In late January I spoke on the phone with Tom Colicchio, celebrity chef, restaurateur, and star of the hit reality series Top Chef, which just concluded its ninth season.
VM: At judges’ table, how many takes are involved to get it right? A lot?
TC: No, no, no, no, no. They just [turn on] the camera wherever we go. There is a series of pickups if I said something, one of the judges said something up there, and either the camera wasn’t on them or something with the audio. They’re shooting with six cameras—some of them are on the contestants, some of them are on the judges. There’s always a wide shot and so if they want a close up of that, they may ask you to say it again … or the audio wasn’t great.… Other than that, we’re just going, we’re just talking, no script.
VM: So there’s not much rehearsing of lines?
TC: Absolutely not. There’s absolutely no [laughs] no lines being written at all. No. The only lines that are being written are when we’re delivering a challenge, when Padma is delivering a challenge or something, the sort of language we have to use to get it across. But other than that, when we’re deliberating, when we’re interacting with the chefs, that’s all stream of consciousness.
VM: There’s a disclaimer at the end of each show about the producers’ involvement in some of the decisionmaking. So how much influence do they have on who stays and who goes?
TC: It is strictly one hundred percent our decision, not the producers. One hundred percent, I have said this over and over again. People don’t believe me … The producers, for some reason, they’re not allowed to eat the food. Now that said, I’m a producer of the show, so I need to be careful about that.
In fact, when I agreed to do the show, that was one thing I talked about with the producers and with Bravo. I don’t want to be a puppet of some TV producer, and they were like, “No, so what? We don’t care.” They are—there is a disclaimer and it’s there for a legal reason—but they’re there obviously when we’re discussing it because we’re on camera.
Here’s the other thing. You know, we’re always accused of playing favorites because of personalities. We have no idea what their personalities are like. We’re not allowed to interact with them. So the only time we see them is on camera. So all that [drama] that’s happening behind the scenes, we have no idea what’s going on.
VM: How hard is it keeping all of the details a secret?
TC: You know, it’s funny. There are times like when we went to Chicago, there was someone outside of the cast house. They found the cast house, and they were out there 24/7 with cameras. And so we had to figure out ways to deal with that. In Texas, because we were moving around so much, nobody really knew where we were.
VM: What is it with Asians and Top Chef? They always seem to do well. They’re like the southeast Asians and the homeschoolers who do well at the spelling bees?
TC: [Laughs] Some, some, some do. This season, yeah, some. Listen, I think part of it is, and we did talk about this part in our judging: Asian food is very easy to like because it hits your mouth very differently than European food does. In European food, there may be two things to hit—maybe sweet and salty, maybe salty-savory, … but Asian kind of works around, plus you have that distinct flavor that’s usually working in Asian food. It’s something we actually talk about when—not at judges’ table but it something we’re always cognizant of, like, Why are we liking this dish? One of these days someone is going to open the vault to our actual, full-on, real-time judges’ table discussion.
VM: There’s a book you’ll have to write.
TC: Let me tell you, some of them are fascinating because it takes a long time because we pretty much go until we’ve figured out in our minds—sometimes we know right away. Sometimes we’ll go in, we’ll all look at each other. And the other thing we do is, after we eat, we don’t discuss anything among ourselves. We wait until we’re on camera because we’re not actors and if we try to re-create something we’ve already discussed, it kind of doesn’t work. Anyway we found that out in season one. So we’re pretty careful not to discuss it so it’s fresh when we get to the table, we start discussing it, and often we find out right away all four of us are in total agreement, right off the bat. But we still have to play it out because we’re making a TV show…. And we also try to make it where all four agree. We’re okay with three. If there’s a tie, we’re going to discuss for a long time. If there’s an impasse, then I break the tie.
VM: Were you surprised how well the show has done over the years?
TC: Yes. I had no idea. The same producers used to produce Project Runway and also produced something way back called Project Greenlight that I was familiar with. My wife’s a filmmaker [Lori Silverbush] so we used to watch Greenlight. So I knew they were going to produce good TV. I just didn’t know the impact it would have. I figured maybe it would have a little run. I said “no” three times because I was concerned—my big concern was that it was going to be a joke and that my peers were going to look at it as if it were an absolute joke.
The first season I was concerned because there were some good chefs there but they were also casting homecooks and housewives and I remember thinking that first season, this isn’t going to fly because, number one, they can’t compete. You cannot have homecooks, unless they used to be a professionals and now they’re just cooking at home, and you can’t have even a caterer who was catering in a small market—it’s really hard for them to compete, and so don’t do it because it’s not interesting. I know you think you’re making a reality TV show but a lot of people think you’re making a food show so the focus has to be on food. And the message got there. So I said, Listen, it’s not mutually exclusive. You’re going to find chefs that are interesting, have a point of view, that can cook, that’ll make TV with, but they’re not mutually exclusive. You’ve got to find talented people or it’s just not going to work….
And so the following season I think that’s when they maybe had one person—oh, I know, and then they wanted the student thing. And I kept telling them students are not going to be able to compete here. And they kept saying, “Oh wouldn’t it be great if they could?” I’m like, “Yeah, it would be, but they can’t.” [Laughing.] And so the third season you got a student who was like, “Wouldn’t it be great?” and he was the first one to go.
And I could tell. I know how hard this competition is. And all the chefs, usually it’s about halfway through, they all start saying, “I had no idea it was this difficult.” Sitting there watching it on TV, it’s just like, Wow, I can do X,Y, and Z. Okay, it’s exhausting, number one, because they’re working every day. They don’t get a break, and it’s 16 hours a day, and there’s a camera in their face. And so there’s the stress of also performing every day, getting critiqued every day. It’s exhausting. And I think that someone who is not used to—I mean, working in a restaurant, it conditions you. Especially five, six, seven years in, it’s like doing your residency. It conditions you to deal with the hours and deal with the stress. And an average person who’s cooking at home can’t do this. It just doesn’t work.
VM: And it helped that you brought in some serious guest judges like Daniel Boulud, Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, and Emeril Lagasse.
TC: Well, you know, that was my goal. I said to myself, I know that I have a show that our industry accepts when I have people like Daniel Boulud call me up, “Hey Tom, I gotta get on the show.” That’s when I knew we were there. The only big chef that hasn’t done it so far?
VM: Thomas Keller?
TC: No, Thomas did one. Thomas did the Bocuse d’Or challenge in Vegas. Mario Batali, who is a fan of the show, his kids are fans of the show, but for some odd reason he keeps saying, “I don’t want to be that guy.” And I keep saying, “You don’t have to be that guy” so we reached something where we had a little deal. If he does my show, I’ll do his show.
VM: I always assumed it had to do with contracts.
TC: Some of them do, some of them don’t, because some of the Food Network chefs have been on the show. Bobby Flay hasn’t done the show….
But yeah, I had no idea. We are shooting a season 10.
TC: It’s still a secret. Actually we don’t know yet. We usually find out two weeks before.
VM: Why don’t you do one in New Jersey? You’re from Jersey, I’m from Jersey.
TC: [Laughing] Yeah, and we can get Snookie to judge.
To be continued