens behind the scenes, we don’t see that.  We’re not privy to it. We don’t really know what’s going on. And we try to stay as objective as possible and let’s say we don’t have a horse in the race. We don’t really care.  And we also are not allowed to spend time with the contestants at all.

We see them when I’m doing the walkthrough. Padma sees them when she’s delivering the challenge. And we eat their food and we see them at the judge’s table. During all the time, we’re not allowed to even see them –  have a conversation with them.

Padma Lakshmi: And actually, I really don’t want to.

Tom Colicchio: Right.

Padma Lakshmi: I don’t care about their personal lives. I don’t care where they’re from. If they want to tell me anything, they should tell me whatever they want about themselves through their food.

I think sometimes their personalities come to play in whether they can rally their teammates with them or if they’ve been able to over the course of the season garner the respect of their peers because of their behavior in the kitchen.

But again, that only works if they’re able to utilize that to get their goal accomplished, which is getting the best plate out there, that challenge or that Quickfire.