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Glamour! The least I had the right to expect when I signed on as a judge for Top Chef Masters, was some full-on, 18-carat, Armani-suited, "Where's-my-Winnebago?" glamour. After all I am now part of the legend that is Top Chef. We're shooting in Hollywood, with some of the biggest names in the business. Instead, what do I get? Barely 12 hours after stepping off the plane from London I'm being driven an hour out of town to a local college for the dorm room
challenge. Big name chefs, sure, but cooking with small name microwaves and hot plates. I'm not embarrassed to tell you that my bottom lip trembled. Unattractive in anybody, but particularly so in a man who has decided to express his mid-life crisis through the medium of hair.
Part of it was jet lag, and the effort of getting into the country; the US government had been slow in coming forward with the necessary Visa meaning I had missed some shooting days (thank you Gail Simmonds for standing in). The rest was me trying to get to grips with the situation. I had less than hour to get to know both my fellow judges – the dame in the hat, the skinny guy in the V neck - and of course, Kelly Choi, who immediately struck me as way
too thin for a show like this. I needn't have worried. Within minutes of sitting down with Kelly, Gael Greene, and James Oseland it became clear that, whatever else, we all had one thing in common: we could eat. (Particularly Choi; those race horse legs of hers must be hollow.)
Happily there was also a lot of good stuff to eat, so much so that at the end of the meal we insisted to the production crew that we be allowed to see the circumstances in which our competing chefs had been cooking. Was it really a dorm room? With just a microwave and a hot plate and so on? Well yes, it was, and complete with bed. Impressively rudimentary for such titans of gastronomy? Of course. Glamorous? Not so much.
No matter: I was sure the studios in Downtown LA would deliver on that but again, I'm afraid, first impressions were disappointing. Our base – or the megaplex, as someone with a bitter sense of humour had named it – was a pretty rough looking breeze block space on the edge of the city, down the kind of street you might go for a little light mugging. According to rumour there were permanent films sets upstairs – the classroom, the locker room, the doctor's
surgery – used for the sorts of movies that didn't need much in the way of costumes; looking at the place I could believe it. (One evening shooting had to be suspended for a few minutes because of too much noise from up above, a very special kind of bump and grind.)
But then I was lead through the gloom to the Top Chef Masters set and finally I got what I had come for: Glamour with a capital G. On one side were the kitchens which were so big and so high spec I suspect many of our chef competitors left them wishing it was where they cooked on a full-time basis. The dining room, which is also the location of Judges' Table, was as dramatic and plush and shiny in real life as it looks on the screen. Compared to the sort of show I work on here in the UK this was pure Hollywood: big, brash, bold, and sexy.
All of which was good because, over the next few weeks as we deliberated at each Judges' Table — and they took hours — I was to get to know that room very well. And if you have to work hard it helps if the work space is easy on the eye. Just you wait until you see what the designers have done with it for next week's episode.
Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World, published now in paperback by Henry Holt.