It happens relatively quickly. You get a phone call. Then, in a few hours, a list of things you can bring. Followed by a longer list of things you can’t. And then a few hundred papers to sign. You receive flight information and contact info for people you’ve never met. They will be “handling you,” whatever that means. In a few days, you’re off to be a contestant on Top Chef. At the time you don’t know it, but that Wired magazine with Brad Pitt on the cover and that pretty awful hot dog at the airport will be your last taste of freedom for a while.
Upon arrival, you will be stripped of your belongings. Your Red Sox cap, gone — it’s branded. (Why do you think you see so many home-printed t-shirts?) Cell phone, wallet, money, ID, notebook with recipes. Gone. Even that magazine. Confiscated, for six weeks, you can hope at least. At this point, I’m sure they are checking toothpaste tubes for illegally transported methyl cellulose. It’s serious.
There is a part to the first few days of being on Top Chef that's like prison, I expect. There’s bad food, blood being spilled, and alliances being made. For as long as you’re filming, you will never even go to the bathroom alone. You won’t need a shank of course, unless it's lamb.
You get to meet your fellow competitors now. At a house that I’m guessing is a good upgrade from where most of the cast usually resides. I remember our house in Chicago had a toilet seat warmer. That was nice. There will be a scramble for bunk beds (not sure why). And there’s so much chatter and name-dropping going on that the prison-like atmosphere becomes more summer camp-ish, or since there’s alcohol in abundance, maybe college.
I’ve worked for him, or her. I’ve got this nomination, or this award. I’ve been on that TV show. At my restaurant this, at my restaurant that. My style is this. I grow my own food, etc. etc. This casual social mixer seems harmless and fun. Hair starts to come down. Neckerchiefs start to loosen.
But in an hour’s time, half of the pack will have been virtually eliminated.
That is a bold statement but one I can make with certainty. Of course there is maybe one contestant each year who finishes way beyond everyone’s expectations. But the first true accomplishment during the competition is getting half-way through. The contestants can lay odds (see what I did there?) on who will be in the game very easily. All it takes is this first gathering.