A Chat with Bravo's 'Top Chef' Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio
By April MacIntyre Mar 7, 2008, 5:04 GMT
Padma Lakshmi - © David Gabber / PR Photos
ďTop ChefĒ 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."
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 donít select them. There are casting agents that select them. They - obviously they need to be chefs and - but I couldnít 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 theyíve 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 donít get involved in the casting process at all.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. when theyíre 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 Iíll look at their pedigree. So if Iím looking at someone thatís worked at a great restaurant but theyíve only be there for a monthÖ
Padma Lakshmi: And that tells you a lot.
Tom Colicchio: It tells you a lot. And so if theyíre 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: Theyíre from all over the country.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. If somebody - I mean if you go online thereís plenty of information about - in fact on bravotv.com all the bios are up already so you can see where theyíre from.
Are you surprised at how many of the contestants really didnít know how to make a classic dish?
Tom Colicchio: That always surprises me. It really does. But I think thatís 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 thatís what you were cooking in kitchens. But nowadays, I think thereís so much interest elsewhere.
I think theyíre casting a broad net and that often they donít have to go through those dishes and learn them. And Iím - weíre 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 youíre eating?
Padma Lakshmi: Well we often ask questions and weíve 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 Iíve 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 donít see that. Weíre not privy to it. We donít really know whatís going on. And we try to stay as objective as possible and letís say we donít have a horse in the race. We donít really care. And we also are not allowed to spend time with the contestants at all.
We see them when Iím doing the walkthrough. Padma sees them when sheís delivering the challenge. And we eat their food and we see them at the judgeís table. During all the time, weíre not allowed to even see them - have a conversation with them.
Padma Lakshmi: And actually, I really donít want to.
Tom Colicchio: Right.
Padma Lakshmi: I donít care about their personal lives. I donít care where theyíre 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 theyíve 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 theyíre able to utilize that to get their goal accomplished, which is getting the best plate out there, that challenge or that Quickfire.
In all the seasons so far, could you guys tell me what your favorite and least favorite meals were, and who they were done by?
Padma Lakshmi: So far on my time at Top Chef, the worst thing I ate was the chocolate gnocchi with a morsel of liver in it. And ironically, probably one of the best dishes I ate was from the same chef who won -- Ilan Hall -- and it was the Fideos with Chorizo and Clams in the last, in that same episode - same episode, same chefÖ
Tom Colicchio: Right.
Padma Lakshmi: Öworst and best.
Whatís the major difference this season compared to the others?
Tom Colicchio: You know, I think what happens is as the seasons go on, weíre getting better chefs applying. This season youíre not going to find a first year culinary student. Youíre not going to find a housewife who can cook.
Youíre going to find professionals. In most cases, they are running kitchens, are the -at a sous chef level, chef level, chef cuisine level. Some own their own businesses.
And so I think that itís become accepted in our industry that this is something thatís worth while and that I think better chefs are coming out every year.
Padma Lakshmi: I think it has to do with the success of this chef. As this show gains popularity and as well, as Tom alluded to, gains respect among the culinary community itís something that everyone watches and itís something that everyone wants to be on.
Also I think a great credit to Tom and the producers as well is that it really is about the food. Youíll never find us attacking anybody personally or getting involved in their little spats, whether we know about them or not or learn about them after the fact.
I think weíve done - in the four seasons of Top Chef that have been on or about to go on the fourth season, I think what the great thing is, is that I have people all the time who come up to me on the street and say well, you know, "I made this dish yesterday for my husband."
So I feel kind of tickled at the thought that weíre actually educating the TV viewer across the nation about these culinary terms and what it means to do a chiffonade versus a julienne or whatever.
Whatís the biggest mistake you always see with new chefs, Tom?
Tom Colicchio: I think they try to do too much.
Padma Lakshmi: I was going to say the same thing.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. Most of the dishes. They need to edit or if they removed a few of the ingredients from the dish, the dish is actually a stronger dish.
I know I did it in my career. It just comes through experience and confidence. And I think the older you get and the more confident you are, you donít need to rely on the bells and whistles.
Padma Lakshmi: I agree. And also, the better the chef the less ingredients they actually use because they know what flavors they want. They know how to achieve that and the flavors are strong and clear, and come through, and arenít muddled.
Why do you think these chefs are willing to go out on the line by coming on Top Chef?
Tom Colicchio: I can answer that - two different answers. At a similar point, itís hard to say because when I was 26, would I have done the show? Probably. Knowing what I know now, I wouldnít have signed up for the first season but I probably would have signed up for the third season.
Padma Lakshmi: It can be. I mean, sometimes itís pretty clear. Weíll each take a bite of something and Tom and I will look at each other, and we donít even have to say anything. After doing this for a few seasons and spending so much time together, we know what we think.
And, you know, a lot of times itís very clear. We all can see that's good, thatís too salty or, you know, gee thatís just not cooked right. You can tell by looking at it. You can tell with one bite.
Sometimes itís not that easy because you have four different palates. You have four different opinions. You have four different food points of view even.
Tom Colicchio: Which is why itís interesting. I can explain the process though and we always have to put the brakes on our guest judges. After we taste all the food, the guest judgesí first inclination is to start talking about it.
So we all kind of have our own ways of doing it. I can speak from sort of how I look at the debate. I have my idea of going in and Iím - I would love to get into a good conversation.
It's usually never heated but we all feel passionate about who we think should win and who should lose. And itís just great getting into a good discussion about it, and a food discussion about it.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah. Also the thing is, weíre at a table with people of likeminded interest. So, you know, in the way that golfers can get together and talk about golf for hours and hours, and hours, and really dissect somebodyís golf swing, we can do the same thing in comparing different kinds of chilies, different kinds of meat or whatever.
And because weíre all talking shop. we have to get really nitpicky because the level is so good and you really have to cut a very fine line and look at the smallest points because thatís all that you have to look at.
Are there any skills you think are essential for them beyond that that makes a really good contestant and a great Top Chef winner?
Padma Lakshmi: I think the one thing I find other than actually what they cook is - and I have found this after the fact, like after they - the challenge is over and interviewing them. Sometimes you - I say the challenge or Iíll say the Quickfire -- especially this happens a lot in Quickfireís because the time limit is often much shorter -- you know, the run headlong into whatever they think they should do because they want to be the first to get that bacon or fish or whatever.
You find that other chefs just really think about it for a second- say okay, what can I do that will stand out or what do I know how to do well? How can I address this challenge in a creative fashion?
I think like, for somebody who takes the time to really think it out - a lot of cooking is spontaneous. At least Iím a very spontaneous cook. And sometimes where I end up is not where I thought I wanted to when I started out.
But I find that people who think clearly and donít try and be all over the place, and just do their job really well and put their head down, are the ones who have an edge sometimes.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. I think the show - there are some chefs, and I think this is what happened to Casey last seasonÖ
Padma Lakshmi: Yes, I was thinking the same thing.
Tom Colicchio: Öin the finale. There are some chefs who can sink on the fly. They can sink very quickly. They could kind of jump in and they have the confidence to at least think that everything is going to work.
Then there are other chefs who need to work on a dish. They need to make the dish three, four, five times before they feel itís ready for the public to try it. And theyíre both very, you know, valid ways to go about creating dishes and working.
Itís - and so I think that the chef who could think on their feet - I think has an advantage on the show. But I think thatís also somewhat indicative of the way a kitchen works, especially during service when itís busy.
Sometimes you have to think on your feet. Sometimes you have to make decisions very quickly. But again, I know some very fine chefs who are very methodical about the way they do things and some chefs who could think on the fly.
Padma Lakshmi: But I think also- to your point Tom about Casey, she -- unlike her other competitors -- went right back to work and then literally worked, worked, worked until she came to the finale.
The other guys sort of looked at what their weaknesses were, really went out to hone skills that they felt maybe were not as strong as their competitors or developed recipes already in their repertoire that they could adapt to the challenge that they were given because itís the finale.
Itís usually going to be just cook the best meal you possibly can.
Tom Colicchio: Right.
Padma Lakshmi: So I think that in that way itís odd because I donít think Casey did give the competition that was awaiting her forethought.
Are there any times you look at a challenge and you think gosh, thatís really hard?
Tom Colicchio: Yeah.
Padma Lakshmi: A lot of times.
Tom Colicchio: Whatís interesting is that the first couple episodes everybody is 'Oh, you know, if I run that show I would do this, this and this. And itís so easy. Why donít they just do this, this and this?' About the sixth episode in, the chefs all start - you hear it. They start saying I had no idea this was this hard.
Padma Lakshmi: Itís harder than it looks even on TV.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. And so it just takes so much effort and to get throughÖ
Padma Lakshmi: All of the hoops that we make them jump through and obstacles.
Tom Colicchio: Itís nerve-racking. Itís difficult andÖ
Padma Lakshmi: Itís emotional. Itís physically taxing. You know, they donít get a lot of sleep. I mean, neither do we.
Will we see the influence in the kitchen of the move to Chicago?
Padma Lakshmi: Oh yes. I think you definitely will. I mean, the thing about Top Chef is that every, you know, we hope that every new locale informs the competition. And I think thatís one of the reasons we like to move it around.
And Chicago is a great food town. Itís got a lot of regional traditions and yes, to answer your question.
Have you had to make any changes?
Padma Lakshmi: Well, no I havenít had any changes to make. I think sometimes people come up to me and they want me to say pack your knives and go to them, which I donít do as a matter of principle.
Iím sure Tom can answer that because he has restaurants and stuff.
Tom Colicchio: I find it amusing when on a Wednesday night Iím in my restaurant and somebody will see me there, and go oh my God, what are you doing? Arenít you doing a show tonight?
And my response is usually oh, I forgot. But, itís - no, not really. I mean, I - itís - I had a conversation with a writer in South Beach this weekend or two weekends ago at a food and wine festival down there.
And the question was, how does it feel to being a TV personality now? Is it very different from being a restaurateur? And, you know, now that youíre not a restaurateur anymore, what are you doing with your free time? I looked at him and I said are you kidding me?
I said, well what is your perception of how much time I spend on the show? Heís all - well we all know. I said well how much time? He said well 200 days of the year.
Padma Lakshmi: No.
Tom Colicchio: And I laughed. I said, I spend 20 days a year on the show or for the season.
Padma Lakshmi: A season, yeah.
Tom Colicchio: Itís about 20 days to shoot...We shoot everything in a month, maybe five weeks. I work every other day. Padma works every day.
Padma Lakshmi: Six weeks. Itís actually - for me, itís about six and a half, seven weeksÖbetween prep and finish. But one thing that changes that people want to know all about Tom, all the women ask me all about Tom.
Tom Colicchio: Well I get the same from women, too - no from men.
Padma Lakshmi: From women and men.
Tom Colicchio: No but, you know what? So that - the only thing that is I need - I just have to be very careful and get my word out there that no, Iím a chef. Iím in my kitchen tonight and this is something that Iím very proud of.
I love doing the show and Iím just, you know, so pleased that itís as successful as it is and Iím also pleased that so many people who maybe would have tried certain foods are out there trying different things or seeing different things.
And theyíre sort of understanding sort of the process of what a chef goes through. So all that stuff is great. But on the other hand, I have to be very careful about the image of me being a TV guy, not a chef.
Top Chef has a recipe book coming out also...
Tom Colicchio: Yes. I wrote the forward to it.
Did you participate in the creation of the book?
Tom Colicchio: No. We gave interviews to the writer. Thatís about it.
Padma Lakshmi: Well we tasted all the food in there.
Tom Colicchio: Most of it anyway. I donít taste the Quickfire stuff thatÖ
Padma Lakshmi: I taste every single thing that is made on Top Chef, including craft services for our crew...and we do consume a lot of liquids. Itís true. It gets - itís either always too hot or too cold in the Top Chef kitchens and Iím not sure why. But, you know, people often ask me like what is the secret to the success of this show?
And I say well there are many secrets. But I said one of the secrets to the success of the show is my digestive tract because, you know, everything goes through my pipes.
Have you ever been surprised looking back at some of the chefs you thought you knew and then seeing what transpired behind-the-scenes?
Tom Colicchio: Iím always shocked what they did behind-the-scenes, but I donít think we know them at all. So it - weíre not shocked that we didnít know them. But it is quite surprising some of the things theyíll do.
I think at a certain point theyíre so tired and sort of flustered, and they forget cameras are rolling.
Padma Lakshmi: And theyíre not thinking clearly. And it just turns - you know, theyíre also away from their families and it - so it turns into a little bit of the Lord of the Flies situation.
I mean, thatís certainly - I was very shocked when they shaved their heads and threatened to shave Marcelís head. That was shocking to me.
Tom Colicchio: Right.
Do you keep in touch with the past contestants on the show?
Tom Colicchio: I do.
Padma Lakshmi: I run into Ilan and I run into Sam because theyíre in New York. So once in awhile Iíll see them and itís always nice to see them. I ran into Ilan, you know, at a neighborhood restaurant because he and I donít live far from each other.
I mean, Tom and all of us kind of live downtown. And so I will run into them and stuff. But I think Tom, you said you keep in touch with them more?
Tom Colicchio: Well I run into Sam, I actually brought him down to Florida to do something. It was - we were cooking for the Naples Wine and Food Auction, and I brought him down to be one of the feature chefs down there.
Actually, Harold was on that trip, too along with two other chefs that are friends of mine. So the five of us were cooking in someoneís home. And at some of the food festivals I run into, you know, Harold is always around and Sam is around a lot.
And so is - who else do I run into? In Vegas I ran into Marcel once. I just - you kind of run into people. Casey - I was in - I have a restaurant in Dallas and when I was down there last I ran into Casey. I saw Brian this last weekend too. He was...
Padma Lakshmi: Oh, so did I. I saw a lot of the contestants at the food festival.
Tom Colicchio: Right. You see them, you know, whenÖ
Padma Lakshmi: When we have food things to do.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah, food things. But I donít,
Padma Lakshmi: He doesnít hang out with them and have a beer.
Tom Colicchio: Well actually - Sam I do. I was out to dinner with him the other night. So occasionally, you know, we know a lot of the same people so weíll run into each other often.
Were any moments on the show that you look back and wished you sort of could have had a do-over with, with regard to the outcome? Do you think there are any contestants that went too soon?
Tom Colicchio: No.
Padma Lakshmi: I was sorry to see Lia go, but I would not do it over because I think it was the right decision.
Where do you think is the best place in New York for ingredients?
Padma Lakshmi: I like Kalustyans for spices. I like the green markets for things green, you know. Tom can probably address meat and stuff like that.
Tom Colicchio: Well, I mean, I - we have people who bring us food at the restaurant. So I donít shop out that often. But Fresh Direct is a great thing in New York.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah, itís awesome. Also I like China Town for some Asian vegetables.
Where do you think the best place to learn to cook is? Do you think itís cooking school or to actually try your hand in working in a restaurant?
Tom Colicchio: Well since I didnít go to cooking school, I would say restaurants. It all depends. If youíre looking to run a small to medium restaurant, I think you can learn a lot on the job in restaurants. I think if you want to be a chef in a large hotel, I think a school like the Culinary Institute is probably a better place for your Johnson and Wales. But also, if you wanted to go to a smaller school like the French Culinary Institute, I would still always suggest that you start off in a kitchen to see if itís something that you really want to do.
Padma Lakshmi: Before you sign on to it, yeah.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. Because a lot of people coming out of school, as they get into a kitchen and they - itís notÖ
Padma Lakshmi: They hate it.
Tom Colicchio: Itís not what they want. And itís pressure on your feet. Itís not as glamorous as it looks on TV.
Padma Lakshmi: Iíll say.
Tom Colicchio: I gave a commencement speech before I was on Top Chef to a graduating class at CIA. My message to them was theyíre there on graduation day with their parents and their stark chef totes.
And my message to them was if you want to be the next Emeril Lagasse, just look at your parent thatís sitting next to you. Apologize for wasting their money and go find something else to do.
If you came to school because you want to learn how to cook and you want to be a professional chef, then that was a great decision.
Who is the most enjoyable judge to have sort of by your side at the judging table?
Tom Colicchio: Iím always more comfortable when Gail is on my left. I mean, sheís not a guest. I know I didnít answer the question. But thatís when Iím most comfortable.
You know what? Most of the chefs - most of the guest judges, I say most, are people I know - people that Iíve known over the years. So itís always fun to have any number of people.
Alfred Portale is a very good friend of mine so itís always great to have him on. Anthony is always a kick to hang out with.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah, heís fun. And I like Eric Ripert.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah.
Padma Lakshmi: Iím partial to Eric.
Tom Colicchio: Eric - yeah, Ericís a fun guy. You know, Rocco, he used to work for me three years ago. So itís always nice to have him. I saw him the other night as well.
Itís just always nice to spend a little time together. It is funny to watch them because usually around 2:00 in the morning when weíre still going strong, theyíre starting to fade. I warned you.
Padma Lakshmi: Itís true. Itís true. And all the boys - itís the boys. The boys canít understand. They look at me like how are you still standing? How are you eating so much? Arenít you tired?
Tom Colicchio: Itís very funny. I remember some comments on some of the sites when Daniel was on that he was edited poorly and he didnít have anything to say. And this is one of the best chefs in the world, and how could - well at 2:00 in the morning at the judgeís table, he hadnít - he just faded.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah, he just faded. Also because, you know, that - we always do it after a really big meal where weíre tasting all the dinner dishes. Like we actually shoot it in real time.
So weíll sit down and weíll taste all the food. And then weíll go directly to judgeís table. And we have to wait if we do it off site -- the challenge -- then we have to wait for our crew to get there and set up.
And just Tom and I travel with a very large entourage of 80 crew members who come in. And itís like any other three ring circus. It takes time to put the tents up.
Tom Colicchio: Right. But also I think that those judges are usually flying in that morning.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah.
Tom Colicchio: And theyíre just not weíre - we kind of get into a rhythm where, you know, weÖ
Padma Lakshmi: Weíre just used to living on ether and no sleep.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. Itís a grind, it really is.
How did you find Chicago as a host city - that is, what surprised you about the food scene there?
Padma Lakshmi: I loved it. I love it. I cannot believe that I got well into my thirties and never came to Chicago. But there you have it. I found the people warm. I found the restaurants fantastic - the Blackbird to Vermillion and on and on and on. I just loved it.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. Nothing surprising. I mean, (Paul Con), a buddy of mine and (Grant), and a bunch of other chefs in town. So I was kind of, you know, knew what to expect there.
One - the best meal I - one of the best meals I had though, was at Cafť (Lulu). A brunch. So that was surprising because I knew nothing about that. And in fact, (Paul Con) said, you know, thatís where you should go for brunch. And I had just an amazing brunch there.
But all in all, Chicago is just a great place to do it. I mean, Iím a music fanatic so my time off I spent in a lot of the music clubs and spent a - more than several hours at the Chicago Music Exchange looking at guitars.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah. Iím sorry I didnít get to Devon Street. I heard a lot about Devon Street. ButÖ
Tom Colicchio: So no, but it was a great - really a great, and itís - I mean, all you talk to is Chicago is always up there neck and neck with one of the best food towns in the country.
I personally think itís better than some of the other cities that seem to have that reputation without mentioning them. But so no, thereís a lot of amazing things going on there.
Does either of you have input into the challenges as theyíre being created, as they come up with the ideas?
Tom Colicchio: Yeah, a little bit. Theyíll usually once theyíre, three quarters of the way there theyíll usually run them by me and say what do you think? And sometimes they take my advice and sometimes they donít - no offense.
But often itís just thereís some difficulties with the challenge and theyíll ask my opinion. But yeah - but not - I donít sit in all the creative meetings with tem and do it. Itís usually just variant.
And when you come to a city - like when you came to Chicago, were the challenges all lined up or did they develop as the taping went on?
Padma Lakshmi: No. I think sometimes they tweak them also.
when you get there you see whatís the best to do for the environment youíre in. And a lot of the Quickfireís and stuff, theyíll say well how can we make this better and also a lot of it is just business - especially like in the first half when we have got like 16 chefs. Itís just that, how can we cover all 16 chefs doing this and now run out of time?
Tom Colicchio: Right.
Padma Lakshmi: And so thereís also a lot of like how am I going to get around the kitchen with the guest judge? How am I, so thereís a lot of different aspects to creating a challenge, especially for television.
Padma, how did the cookbook tour go?
Padma Lakshmi: Oh it went really well. Thank you for asking. I think itís just like a never-ending book tour. But itís going really, really well.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. In fact, weíre both in Chicago pretty soon.
Padma Lakshmi: I was going to say, please tell your readers weíre - Tom and I are going to be at Art Smithís Common Threads gala and Iíll actually be hosting the whole event. And Tom and Gail will be doing the live auction.
How do you think the show has affected the careers of the past chefs?
Tom Colicchio: I think some of them very well and in so many different ways. I mean, Andrea Beaman who was in the first season -- who was sort of a healthy chef -- I see her popping up all over the place doing different things.
And so I think theyíve all been affected by it. I think to some to a greater extent than others. Obviously, the longer youíre around the more visible you are. ButÖ I think for the most part, theyíve all done really well.
Have you kept in touch with past contestants? Do you even keep in touch with them or do you just sort of watch them from afar?
Padma Lakshmi: We see them at culinary events.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah, I seem them from time to time. Sam is about the only one who Iíve kept in - I mean, Harold I keep in touch with. I see him around. But Sam Iíve been with a little bit over the last year.
I mean, I often get calls from them seeking advice, you know, career advice and stuff like that.
What one dish do you think says the most about a chef?
Tom Colicchio: So - go ahead Padma.
Padma Lakshmi: I donít think grilled cheese is that difficult to make nor do I think eggs are very difficult to make. But I do think the way you make eggs in the morning shows a lot about your technical skills. Tom makes really great eggs, by the way.
Tom Colicchio: I donít know if thereís any one thing. I mean, I know Andre Soltner, who was a great chef at Lutece, he would actually ask every cook who came into his kitchen to make an omelet. He thought that - not that it was difficult, but - it takes a certain amount of care to make a perfect rolled French omelet.
Padma Lakshmi: Well Escoffier did that as well.
Tom Colicchio: I think the most important thing is to find your own style. The chefs that seem to make a mark sort of have their own way about them.
Theyíre not copying other chefs. Theyíre not stealing dishes. Theyíre actually coming up with something thatís uniquely original to them. And I think that itís a culmination of all of their experiences, not just culinary school but sort of the travel, you know, that they do when they eat around.
And, just going to a museum. Thereís so many different things that sort of make up, sort of - what sort of comes out of you. But it all, you know, depends on what you actually put inside of you.
Padma Lakshmi: I can actually tell a lot about a chef right off the bat from the first Quickfire when I walk around their stations. That tells me a lot about a chef. Are they messy? What are their knife skills like?
How many ingredients do they have? Why are they using all these ingredients? What are their hit and misses? How many dishes do they use up? All of that because what happens if you get experiences that all that gets whittled down. It all gets edited down and streamlined.
And I can tell a lot about the messiness of a chef. Iím not into messy stations at all.
So what are your food pet peeves? Everyone has one. Whatís the one thing that just really - you just canít deal with on a plate?
Padma Lakshmi: Tom doesnít like skins on bell pepper.
Tom Colicchio: But Iíll eat that. I will not eat okra. I hate it. That and grated mountain yams for the same reason - slimy.
Padma Lakshmi: Itís not slimy when I make okra. I fry okra.
Tom Colicchio: I donít care who makes it. You can fry it. You can do whatever you want with it. You can keep it. All the okra lovers out there, thereís just more for them because I donít want it.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah. I donít like raw onions.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah.
Padma Lakshmi: Itís too pungent for me. I donít mind little tiny bit of something but I really am not into raw onions - not on my burger, not on my salads, not on anything.
What do you think of the blogs out there that follow this show?
Tom Colicchio: Iím on a website - (eater.com) and thereís three pictures. And it starts off by saying they figured out who won because it seems that the person who won was always front and center. Okay? And so theyíre looking at the ad from Season Four and saying well so and so is going to win because theyíre front and center.
Ridiculous. We shoot that the first week of production. We have no idea who is going to win. Itís just coincidence. And itís funny that theyíre actually putting this stuff out there. Itís crazy. It also goes on to say that definitely this season a woman is winning - definitely. Theyíve already determined that.
Thatís how we go about doing things. the one great thing I think about, at least I think for the integrity of the show is - and I know thereís a little disclaimer on the credits, but the producers so far -- and I donít expect they will -- have never got involved with who stays or who goes.
Theyíre there when weíre deliberating because they have to be. Theyíre shooting it. They also need to know because they have to set cameras and stuff like that when we announce the winner or loser.
But they, at times, have said are you sure thatís the right person? And weíre like yes, and weíre sure itís the right person. But they have never influenced our decision.
And most people will not accept that at all. Theyíll just say no, this is all predetermined, someone figures it out and thatís it. And itís not the case.
Padma Lakshmi: Itís really not.
Will Ted and Gail ever be at the judging table at the same time?
Padma Lakshmi: I think they were in the finale, werenít they?
Tom Colicchio: Yeah, they were in the finale.
Are they doing the same thing this year, though, where theyíre, you know, kind of swapping back and forth?
Padma Lakshmi: We donít know yet. We havenít shot the finale.
Tom Colicchio: We havenít shot the finale. We donít know. I donít even remember, to tell you the truth. I think the world of both of them. I just - I like it when Gail is on my left and Padma is on my right. Itís a nice little sandwich I have going there.
Youíve been doing this now for four seasons and how does it stay interesting to you? Why do you keep coming back?
Padma Lakshmi: Well Iíve been doing it for three seasons, but I just love food. Weíre surrounded by people talking shop and Iím the kind of girl that talks about dinner as Iím finishing up lunch. So itís the perfect job for me.
Tom Colicchio: for me the show is - sort of means something in the industry now. What really keeps me going is I kind of treat the contestants as if they were working for me in my kitchen. And sometimes Iím harsh because Iím harsh on the cooks in my kitchen.
And there are other times that Iím very encouraging. And especially after Season Three when we did our -- what do they call it, Padma help me out here -- when we go back and shoot everybodyÖ
Padma Lakshmi: Reunion show.
Tom Colicchio: Reunion, thank you. Geez. We did the reunion show and they all said that thatís how they felt about me on the show, that they really listened to what I had to say.
And a lot of them came back and said it actually helped them form their careers. And so part of being a chef is teaching. And so I get a lot of gratitude out of meeting these young chefs who I probably wouldnít know and seeing what theyíre doing.
again when they call up for advice and career advice, I feel good about it. So I think itís just a natural extension of what Iíve been doing for the last 25 years.
Have you guys ever had days when youíre on set and you - itís just like everything is going wrong and you kind of wonder why youíre on the opposite side?
Tom Colicchio: No there are days like that and I donít wonder why weíre doing it. I wonder why theyíre doing it.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. There are times when we get some clunkers and itís just like what is going on here. And usually thatís when weíre harsh. Itís like guys wake up. You know, this is desperately cooking.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah. Like why are you here going through all this if youíre really not trying? Like sometimes theyíll just coast and they donít think about, you know, really winning. Theyíre trying just not to lose that day.
And thatís a shame because I donít want someone coasting by. I mean, thereís too much going on and thereís too many people that want to be in that personís spot to do that.
Tom Colicchio: Right.
Do you guys have a favorite dish that you like to cook?
Tom Colicchio: I like mushrooms.
Padma Lakshmi: And I like things with coconut milk.
Okay. And have you guys ever tasted a dish on the show and been blown away by it, and gone home and made it yourself?
Padma Lakshmi: No.
Tom Colicchio: Well typically we donít have a home when weíre shooting. Weíre living in a hotel. But there are times Iíve had dishes and said wow, this is really, really good. But no, I havenít gone home and made it.
Padma Lakshmi: The only - I havenít gone and made a dish, but I will say that Elia -- when she came back to do the charity show and she made this beautiful scallop with a grapefruit marmalade, I did go home and make a marmalade out of grapefruit and tangerine. and then I put my own spin on it. But that was an idea that came to me because of what I tasted from Elia.
What do you guys do with all the leftovers after each of the challenges? Does the crew get to eat it?
Padma Lakshmi: Well there arenít really leftovers because theyíre just asked to make enough plates for us to taste and for them to shoot still lives of.
Tom Colicchio: What happens is whatever mise-en-place thatís leftover often (Leann) who is the one who is now the culinary director of the show, she cooks for the crew.
Padma Lakshmi: Oh yeah.
Padma, are you guys actually eating that food? Do you have a chance to even eat any other food, other than what youíre already eating in the Quickfireís and the main challenges?
Padma Lakshmi: I try to come to a set very hungry to give the contestants the full attention of my appetite. But sometimes itís not possible and our craft services is not very good. So I tend never to eat it. Surprising, but true.
Tom Colicchio: We donít eat a whole lot of food on the set. Weíre taking a bite of something and a little bit of this. But weíre not eating full dishes. But - and, you know, again, we, you know, weíll do a challenge at 1:00 in the afternoon and weíre judging at 2:00 in the morning.
So thereís plenty of time to eat whatever is on craft services. We - again, we - I - you know, we tend to go for the junk. At least I do, thatís on craft services, like candy and things like that that I shouldnít be eating.
But whenever (Leann) is in the kitchen cooking, itís usually - you kind of poke your nose in there and seeÖ
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah, her food is always the best.
What is a guilty pleasure deom craft services that you guys have had? What would you be grabbing for?
Tom Colicchio: Beef jerky. Yeah.
Padma Lakshmi: Cheese or chocolate.
Do you think the chefs have access to quality ingredients at the level that they might be used to in their own kitchens and their own restaurants?
Tom Colicchio: Sometimes it surpasses what theyíre used to and sometimes they fall short. It all depends. I think a lot of some of the places they shot - they were doing a pretty good job of produce and not always with fish and meat.
Padma Lakshmi: Also itís important like things - there are things that consumers can do when they go to a store. Like for instance, if you go to your deli or to your cheese monger, go to somewhere thatís busy because not only does that tell you thatís a good place but that means that their cheese will have a high turnover, you know.
So theyíll be replenishing their stock right away. And thatís also a good way - and talk to your cheese monger or talk to your fishmonger and say where do you grow your stuff and do you support local farming in our area, and stuff like that.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah. I mean, if you back to the finale in Hawaii, everything that was on the table was from - were from local farmers in Hawaii.
Padma Lakshmi: So beautiful.
Tom Colicchio: So yes, there is - itís clearly something that I wish we could do more of. I mean, obviously circumstances dictate some of the challenges. But, you know, as you mentioned it is something that is - people are focused on now.
Itís something that I think our industry, at least a segment of our industry, has been focused on for about 20 years now and itís just finally starting to make sense.
I think when you start hearing of all these beef recalls and people are worried about the safety of the food that theyíre eating, I think itís going to become more and more prevalent.
And I think that if you can, it used to be - I think 50 years ago, everything that you - that most families ate were sourced within 100 miles of where they lived. And obviously now thatís not the case.
But I think the message that people need to understand is stop eating processed foods. Eat whole foods. Go out and buy a vegetable that looks like a vegetable, not something thatís in a can.
Padma Lakshmi: Yeah, something thatís as close to its natural state as possible.
Tom Colicchio: Right, exactly. And then cook it. And I think if you wanted to do your family a favor, just stop using - stop eating processed foods.