“Your time starts... now!”
I actually heard those words spoken by Padma Lakshmi in the Top Chef kitchen during a taping of the Bravo TV show in Charleston. I’ve been on set twice, but strict confidentiality agreements limit what I can – and can’t – say.
I found out about the Charleston season back in March, through a news release the day after Jeremy Ford was declared the winner of Season 13. Faster that you can say “pack your knives and go,” I was on the phone and exchanging emails with Bravo’s Top Chef production staff, trying to get information and/or access to the show.
But, Columbia isn’t Chucktown, so I wasn’t sure if I would even be considered.
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Somewhere, though, the culinary competition gods must have been smiling on me.
After exchanging about a dozen emails, I met Rebecca Boswell, director of communications for Bravo & Oxygen Media at NBC Universal, at an I-can’t-tell-you-where location. Boswell is handling the press for Season 14 so I got to follow her around the Top Chef kitchen set, standing where told, trying to stay quiet and out of camera range.
Boswell told me about some of the challenges that filming in Charleston presented:
1. It’s the smallest location, so far, so trying to keep everything under wraps is hard. The contestants can’t really get out and walk around town (even those who are eliminated early). This is also the first time the show will stay put, shooting in one location during the production cycle.
2. There’s only one Whole Foods, a perennial sponsor of Top Chef, and it doesn’t close down when the chefs are sent out to shop.
3. Finding spaces to film has been hard since Charleston is an older city and available spaces tend to small.
4. Taping a show takes longer than you think. Each episode of Top Chef takes three days to shoot. While I was there, it took about five hours to shoot what will be edited down to about a 20-minute segment.
5. And you may be disappointed if you’re hoping for any Southern Charm crossovers. Two totally separate audiences, she said.
Boswell runs media for this show as well as a few of the Real Housewives franchises. When asked which was more stressful, she replied that having a housewife yelling at you is no piece of cake.
During a break in shooting, I got to talk to Padma and found out what she and some of the other regular judges have been doing while in Charleston.
She likes to get out when there’s a bit of free time and explore the city and was looking forward to spending time with her daughter. The Lee Brothers, Matt and Ted, are friends and sent her a copy of their Charleston Kitchen cookbook as a guide around town.
Padma, co-judge Gail Simmons and others recently celebrated Gail’s birthday at The Wreck on Shem Creek, and the crew has hit some of the usual big-name restaurants: Husk, FIG, The Ordinary, Artisan Meat Share, Martha Lou’s and The Obstinate Daughter.
Tom Colicchio – who is a consultant at Kiawah Island Club restaurants and has been advocating for Charleston as a location – can be spotted in the Elliotborough-Cannonborough area of Charleston (home of such restaurants as The Ordinary, Hominy Grill, Hall’s Chophouse and Xiao Bao Biscuit, to name just a few).
I also got to talk with Sandee Birdsong, the supervising culinary producer for the show. She was a contestant during the third season of Top Chef and was eliminated early but found that she enjoyed working behind the scenes. Birdsong is one of the folks responsible for sourcing local ingredients.
“We were surprised at how the cuisine here is so different from everywhere else,” she said. “It was totally unexpected” when referring to the range of ingredients that are available, not just in Charleston, but within South Carolina.
Here’s hoping that the chef-testants, cast and crew of Top Chef enjoy their stay in the Holy City and that they never get their fill of good Southern cuisine.
The Charleston season will begin airing around the end of the year on Bravo, though a specific date has not been announced.
“Top Chef” news
Chef, cookbook author, and television personality Graham Elliot is joining the Judges Table on this season of “Top Chef.”
Elliot may be familiar to some as a co-host on Fox’s “MasterChef” and “MasterChef Junior,” and as a competitor on Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef America,” and Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.” He opened his namesake restaurant Graham Elliot in Chicago in 2008 – it has been awarded two Michelin stars –along with Graham Eliot Bistro in Chicago’s West Loop in 2012.
He will join the regular “Top Chef” panel that includes host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio, and judges Gail Simmons and Richard Blais in determining who will stay and who will go.