Rarely has there ever been a sight more awe-inspiring than the 15 All Stars competing for another shot at culinary supremacy lined up in front of Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons in the Bravo's Top Chef Season 17 premiere.
The uniqueness of the occasion certainly wasn’t lost on Tom. “You’re an elite group of chefs. There’s no denying that,” the head judge said before calling attention to all the James Beard Foundation Awards nominees and winners, Top Chef runners-up, and “chefs who think they got burnt by the game” included in this group of All Stars.
This batch of cheftestants is just one way this season of Top Chef will be unlike any other. Filmed at some of the most legendary locations around Los Angeles, Top Chef Season 17 will be the fiercest ever, filled with major firsts for the competition, including the first-ever season finale filmed in Europe. Whoever comes out on top in this most challenging season will be awarded the largest cash prize in Top Chef history: $250,000.
So, how did this unprecedented season of Top Chef come together? Top Chef executive producer Doneen Arquines is giving Bravo Insider members an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Season 17, from how producers decided which cheftestants to bring back to all the major changes in the kitchen to what we can expect from the season finale in Italy.
Bravo Insider: Why did now feel like the right time to have another all-star season of Top Chef?
Doneen Arquines: It just really felt like it had been a while — almost nine seasons — since we’d done an all-star season [in Season 8]. A lot of the chefs had been hitting me up and wanting to know when we were doing an all-star season again. I was hearing a lot of people who are fans also asking, "It’s got to be an all-star season coming up soon." It just felt like it was the right time.
With so many talented chefs on Top Chef over the years, how did the cast come together for the all-star season?
We reached out to every chef, really, that had ever competed and wanted to know if we did an all-star season, if they would be interested in competing. Most people were, some not, but most people were. So I think it was just kind of seeing who was interested and going from there, and looking at who made it to the finals. I think it was really important to have a lot of really strong chefs in the competition, who made it far in their seasons, who maybe were eliminated early for some reason or the other that we thought had a good story in terms of coming back. And maybe they’d gone on to do things since competing on the show. All that stuff came into play.
How did you go about crafting the challenges for this season? Was there a feeling that you needed to make them extra-challenging, considering not only are these talented chefs, but they’ve also competed on Top Chef before?
Yeah, extra-challenging in some ways. But also, extra-exciting, I’d say. For them, too.
For instance, the first Quickfire challenge, we were up at the Griffith Observatory, which is not an easy place to film. It’s got a great view of Los Angeles and just felt like a really great place to kick off the show. We were able to access places in Los Angeles that we haven’t had access to before, and I think that also was part of the consideration. Difficult challenges but also cool challenges.
With so many iconic locations to film at in L.A., how did you narrow it down for Season 17 of Top Chef?
It’s kind of a long process, but our challenge team comes up with a bunch of different challenges. We did look specifically at if we did something with the Getty, what would we want to do? If we did something here, what would we want to do? That kind of just came together in pitching challenges, finding the balance of a variety of locations and a variety of challenges.
What is your favorite type of Quickfire or elimination challenge?
Oh, that’s a tough question. There’s a couple things. I definitely love a fun Quickfire challenge, something that can be outside the box, a little punny. I think you have a little bit more leeway with that because nobody is getting eliminated, so those are fun for me. But then also, the elimination challenges where we’re able to either access a really cool location or have a person that’s interesting, exciting come and be a guest judge. Those are the things that we get excited about.
One of the fun challenges, it came together pretty easy. When we were talking about coming to Los Angeles, we were like, "Oh, we should have [Danny] Trejo be a guest judge. It’ll be so much fun." You know, he has taco shops now in L.A. and a doughnut and coffee shop. And so we were like, "OK, well, we can do tacos for Trejo. But how can we make this more fun and a Top Chef challenge?" And so we had [the chefs] make tacos, but then their only cutting device, basically, their only knives in the kitchen was a machete. You know, based off of his character [Machete]. [It] was a lot of fun, and the chefs had a ton of fun with that challenge.
In the Season 17 premiere, Brian Malarkey makes a comment that the Top Chef kitchen is so different from when he first competed back in Season 3. How would you say the Top Chef kitchen has changed over the years?
First of all, it’s definitely a lot more pretty [laughs]. As the seasons have progressed, we’ve had a lot more fun with the set design of the kitchen and making it look unique in every location that we go. The wood-fire oven is something that we’ve added. There’s all kinds of equipment and tools in there that hadn’t existed before. A lot more staple pantry ingredients, as well, for Quickfire challenges. So there’s just a lot more room for creativity with what they’re doing because they have more access to things.
Speaking of Malarkey, he’s already giving hilarious interview bites right from the start of the season. What is it like having him in the interview chair?
I never personally interviewed him, but I know that he enjoyed it. The great part about having contestants coming back is they know what it’s like, and I think they’re not as filtered, maybe, as they are the first time around. I think that this time, everybody’s really being themselves and having fun with it. I think even Lee Anne [Wong] and a few other contestants come across that way in the interview as well.
From what you saw this season, did you feel like the chefs were more relaxed since they have been through this Top Chef experience before? Or did they feel more pressure to win this time around?
Yeah, I would not say that they were more relaxed. I think they were definitely a lot more competitive. Definitely did not want to go out early. I think it was more stressful.
What was it like for you to start as a production assistant in the very first season of Top Chef to now work as an executive producer on the series and see the show evolve over the past 17 seasons?
It’s been a lot of fun. I love where it’s going and how the show’s evolved. Matt Reichman [Vice President, Current Production] over at Bravo has been with the show for a really long time, and so both of us have been able to really see the show grow and evolve and I think become better over the years. You know, the first season, I still love the first season, but it’s funny for me to watch people commenting who just now are starting to catch up with it on Hulu. People watch, maybe had seen like last season, and then they decided to go back and start watching from the beginning. And they’re like, "what the hell is this show [laughs]," because it’s so different and the contestants are so different. So, it is fun to see the evolution of it and also how it’s really affected the restaurant industry over the years. I think that food has evolved with the show as well.
How would you say the show has changed the most over the past 17 seasons?
I think that the talent level just gets higher and higher every year. We’re seeing a lot of really talented chefs coming on the show and competing. As the seasons progress, we also have to be a little bit more creative with the challenges, because we’ve kind of done a lot of things and there’s not a lot out there that is new. So, when you’re able to kind of call something new, that’s always exciting.
Top Chef filmed its finale in Europe for the first time in Season 17. What was it like to film there?
It was amazing. I think that we had always wanted to go to Europe, and it was great that we were able to do that this year. We were able to travel to a couple of places in Italy and really feature some of the amazing local products that we’re all familiar with but maybe haven’t really tasted or experienced that fresh. So, it was really interesting.
Do you ever get to taste the chefs’ food?
Pretty rarely. Not really. We really just require them to make the amount of food that they need to make to feed the judges. For like a large event, maybe [you] can sneak a plate. But I try not to, just because it’s really up to the judges, so it doesn’t really matter if I’m eating or not. By the time an event’s done, it’s been out for a while, and I’m like, maybe I don’t really want to be digging into that.
What’s something that you think fans get wrong or they don’t understand about what happens behind the scenes while filming Top Chef?
All these competition shows have to put up this disclaimer that the judges can consult with producers and whatever. I might talk to the judges after they’ve tasted, but I don’t know what they’ve tasted. I certainly am not trying to influence anything that they think, and it really is what their opinion is of the food. We’re not back there being like, "Oh, we should keep this person for story." That’s not how this show works. It’s really about the food. I think that’s something that is important to the integrity of the show and that the judges really care about and are passionate about. It really is up to them.
What are some things that might surprise Top Chef fans about what Padma, Tom, and Gail are like on the set?
They come off very serious, I’m sure, on the show, except for a few light moments during tastings and stuff. But for the most part, everybody’s kind of loose and having fun. A lot of times when we’re all in a city together, staying in a hotel together, Tom will come down and will bring his guitar and jam with some of the crew that has instruments and things. Everybody just hangs out and has fun. I remember when we were shooting a couple of episodes in Alaska in the Seattle season, we were staying in this tiny, little hotel in Juneau, and Tom and Emeril [Lagasse] were constantly getting crab legs made by the chef at the bar. They were just hanging out, so it’s very tight. I think our crew is very tight and [like] family, and the judges are a part of that.
Who are some of your favorite guest judges that have been on the show over the years?
Oh, we always love Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, José Andrés. They’re always great. Charlize Theron, I would say, was one of the best guest judges. She was just fun and interesting. She really liked the show, so it’s fun. Jimmy Fallon was a fun one. He was a judge on the last all-star season, and that was really fun. There’s been a lot of great guest judges.
Are there any guest judges from this season that you’re particularly excited about?
We had a ton of L.A. chefs be a part of this season, and they were all amazing. We have Nancy [Silverton] on a couple of times, which was great. We have some really fun celebrity ones. Kelly Clarkson was fantastic. So much fun, and she definitely did not want to have to give critiques to the chefs, which was really adorable. And they were excited to see her. Even like all of our guy contestants were very excited to see Kelly, so I think it was really fun. Then we had a lot of really great guest judges in the finale. I won’t give anything away, but a lot of Michelin-star stuff. Very cool.
Gail just shared a photo on Instagram from the Season 4 finale Judges’ Table where she decided to take a little nap during the eight hours of filming. What do you remember from that finale?
I remember it being super long and that we ended up having to rush through the end because literally birds were starting to chirp because the sun was coming up. By the time we were done, the sun was up, and everybody still went to the bar afterward to celebrate finishing before they packed up to fly out. It was a lot of fun.
What are your hopes for the future of Top Chef?
I hope that people continue to keep watching. I love that the judges love the show and continue to want to come back. As long as they can be excited about it and the audience is excited about it, hopefully we can continue going. I just hope that we can get some really great talent on this upcoming season, so that we can hopefully get another one of these all-star [seasons] going not too long from now.
Want more Top Chef? New episodes air every Thursday at 10/9c or catch up on this season through the Bravo app.
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