Bravo’s Emmy-winning hit Top Chef returns for it’s ninth (!) season tonight at 10 p.m. ET – and boy, do they have a lot on their plate. After setting up shop in cities across the country (see: San Fancisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, New York City, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C.), the Top Chef crew is taking on the entire state of Texas. Top Chef: Texas will put the chef’testants in various challenges across three different cities in the Lone Star state: Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. Pretty rad, huh?
It’s hard to believe it’s only been eight seasons, considering the impact the show has made; elevating the way everyday folks think and talk about food. I mean, there’s a whole new crop of foodies out there who’ve really learned how to experience food from watching Top Chef. And most of that, in my eyes, is due to the judges themselves. The way they educate viewers on flavors and cooking techniques through each elimination. It’s similar to the way judging is handled on So You Think You Can Dance and Project Runway. Intelligent discussions create better viewers and in turn, better consumers.
But for host Padma Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio, they never expected that effect when they first started the show. “I didn’t start out thinking it was going to have any effect at all,” Colicchio told me when he and Lakshmi sat down for an interview last week. “I thought maybe four people would watch this show and maybe two of them would be my family. So I was really surprised by the impact it does have.”
Does that mean Colicchio and Lakshmi think about that impact when filming? Not so much. “Personally, I just try and communicate the way I like or don’t like something to the person who made it,” Padma Lakshmi explained. “Whatever the criticism is, it has to be constructive and useful to that chef. Because it’s very frustrating when they’re working their butts off and their tired and they really love what they do so they just want to be better at it. They just want to know why. As a judge, it’s important to not only say that you don’t like something but exactly why you don’t like it and exactly why you could’ve like it or whatever the case at hand may be.”
Colicchio is much more direct: “Early on, we figured out the only way that the viewer can experience food is through our conversation. So we all decided that we have to have a real, honest conversation about food. We’re not mugging for the cameras. We’re not saying outrageous things just to sound outrageous. We’re not yelling and screaming at people. We’re having a serious conversation about the food that’s put in front of us – the good, the bad, and the different. And I think that’s what really comes through.”
It is what comes through – and certainly what keeps me watching season after season. So what can viewers expect this season on Top Chef: Texas? Well, a lot of good, new stuff! Here’s 5 reasons I think you’ll want to watch:
Everything’s bigger in Texas – especially the number of chef’testants themselves.
Rather than starting with the usual crop of 16 chef’testants, this season, Top Chef is starting things out of the gate with 29 chefs. 29! In tonight’s premiere, that crop of 29 will be whittled-down to a final 16, through a series of cooking challenges. The goal wasn’t just to make the first episode more exciting, but to make the series itself more real. Rather than casting chefs off resumes and interviews, the mass-elimination will give chefs the ability to cook themselves into the competition. That change made from some interesting twists right in the first episode – and probably saved the series from a group of bad chef’testants. “There were some people who we were lead to believe, from their resumes, would have been great contests – really strong cooks,” Colicchio explained. “And they weren’t good at all!”
Voted-off contestants will have the chance to return.
Those bad contestants that get chopped in episode one? Well, they may not be done yet. This season, Top Chef is taking a page out of Survivor and creating a “Redemption Island” of sorts. Eliminated contestants will have a chance to return to the main kitchen to compete for the Top Chef: Texas title through the Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen webisode series. Deets of how exactly this twist will work are being kept under lock and key. We do know that each week, two eliminated chef’testants face-off for the chance to stay in the competition. And that the last person standing in the “Last Chance Kitchen” will get back into the competition. And that Tom Colicchio will serve as host and the only judge who determines who stays or goes. Oh, and that none of the contestants were ever told about the second-chance until after they were voted off. What we don’t know is just what those cooking challenges will be. Either way, Colicchio thinks the twist will really resonate with viewers. “It addresses the person whom the view thinks got a raw deal or maybe they were more talented and they were kick out too soon,” he said. I just hope this doesn’t affect the way Padma kicks people off the show. “Please pack you knives… and go to the Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen.” Yeah – doesn’t have the same ring to it.
All of these people are way better cooks than you.
Want to know what I cooked myself for dinner last night? Peanut butter and jelly. And I burnt the damn toast! Let’s just say, cooking really isn’t my thing. But chances are, for these 29 contestants, cooking is very much their thing. And if the past seven seasons of Top Chef is any indication (not counting All-Stars, of course), the talent just keep getting better and better. So how does this year’s class rate? “On a straight cooking level, the talent is as good as any season,” said Tom Colicchio. But to Padma Lakshmi, there’s a bit of rivalry lacking between the crop this year: “These guys are very passionate, but seem to have something personal to prove to themselves or to an audience back home rather than just those of us who are standing in the kitchen.”
There are some terrible new judges, who won’t be so bad next to some awesome celebrity judges.
Don’t worry – Padma, Tom, and Gale Simmons aren’t going anywhere. But if you’re looking for Season 7’s judge Eric Ripert or Season 8’s judge Anthony Bourdain to fill that fourth slot, you’d be mistaken. Instead, superstar celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and Top Chef: Masters contestant Hugh Acheson will be taking turns at judge’s table. Between Acheson’s unibrow and Emeril’s overuse of the term “BAM,” it’s going to be a loooong season. Luckily, there are a ton of celebrity guest judges stopping by for a visit too, including Charlize Theron, Pee-wee Herman, and Patti LaBelle (!!!). Wait, is this RuPaul’s Drag Race?
The food revolution has hit Texas too.
Padma may be eating a messy plate of ribs in the commercials for this season, but Top Chef: Texas won’t be your stereotypical view of Texas. Sure, “the portions are bigger in Texas,” as Lakshmi told me. But don’t expect to just see your traditional Tex-Mex style cooking. “I think chefs these days are doing more to spell that notion of Texas being about just meat and ribs,” Colicchio explained, pointing to restaurants like Monterey in San Antionio, Barley Swine in Austin, and his own Craft in Dallas. “There’s a whole generation of younger chefs who might be trained outside of Texas and will take some of those Tex-Mex ideas and really refine them – making them modern and going in a different direction.” For Colicchio, what’s happening in Texas is indicative of the bigger picture. “There’s a food revolution going on throughout the county,” he explained. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re down south, up north in Maine, out west in Portal or Seattle.”
Of course, Colicchio and company may want to head up north next time around, after filming in Texas. “The 110 degree temperature every day?” said Coolicchio. “It was brutal.”
Tune in to Top Chef: Texas tonight on Bravo at 10 p.m. EST.