“How Is This Going Off the Rails on Day One?”

Over two decades, Bravo’s Top Chef has introduced viewers to nearly 300 food luminaries — making and breaking careers with what the culinary community has come to regard as the most prestigious (or at least the most taxing) cooking competition.

THR spent months speaking with dozens of the executives, producers, talent and chefs who’ve worked on the show over its 20-season run, and the result is a definitive oral history of the landmark reality competition. Previously untold anecdotes about that frantic first season and early days of “too much” reality drama and testimonials of its reshaping of food media — “Food Network should be paying Bravo residuals!” — and incalculable impact on American dining tell the story of how Top Chef elevated itself from mere genre TV to become an institution.

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Amid a flurry of mergers and acquisitions, Barry Diller’s Universal Television portfolio is absorbed by a then-GE-owned NBC in 2004 — forming NBCUniversal. In the ensuing executive shuffle, Trio boss Lauren Zalaznick (“It was the biggest little network no one remembers”) is placed atop Bravo. With The Real Housewives not yet a twinkle in anyone’s eye, Zalaznick’s anemic inheritance includes Inside the Actors Studio, Celebrity Poker Showdown and recent mega­hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy … with one promising project in development.

I was nervous as shit and couldn’t keep it together, Harold Dieterle says of the first day shooting Top Chef season one, which he went on to win.

“I was nervous as shit and couldn’t keep it together,” Harold Dieterle says of the first day shooting Top Chef season one, which he went on to win.

LAUREN ZALAZNICK (FORMER BRAVO PRESIDENT) Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was a massive launch for cable, but it immediately started to decline. Not only did I have to reverse course on that slide, I couldn’t let this network be defined by one show.

DAVE SERWATKA (FORMER VP PROGRAMMING, BRAVO) We still wanted to leverage the success of Queer Eye, though, so we built five programming buckets around the various castmembers.

FRANCES BERWICK (FORMER EXEC VP PROGRAMMING, BRAVO, NOW NBCU ENTERTAINMENT NETWORKS CHAIR) It was really around the five passion points of the show: food, fashion, beauty, design and pop culture. For fashion, we were developing Project Runway. We thought it was fantastic. But when it premiered that December, the ratings were just traumatic.

Lauren Zalaznick and Frances Berwick

Lauren Zalaznick and Frances Berwick

ZALAZNICK It was one of the biggest flops of my career.

BERWICK So few people watched those first three episodes that we got into a war room with every department head and decided to just air it nonstop across the holidays for about 10 days straight. When it came back with a new episode, the numbers doubled. Then they tripled. It just kept building.

SERWATKA A little later, Andy Cohen and I were in our weekly meeting with Lauren when she brought up the idea of a food competition. Top Chef was Lauren’s idea.

ANDY COHEN (FORMER SENIOR VP PROGRAMMING, BRAVO) We didn’t want it to be a rip-off, but we wanted to do for food what we had done for fashion with Project Runway. “An elevated food competition,” that was my mandate. Beyond that, it was pretty open as to what the show could look like — though it was obvious we’d do it with Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz at Magical Elves [the production company] because of their work on Runway.

JANE LIPSITZ (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, 2006-19) Remember… Project Greenlight [then at HBO] begot Project Runway. We’d flown to New York and met with a bunch of designers during development, so we took the same approach here. We just met with a bunch of chefs to find out what kind of show would be meaningful.

ZALAZNICK What food programming there was looked like Food Network: three ceiling-mounted cameras over a tabletop and two studio cameras dead on a pedestal. There were little glass jars, a cup of this, minced garlic just so, and in the oven it went. Miraculously, in the oven next door, there was a dish that was already done. Perfect every time.

Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz

Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz

DAN CUTFORTH (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, 2006-19) Iron Chef, in Japan, kind of started it all — so there was that. But what came out of our meetings was that TV hadn’t really captured that after-hours lifestyle that chefs lead. When all of us are celebrating, chefs are at work.

SHAUNA MINOPRIO (SHOWRUNNER, 2006-09) I had just read Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential when Dan and Jane called me. The moment they mentioned the show, I was like, “Oh my God, yes.” The professionals Bourdain described in those kitchens — pirates or dyslexics or ex-cons, whatever he said — didn’t fit in anywhere else. They were also all intensely creative and intensely competitive. That’s amazing TV.

ZALAZNICK But after the initial scare of Runway, we were skeptical of everything. There were a lot of people — not in programming, but a lot of people — who said, “But you [the viewer] can’t taste the food. It’s not going to work.”

CUTFORTH I wasn’t worried about that. A lot of the development happened in preproduction and through casting, but the casting …

LIPSITZ It’s not easy to get people to participate in any first season, no matter what.

SERWATKA Shauna was the one that championed Tom Colicchio over anybody else.

ZALAZNICK Bravo was not Bravo yet. We needed his credibility.

TOM COLICCHIO (HEAD JUDGE) My response was, “Not interested.” There were other reality shows at the time. One about a restaurant really didn’t seem to go too well for that chef.

HAROLD DIETERLE (SEASON ONE WINNER) I had staged with Rocco DiSpirito at Union Pacific for a bit, and then he and [financier] Jeffrey Chodorow did The Restaurant. It was a disaster. Neither of them looked great. It’s about as bad as reality TV could go, so that was front of mind for me. [Rocco’s on 22nd, the restaurant depicted in the series, received terrible reviews and closed months after filming.]

ZALAZNICK That show was on NBC, by the way.

MINOPRIO I think Tom got it once he watched some Project Runway.

COLICCHIO Once I realized this show wasn’t about me, I called a friend of mine at the time — [CAA co-chair] Bryan Lourd. I said, “Can you help me out with this?” So, after saying no a couple times, I finally agreed to do the show. In fact, when CAA moved into their Century City building [in 2007], Bryan introduced me to the developer. That’s how Craft [Colicchio’s celebrated New York restaurant] opened in Los Angeles. Then I decamped CAA for William Morris, and they stopped talking to me. (Laughs.)

GAIL SIMMONS (JUDGE) I had been at Food & Wine for exactly one year when Bravo came to our publisher and pitched a partnership the way Project Runway had done with Elle and [then-fashion director] Nina García. It felt like the right move for the magazine, but the question became, “Well, who’s going to be the guinea pig?” The guinea pig was me.

PADMA LAKSHMI (HOST, 2006- PRESENT) I had taken a meeting with Lauren, but Bravo didn’t want to do the show that I pitched. (Laughs.)

ZALAZNICK It was a great idea, basically Padma’s Dinner Party. But it would have been expensive and hard to book. We couldn’t afford to do that and Top Chef.

LAKSHMI I wasn’t really, and still am not, a reality TV connoisseur. But they said, “Would you be interested in being a part of this show that we’re developing?” I said, “Sure.”

MINOPRIO The contestants were almost harder to cast because of the hideousness of the release forms. I’m fairly sure that it contained language like, “We can shoot you with hidden cameras.” This is, of course, protecting the production against things we had no intention of doing. It’s all the NBCU lawyers. But it’s scary. Having Tom reassured the chefs.

CUTFORTH As we got closer to production, we still had no name for the show. We’d been calling it “Top Chef,” but we all felt like it was pretty dumb and generic.

SERWATKA Naming a show is so arduous, and you go through all these options. The only alternative I remember was Grillers in the Mist.

CUTFORTH Because we shot the first season in San Francisco!

ZALAZNICK That was never in serious contention.

LIPSITZ We just used “Top Chef” over and over again, like, “Something great is going to come right at the end!” That never happened. Now it’s hard to imagine any other title for it.


With a two-challenge format in place for each episode — a short “Quickfire,” followed by a more grueling “Elimination” — and 12 castmembers of varying qualifications (and temperaments) on board, producers and a handful of Bravo executives prepare to convene in San Francisco in November 2005 to shoot the first season of what has now officially been dubbed Top Chef. Though there is suddenly an issue with the host …

Before Top Chef, Padma Lakshmi was best known as a model and actress seen in the 2006 miniseries Sharpe. Tom Colicchio had co-founded New York’s Gramercy Tavern.

Before Top Chef, Padma Lakshmi was best known as a model and actress (seen in the 2006 miniseries Sharpe). Tom Colicchio had co-founded New York’s Gramercy Tavern.

COHEN We had all locked in on Padma as the perfect host, but then she, like, booked a movie.

LAKSHMI By the time they decided to film the show, I had signed on to act in a miniseries for British television.

COHEN Lauren was emailing me, like, “Who is the host?” I did not have an answer.

KATIE LEE (HOST, SEASON ONE) I hadn’t really done TV before, and I got an email through my blog that said, “Hi, we’re the producers of Project Greenlight and Project Runway and we’re doing a new food show. We’d love to have you read for the host part.” I thought, “Well, this must be phony baloney,” but I googled them and a week later I was on a plane to San Francisco.

CUTFORTH A lot had fallen apart. CCA [California College of the Arts] — which was going to be our space, our Parsons for Top Chef — pulled out at the last minute.

MINOPRIO The only place we could find to build a kitchen was over by Oakland.

COHEN In Emeryville! I remember it so clearly. It was the week that Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor came out…

MINOPRIO Of course, by this time, we were all committed to hotels in the city, so we just spent our lives sitting in traffic on the Bay Bridge — all our shooting time just draining away into the traffic and then the toll queues. If we needed another bit of gear, it was back over the fucking bridge again. Absolute murder.

LIPSITZ The first thing we shot was in Hubert Keller’s [since-closed] restaurant, Fleur de Lys.

MINOPRIO A very tiny, very upscale San Francisco institution. The chefs were smoking outside by the bins, rotating time in the kitchen to help prep as the first challenge, and suddenly Hubert explodes.

BERWICK “Nobody puts their finger in my sauce!”

MINOPRIO He has a massive French-chef hissy fit at one of the chefs, and I think to myself, “Yep, we’ve got a show.”

SERWATKA I was not as, um, confident. (Laughs.)

LIPSITZ Hubert’s the most lovely human, so I was thinking, “How is this going off the rails on day one?”

Though he blew his top in his first appearance, affable French chef Hubert Keller (left) became a Top Chef fixture.

Though he blew his top in his first appearance, affable French chef Hubert Keller (left of Katie Lee and Tom Colicchio) became a Top Chef fixture.

CUTFORTH The contestants are all living together, by the way. And that finger-in-the-sauce chef, Ken, suffered from night terrors and woke up screaming that first night. When he finally got in a kitchen, he was sharpening his knives all over-the-top and intimidating. People were genuinely terrified of him.

LEE He was very confrontational — and the first to be eliminated.

COHEN There were all these long pauses right before the elimination, and I was like … “What is that noise?”

LEE I was nervous! I felt so bad about telling him to pack his knives and go that the microphone picked up my heartbeat. So I had to do it again — which made it even worse! I was very green and took the direction that was given me, which was to be icy and authoritative. That wasn’t my personality.

COHEN We produced her to be very stern like Heidi Klum [on Runway]. We produced her all wrong.

SIMMONS I didn’t know what they wanted from me. There was the American Idol template at the time of the nice judge and the mean judge. That was about it. I just tried to be honest and a little provocative.

COLICCHIO I felt pretty comfortable on camera.

ZALAZNICK There was a learning curve that season, like remembering to keep the electricity on in the walk-in coolers over the weekend and realizing we had to have the chefs cook two dishes — one for camera, one for tasting.

MINOPRIO There were no plates of food sitting around for an hour, like on every other show.

CUTFORTH Tom insisted the food be served hot.

MINOPRIO That first season was just relentless. I don’t think I had a day off for three months. Everyone involved was, in retrospect, really overworked.

LEE The days were long and the budget was very low. My dressing room had a giant hole in it to the outside and it was freezing cold, and it seemed that whenever they broke for lunch or dinner was when I was on camera. I ended up losing weight hosting a food competition.

CUTFORTH The contestant pool was not a level playing field at all, but it somehow still worked. It was charming and fun.

COLICCHIO Harold was legit. He’d worked for a lot of really good chefs, and people in New York knew who he was.

SERWATKA Harold being the first-season winner solidified that it was a show that was serious about cooking.

ZALAZNICK It was an easy renewal. We loved the show, but we wanted to finesse it.

LEE Listen, it wasn’t a secret that I wasn’t well received by the audience. I knew that it wasn’t working.

COHEN Billy Joel [Lee’s then-husband] called me, being like, “Hey, are you picking this up? What’s the deal? I thought it was a hit.” I was like, “Oh, this is so awkward.”

LEE I got a call the day after the finale aired from Andy, saying, “We’re not going to bring you back.” Of course it was a blow to my ego. It took me a long time to separate myself from that first season.

MINOPRIO I actually take a lot of responsibility for it. Katie was very young and inexperienced, and I did not do a good job of setting her up for success. I think I’ll always feel bad about that.

COHEN Today anyone would be lucky to get Katie Lee. She has so much food cred. [She has hosted Food Network’s The Kitchen since 2014.]

BERWICK And we rapidly moved away from nonprofessional contestants.

COLICCHIO A good home cook, I don’t care how good you are, can’t compete with a trained chef that’s been working in restaurants for 10 years.

COHEN There was a great disparity in terms of talent that first season. We had to fix that. And we had to get Padma.

LAKSHMI I’d watched the first season, so I got a sense of it. I was a little worried people would assume that Bravo was sticking another model on the show because of Heidi — I’d written a cookbook and hosted another food show — but I was just glad I got to say “Please” before the “Pack your knives and go.”


A new host and the focus on professional chefs help grow the show’s popularity with audiences and the culinary elite in season two, but the trappings of aughts reality TV drama give some pause.

From left: Carla Hall, Jamie Lauren and Leah Cohen cooking a Thanksgiving meal for members of the Foo Fighters in season five.

From left: Carla Hall, Jamie Lauren and Leah Cohen cooking a Thanksgiving meal for members of the Foo Fighters in season five.

SIMMONS We shot that second season in Los Angeles, and it was a very controversial one. There was a lot of reality drama that none of us had anticipated. By the end of it, I thought we were at a real crossroads.

MINOPRIO There was obviously a lot of drama in those early days. Too much drama, I think.

ZALAZNICK The lychee scandal!

MINOPRIO A chef called Otto had slipped some onto the bottom of his shopping cart and not paid for them.

CUTFORTH Tom went full Columbo on him. Otto basically said, “I should be eliminated.” The next day, when we went to get him for his interview, no one could find him. I nearly lost my mind. We were convinced that he had done himself in somewhere on the streets of L.A. It was hours before he was located.

LIPSITZ And, obviously, there was Marcel [Vigneron].

COHEN Marcel annoyed everyone. The other chefs did not like him.

MARCEL VIGNERON (CHEF, SEASONS TWO AND EIGHT) I was 24 then. I’ve since gone through a lot of personal growth.

MINOPRIO Poor Marcel. They basically were bullying him. They tried to shave his hair off. That was the nadir of it all — a symptom of the cultural moment.

VIGNERON I feel like they handled the situation appropriately [by kicking off instigating chef Cliff Crooks], but the hate I got back then was difficult: “Marcel, you’re such an asshole!” I got physically assaulted while I was sleeping and I’m the fucking asshole? (Laughs.)

COHEN The early seasons attracted more dramatic people. They were really backbiting. They were cunning.

Padma Lakshmi

Padma Lakshmi

SIMMONS I couldn’t tell if it was all going really well or really badly. The night before that finale aired, I was sleepless in a hotel. The next morning, they put a copy of The New York Times in front of my room. There, above the fold of the dining section, was a huge story about the show by Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic at the time. I thought, “This is it. This is the takedown. We’re going down in flames.” But it was amazing. He wrote that it was a show worth watching in that moment where food and pop culture were aligning, that food was becoming mainstream — which is what we were trying to do.

SERWATKA The Marcel thing was tough, but I wasn’t necessarily worried about it. That finale was great.

BERWICK Nearly 4 million people watched that episode live. On cable. That’s just a huge number.

ZALAZNICK And that was in spite of the fact that someone at Food & Wine accidentally posted an interview with the winner [Ilan Hall] the day before it aired.

MINOPRIO Because of our popularity, we ended up then having to sequester the chefs [for secrecy].

CARLA HALL (CHEF, SEASONS FIVE AND EIGHT) And we had to sign a million-dollar gag order. I was like, “I don’t have a million dollars!” I took that very seriously. I even won Super Bowl tickets [during my first season], and my husband found out while we were watching the episode.

BERWICK You realize you’ve created something super successful when you have to worry about the spoiler factors from all sides. Without even announcing the cast or which cities we were filming in, food bloggers would be commenting on who among the cast was spotted filming at Whole Foods. We started sending decoys to the supermarket.

CASEY KRILEY (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, 2009-PRESENT) People were truly working round the clock back in those days.

SIMMONS Judges’ table deliberations often went six to eight hours.

COHEN The third season finale, in Aspen, took so long that they turned the ski lift off, so we were just up there freezing at 3 in the morning, not knowing how we were going to get down from the mountain.

Bryan and Michael Voltaggio in the Shakespearean season six finale

Bryan (left) and Michael Voltaggio in the “Shakespearean” season six finale.

LAKSHMI During the deliberation in Puerto Rico [season four], I think Gail fell asleep at one point. The sun was coming up, and the birds were twittering.

SIMMONS The season six finale, the two Voltaggio brothers versus Kevin Gillespie, took a really long time, and we disagreed about so many points.

CUTFORTH Kevin was clearly not going to win.

LIPSITZ I’ve never experienced anything like seeing Michael and Bryan Voltaggio standing there at the very end as the final two contestants. It was the most Shakespearean moment of my career.

COLICCHIO The [season 11] deliberation between Nick [Elmi] and Nina [Compton] was really tough for a lot of reasons. It was very close, and this was a period where they would split us up during the finale dinners. It became clear that we didn’t get all the same dishes.

SIMMONS It didn’t end in a disagreement, but [picking Nick] was our most controversial judge’s table.

COLICCHIO A lot of people wanted to see Nina win, including me. But my goal had been that my industry think of the show as worthwhile. When a bunch of chefs I really admire started calling to get on, the answer was clear.

CUTFORTH Anthony Bourdain really loved Top Chef.

Judges say Nina Compton’s season 11 loss to Nick Elmi was controversial for fans.

Judges say Nina Compton’s season 11 loss to Nick Elmi was controversial for fans.

MINOPRIO It took a while to get him to agree to come on — God, the things he used to say about Food Network shows! — but I remember him being completely charming.

COLICCHIO Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Alfred Portale, Alice Waters, Alain Ducasse, Clare Smyth, I can go on and on. So many people have been on this show.

MINOPRIO It’s become a little bit of a hackneyed beat to show the contestants’ reactions to these people, but back then, it was really important for the viewer to see them go, “That’s fucking Wylie Dufresne!” That way they knew that, yes, he must be the shit.


Now a cultural behemoth in both food and television, Top Chef births five spinoffs — including a five-season run for Top Chef Masters — and is exported to 29 countries and territories. The show courts politicians, pop stars and, in 2010, Emmy voters.

Dan Cutforth on the Emmy stage in 2010.

Dan Cutforth on the Emmy stage in 2010.

CUTFORTH We would always go to the Emmys with hope in our hearts, but our category was just dominated by The Amazing Race for seven years.

LIPSITZ Dan and I were doing the Justin Bieber movie [Never Say Never] at the time. It was our fourth Emmy nomination, and I was in New York for this huge Madison Square Garden show. I would have had to fly out and back the next day. [Then Magical Elves executive] Erin [Rott] said, “Oh, don’t go! You never win.”

CUTFORTH In rehearsals, Charlie Haykel, who worked with [Emmy producer] Don Mischer, was talking to some people from the TV Academy. He asked them, like, “Is that category close?” And they were like, “Oh, no. It’s a landslide for The Amazing Race every year.”

LIPSITZ That night, after a production meeting, I walked into my parents’ apartment and asked, “Did we lose yet?”

ZALAZNICK Top Chef is the first cable show ever to win the Primetime Emmy for outstanding reality competition.

COHEN It’s the only Emmy I have!

CUTFORTH The whole thing was just insane. Erica Ross, one of our producers, had taken her shoes off. When she walked out into the aisle, she promptly fell flat on her face. Padma wasn’t a producer at the time, so she stole my statue to walk around with it.

COLICCHIO That was for the sixth season, and Bravo had submitted our most foodie episode to date. It was just us sitting around a table at the MGM in Las Vegas discussing food. To me, that’s when it became really clear that this was less about the reality and more about the food piece of it.

LAKSHMI There have been a lot of pinch-me moments. My daughter was just 8 weeks old when we started shooting in Washington, D.C. [in season seven], and there she was in the arms of one of our guest stars, Nancy Pelosi.

SIMMONS I went to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that season. We went to a party at the French Embassy afterward, and — this is really dating me — Joe Jonas and Demi Lovato were dating at the time. They were very young, and they came up to me. “Oh my God, Gail! We’re going to New Orleans or wherever, and we’re desperate to get your restaurant recommendations! Can you help us?” I was like, “Are you guys kidding me?” I couldn’t even understand how I’d gotten into the party.

BERWICK Bravo is fortunate enough to have many shows that have a serious fandom to the point of real passion — and, maybe in some cases, obsession.

LIPSITZ But Bravo didn’t have a show like this. After spending so much time with the chefs, we started talking about possibilities and pushing the network on these ancillary projects. Not just the foreign distribution, but the cookbooks, the cookware, the frozen meals, the cruise.

BERWICK That was just a boat full of 2,000 Top Chef fans. Hubert Keller, a Michelin star chef, deejayed.

KRISTEN KISH (SEASON 10 WINNER) What really stayed with me is a lady, incredibly inebriated, running down the hallway to me. I assume she was going to hug me but ended up fully licking my right cheek. I now avoid very drunk people.

COLICCHIO I thought it was going to be a lot worse. After a few days, the people started to chill out. It was actually kind of fun.


Driven in large part by the success of Top Chef, Cutforth and Lipsitz sell Magical Elves to the U.K.’s Tinopolis Group for $100 million in 2014 — departing the company (and the show) five years later. New franchise stewards lean further away from reality TV, start dipping back into the robust pool of Top Chef alums populating the food media landscape and embark on a first-ever season set abroad for the 20th anniversary.

First all-star winner Richard Blais (left) is among the many alums who now rotate at the judges’ table.

First all-star winner Richard Blais (left) is among the many alums who now rotate at the judges’ table.

BERWICK With time, these competitive reality shows can get pretty stale.

LAKSHMI I think ours has lasted because it’s evolved.

DONEEN ARQUINES (SHOWRUNNER, 2013-PRESENT) But you can’t mess too much with the formula, and you never want to take away too much time from the chefs. Yes, we can get crazy with a 10-minute Quickfire, but you want to give these people the time to succeed.

KRILEY It used to be about almost psychologically breaking someone down. How much can they endure in terms of also living in the environment? When Jo [Sharon] and I took the helm [of Magical Elves] in 2019, it was important for us to give them separate bedrooms.

ARQUINES Well, COVID also had a lot to do with that. (Laughs.)

LAKSHMI They’re already sleep-deprived. They don’t have phones or access to the internet. It is still a very intense and controlled existence. I don’t know that I would put myself through it or even recommend it to friends.

HALL It used to be four to a room. We had bunk beds! And I was 45, a grown-ass woman living with 20-somethings who couldn’t remember to flush the toilet.

Jo Sharon and Casey Kriley

Jo Sharon and Casey Kriley

BROOKE WILLIAMSON (SEASON 10 RUNNER-UP AND SEASON 14 WINNER) The lack of respect was astounding. There was a night I came back from a challenge and someone had taken all my laundry out of the washing machine and put it wet on the floor. That fueled me. The only thing that mattered was making all of that worth it.

JO SHARON (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, 2020-PRESENT) We just refocused it from having them competing against each other to a point where everyone is actually competing against themselves.

[Other changes include revised contestant contracts and heightened casting scrutiny, the result of a post-filming revelation that Season 18 winner Gabe Erales had been fired from a restaurant over sexual harassment allegations.]

SHARON Our casting continues to be a very thorough process where we’re tapping into the chef community. We’ve added additional layers to the vetting process, speaking to more current and former employers and peers.

KRILEY We also added a morality clause to the contestant agreements.

ARQUINES There’s also been a shift in the industry, in how chefs behave. Even though it’s a competition, they’re treating it like a workplace.

COLICCHIO You don’t have chefs screaming in your face anymore.

ARQUINES The casting has also changed so much as the talent level has increased. It’s targeted. It’s word-of-mouth recommendations. We haven’t done an open call in years.

KRILEY We’re looking off the beaten path, not just at those who came up in culinary school, and digging deeper into diversity.

LAKSHMI Doneen and I have spent a lot of time talking about how to bring in more diversity. From day one, Top Chef has done a good job. We’ve always had almost an equal number of male to female chefs.

One of season 19 champ Buddha Lo’s winning dishes, his mother’s Penang laksa with cannelloni, king crab, lobster and a carrot butterfly tuile.

One of season 19 champ Buddha Lo’s winning dishes, his mother’s Penang laksa with cannelloni, king crab, lobster and a carrot butterfly tuile.

SHARON The pandemic season [18], we had a group of alumni come in to guest judge because we were shooting in a bubble. We were scared that viewers would reject it, because we’d gone so long without a big change, but it was so well-received we’ve kept it going.

SIMMONS The alumni pool we’re pulling from, it’s not just 10 or 16 people. There are over a hundred of them at this point who are household names.

KRILEY For season 20, Bravo knew we wanted to do something big.

SHARON And this show has spread its tentacles across the world.

COLICCHIO So let’s make it an international competition. Let’s bring in Top Chef winners or runners-up from different productions. And if it’s an international competition, let’s get out of the States.

RYAN FLYNN (SENIOR VP CURRENT PRODUCTION, BRAVO) Shooting in London was… not easy. We’re used to going into a city, say Houston, and the local government is like “Yes! Top Chef! How can we help you with clearances and permits?”

CUTFORTH Not Boston! Red tape nightmare. Teamsters slashing tires and threatening cast and crew and all sorts of stuff.

FLYNN In London, we were like “We’re here! It’s Top Chef!” And they’re like, “That’s lovely… what does that mean?” Kudos to Frances, because all shows are fighting for budgets right now. This season is a bit of an anomaly in terms of the spend.

COLICCHIO For me, it was fantastic. I got to live in Notting Hill for seven weeks. Top Chef is summer camp.


As season 20 nears an end, with a Paris-set finale airing June 8, it’s natural to wonder how much further Top Chef can go. But it’s already renewed for No. 21, its core team is not yet considering an end to the gig and future spinoffs are on the table. And as those involved from day one look across the industry, both entertainment and culinary, they see their fingerprints everywhere.

FLYNN There’s Top Chef and then there’s everything else. This isn’t just a cooking competition. It’s the state of the food industry.

COHEN It’s my opinion that Food Network should be paying Bravo residuals. The whole look of the Food Network completely changed after Top Chef.

ZALAZNICK I think that is an incontrovertible truth. It was genre-busting. Like with many things, it can be imitated — but never as good or successful as the original.

LIPSITZ A lot of the challenges that we did on Top Chef spun off to become actual series … elsewhere.

CUTFORTH We were pretty militant about not casting anyone who did Chopped for a while.

LIPSITZ For a long time, Food Network wouldn’t have anyone from Top Chef on the air. But the culinary landscape is just populated with people who did either Top Chef or Masters. You can’t really avoid it.

SIMMONS Food Network is almost exclusively dessert and baking competitions now — so I have to believe, if we made Top Chef: Just Desserts again today, 10 years later, it would be received differently.

SHARON Just Desserts came out before the baking craze, and we still feel like it could come back.

BERWICK We’re always exploring spinoffs, but I do think that there is a really long runway for Top Chef.

LAKSHMI I find, just moving through the world, that there are two types of people — those who don’t know what Top Chef is and rabid fans.

COHEN It’s still so important to Bravo, but it’s a huge brand unto itself. It’s created hundreds of stars — and they’ve created hundreds of restaurants.

ZALAZNICK I think more about how the phrase “Top Chef” has disseminated than anything. It’s everywhere. You travel in America or another country, and the absolute top-notch food critics are reviewing restaurants from Top Chefs.

COLICCHIO Think about it. You’re a chef on our show, and you do pretty well, you’re going to get financing for a restaurant. That is a difficult thing to do — especially for minorities, for people of color and for women. This show has helped with that.

SIMMONS Our contestants have changed the economics of the restaurant industry in America. They’ve opened hundreds of restaurants. They have their own brands and shows and creative platforms — and I’m not taking credit for any of that. I’m just the doting aunt.

Interviews edited for length and clarity.

Carla Hall, Brooke Williamson, Jamie Lauren, Gregory Gourdet and Melissa King

Carla Hall, Brooke Williamson, Jamie Lauren, Gregory Gourdet and Melissa King

This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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