Behind the Scenes at ‘Top Chef’ Kentucky's Restaurant Wars
It’s like seeing an entire documentary made about your dinner.
Intentional or not, one of the benefits of our current national obsession with cooking and baking series like Top Chef, The Great British Baking Show, and Chef’s Table is a renewed appreciation for the skills, effort, and people behind the food we eat. Cooking professionally is exhausting, exacting work. Creating dishes and combining flavors is mentally taxing and often a hit-or-miss endeavor. Chefs give up their nights, weekends, and personal lives all in the name of serving us a perfect plate of food. (Whether we remember all that when our entree comes out of the kitchen a little cold is another issue.) But largely, the food we see on TV never materializes for us viewers to actually experience firsthand. That’s not the case, however, on Top Chef which pits the cheftestants in public-facing challenges like the perennial Restaurant Wars, pulling back to the curtain for the fans to catch a glimpse and taste the competition as it’s happening.
Season 16 in Kentucky is no exception, though it does throw the 12 remaining chefs for a loop as the challenge came earlier than ever and upped the usual one-on-one battle of pop-up restaurants to three competing teams. Teaming the Kentucky Tourism, the Bravo network invited journalists to experience parts of this season on set in Louisville and Lexington capping off the week’s behind-the-scenes tour with reservations at the as-yet-nonexistent Restaurant Wars restaurants the cheftestants would be tasked with creating from the ground up. How could I say no?
When I arrived in Louisville, my first stop was to the main Top Chef set located in an otherwise nondescript industrial park. A large warehouse served as base camp for the oft-on-location series and also housed this season’s Top Chef Kitchen, which was decked out with bourbon barrels and racehorse barn elements to invoke the host state.
The kitchen is bigger than you might expect, partially because camera crews have to share the space with harried chefs wielding knives and scorching hot pans, and partially because it means the chefs actually have to run everywhere to make the most of their Quickfire time limit. TV is a visual medium, after all.
From video village (a collection of monitors covering every camera angle, and chairs seating the show’s story producers, director, other production crew, and occasionally a little chihuahua belonging to one of Padma Lakshmi’s stylists) I witnessed just how tedious the process of filming the results of a simple Quickfire challenge — perhaps a minute or two of actual screen time — can be. Padma’s explanation of the rules doesn’t sound quite right? Run it again in her own words. Didn’t catch a chef’s reaction to winning? Announce the winner again and move that taller guy’s shoulder out of the way. It’s the nudging of reality “reality television” is known for, in it’s most benign practice. After all, the food — and the judges’ reactions to it — are all real, as were the gasps and shock that swept over the cheftestants when Padma revealed this week’s elimination challenge would be the famed Restaurant Wars. As the three teams of chefs set off to plan their restaurant concepts, cameras in tow, I checked into my hotel, exhausted from just watching the first act of what would be Episode 4 come together.
Cut to a couple days later (hey, Top Chef does it, why can’t I?) and I’m in a car with fellow writers headed toward Lundy’s event space, a collection of blank-space buildings tucked in near auto dealerships and a Sam’s Club in Lexington. The parking lot is bustling with production crew members who have been shooting what is now day two of the challenge all morning and afternoon.
On a tour of the set, I was walked past the line briefly to witness the chaos (organized and not) of each team putting together the elements that would become the night’s dinner. Chefs who are unknown to me at the moment but would become familiar in just six months time smile and wave if they have time (even then, it’s clear they really don’t). The energy is palpable and, despite the appearance that the chefs have cameras in their faces the entire time, there were moments of hurried calm as the lenses turned elsewhere for the time being. It was just ingredients, equipment, and chefs at work… fast at work.
Then I was taken to a de facto holding tank to await my reservation. While most restaurants would have you chill in the lobby or grab a cocktail at the bar while you wait for a table to open up, the sudden influx of dozens of diners descending on three adjacent restaurants provides some logistic problems for the Top Chef crew. Instead of releasing the hungry throngs upon the host stands at each restaurant, we’re held in another warehouse with industrial fans and lemonade keeping us cool, dry, and out of the sporadic rain. Reservation names are shouted out as space becomes available… only for those who are called up to be asked to line up and wait again.
As Tom, Padma, Nilou, and guest judge Caroline Styne notice in Episode 5, the restaurants are all running behind. The chefs and front of house crews do their best to turn over tables and expedite dishes, but only so many diners can wait inside the busy event space housing North East, Thistle, and Third Coast all right next to each other. Queuing up to enter, the atmosphere is more Hollywood soundstage than restaurant row. Plywood flats are propped up and sandbagged, raw wood on the outside and only painted the inside. It’s clear the dining space has been a work in progress until the last minute. We’re essentially single file in a dark makeshift hallway before we, eventually (yes the wait times were up to an hour — especially at Third Coast) rounded the corner into the brightly-lit set that would serve as a fully-functioning restaurant for just a few hours.
To keep customers happy, stemware is handed out and wine is poured liberally to the increasingly impatient guests yet to be seated. Once my party is finally shown to our table at Thistle, the heavy pours continue as we peruse a six-item menu less than 48 hours in the making. We’re also seated directly behind the judges, with a crane-mounted camera staring directly in our faces. It’s difficult to try to look and talk naturally with my newly-acquainted friends while avoiding making eye contact with the lens. We do our best and even hear Padma, Nilou, and guest judge Karen Ackunowicz discussing our table as Sara — I can corroborate — does indeed go over the entire menu in detail (with a smile).
Our food comes out slowly but surely. It’s the dishes you see the judges eating in the episode and generally we had the same reactions — the candied ginger made the gazpacho oddly sweet, the agnolotti pasta was impressively perfect in texture and brightly flavored by the fresh peas, the apples overpowered the delicate scallops, the short ribs were tougher than we’d like, and the desserts were well thought out, both holding up to the increasing ambient heat in the event space due to three working kitchens and hundreds of bodies mingling about. After dessert, we were hurried out to make way for the next guests.
Earlier in the week, I was given the option to dine at a second restaurant and thought ‘why not?’ not considering it meant another delayed reservation. I spent some of that time in video village once again, this time noticing how different the pace of production was compared to the more static set back in Louisville. The cameras are constantly in motion trying to capture the moments as they happen, grabbing judges’ facial reactions, and catching all of the comments and quips. Restaurant Wars only happens once, there are no reshoots.
I was called up again for my Third Coast reservation and experienced essentially the same process over again, this time at nearly 10:45 p.m. — an hour and fifteen minutes after my scheduled seating. Nini greeted us and vented a little bit about the staff and the overall tone of the evening (full disclosure, I was seated with a Bravo employee this time, so the candor was probably due to that familiarity with our party). Ironically, despite the slow service, depleting menu (we didn’t get to try the much-raved about pannacotta), and mumblings of upset diners, Third Coast felt the most like a real restaurant in its physical presence.
But, as we now know, both restaurants I experienced ended up on the bottom. It was clear to me as a diner that everyone was trying, but some things just weren’t going well. Thanks to Top Chef’s cameras and a little editing, as of last night’s episode I now know exactly why.
Season 16 of Top Chef in Kentucky airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo.