Going into this season of Top Chef Masters, we judges knew ahead of time one of the challenges was going to take place at the Grand Canyon — but I never could have imagined it would be as special as it was. The meal we had this week, eating masterfully prepared indigenous foods alongside members of the Hualapai nation, the spectacular plunge into the Grand Canyon just a few yards from our table, truly was one of the most memorable of my life.
The day we shot the challenge was maybe my favorite day ever on the Top Chef Masters set. While the contestants took scenic helicopter rides to our destination, Ruth, Francis, and I drove from Las Vegas in a Lexus SUV, a multi-hour trip that let my excitement and anticipation build — plus we stopped along the way at an amazing roadside joint, where Francis had a burger, Ruth bought lottery cards, and I put my head through a tacky put-your-head-through-this-piece-of-plywood-and-it-will-appear-as though-you-are-being-abducted-by-space-aliens mural and multiple snapshots were taken. (I may seem like Mr. White Tablecloth on the show, but in truth I'm most in my element in locales more than a little bit kitschy.) By the time we arrived at Grand Canyon West with a bit of time to go before filming, I was nearing a state of bliss: I've had a special relationship with desert my whole life; in my 20s, when I lived in Los Angeles, I used to take off for the desert to camp out alone every chance I got. For this episode, I was so immediately smitten with the breathtaking landscape that I set off hiking the beginning of the descent virtually the second I was out of the car — the producers had to practically drag me back to the table when it was time to eat.