Padma Lakshmi and the 'Top Chef' Judges Spill the Show's Most Intimate Secrets
Find out which chefs the judges would choose to create their last meal, and the contestants they think are the most talented in the history of the show's run.
At the 92nd Street Y last night, host Padma Lakshmi, and long-time judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, as well as newcomer and former contestant Graham Elliot, gathered together for a discussion about the storied history of Top Chef ahead of the premiere of the new season. Moderated by New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt, the conversation laid bare the judges’ most well-kept secrets, with the group admitting that though they often bicker, they have remained close friends and allies throughout the show’s twelve-year history. The panel also gave the audience a behind-the-scenes look how Top Chef has developed over the years.
Colicchio—who has been with Top Chef the longest of the assembled group alongside Simmons—told the audience that he was “shocked at first” at how successful the show turned out to be, recalling that he actually turned down the offer to judge the show three times before finally accepting the position. Simmons added that she felt as though, at the start of the show, she and her colleagues “were guinea pigs.”
“There was no other show on the air quite like it. No one had ever wanted to make a show about professional chefs,” she explained. “I remember in that first season feeling as though we were all just winging it.”
Of course, Simmons did worry that the show would fail—but not because she feared the judgment of viewers that she would never meet. Instead, she was “worried about how our industry would take it.” As it turned out, the chefs that Simmons thought might hate the show began asking to appear on it.
So why did Top Chef turn out to be so massively popular? Lakshmi, who serves as both a judge and host, thinks it’s because Top Chef “is really, really about the food.”
In the mind of Simmons, Top Chef offers audiences something special—it “opens a window to the professional kitchen,” an insulated world populated by chefs at a skill level beyond what the average cook is capable of achieving in their own kitchen. The appeal of that concept has not faded away for audiences.
One of the most intriguing—or “thrilling,” as Lakshmi terms it—aspects of the show is simply the pace at which the contestants can cook, creating beautiful, satisfying dishes in a matter of minutes.
“If we say you have a half an hour to cook, you have a half an hour to cook,” Colicchio added. “There’s no suspended time on our show.”
The group thinks of filming the show as “summer camp” or a “circus coming to town,” a time when old friends gather together for six weeks to “have a great time.” Colicchio revealed that crew and cast members who are musicians often gather to play music.
“When we come together, we come back as a family,” Lakshmi said. Her daughter has “grown up on set,” (apparently, Emeril Lagasse liked to hang out in her playroom because she had a paint set) and she and Colicchio even attended Simmons’ wedding.
But for all that love they share, there’s still tension.
“We fight all the time,” Colicchio admitted. “We do disagree, but we do have each other’s backs, and we care for each other.”
Platt suggested that one of the main reasons behind the show’s long-term success is the chemistry between the hosts—even when they disagree—and that each host plays an important role in the Top Chef kitchen.
Lakshmi—according to Simmons—is “the ultimate hostess,” while Colicchio is “the chef of the restaurant” who treats the contestants like he would the cooks in his own kitchen. Meanwhile, she thinks of herself as the “educated diner.”
But even when they are operating at their very best, there are still times when the competition is just too close—and no amount of chemistry between them can change that.
“There have been eight to ten-hour judging tables,” Simmons recalled. During season four, she and the judges were debating the winner for so long that the sun had come up, compelling the camera crew to readjust the lights. While they were working, Simmons fell asleep at the table—at which point she jokes that Andy Cohen began writing all over her face with a marker. No matter how tired they are, however, the decision about who wins a challenge or the overall competition must be unanimous—and the producers don’t have any say in the winner.
“They wouldn’t let us leave the judge’s table if we didn’t feel comfortable with our decision,” Lakshmi said.
Those early seasons were also tough on Colicchio, who Lakshmi remembered was often “annoyed” with his co-stars and the contestants. She revealed that she initially took the show because she felt it might “help her cookbook a little,” but for Colicchio, beyond hoping for more success when he released a new book, the first seasons proved a challenge for him—he was used to making his own hours as a chef, but as a reality television host, he had to adhere to a much stricter schedule.
Eventually, though, they hit their side, but even now they can’t spot the winners right away. They can, however, usually pick out the top six or seven cooks—and yes, they do have their favorites.
“I thought that Paul Qui was the most talented cook,” Colicchio said. “Mike Isabella has 14 restaurants, a lot more than I have. He’s probably the best chef of anyone we’ve had.”
The new season promises to feature one of the most diverse casts the show has ever seen and features a cook who makes Amish soul food, as well as both Vietnamese and Pakistani cooks. The altitude in Colorado, where the new season was filmed, also proved to be new ground for judges. Lakshmi tells a story of filming one day in Telluride while wearing a beautiful dress and throwing up between shots, her assistant “literally holding her hair back,” as her body adjusted to the new environment.
Before the panel ended, the judges revealed one more juicy detail for the audience: Which former contestant on the show they would ask to cook their last meal.
Lakshmi picked, without hesitation, Kristen Kish (she’d ask her to make three different kinds of pasta) while Elliot unequivocally picked Stephanie Izard. Colicchio had more trouble picking, eventually settling on Nina Compton’s Caribbean food or one of Gregory Gourdet’s stews. Simmons settled on Sarah Grueneberg, and joked that she could “just lie down in her restaurant [Monteverde] and die happy.”
By the way, if the judges could cast their very own second All Star season, they would pick all of the winners from past seasons. No doubt, if they were ever able to gather those chefs together, the world would definitely be watching.
Update 11/30: An earlier version of this article stated that Adam Platt is the restaurant critic at the New Yorker. He actually works for New York magazine.