Behind the Scenes of Top Chef with Tom Colicchio

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 10: Chef and TV personality Tom Colicchio attends AOL's BUILD Speaker Series at AOL Studios in New York on November 10, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 10: Chef and TV personality Tom Colicchio attends AOL's BUILD Speaker Series at AOL Studios in New York on November 10, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images) /

As evidenced by season 17, Top Chef and Tom Colicchio are gifts that keep on giving.

Lest anyone think that sustaining such excellence is easy, I would remind you that the origin of the expression “jumping the shark” was the sight of a leather jacket-clad Arthur Fonzarelli on water skis doing just that in season 5 of “Happy Days”, signaling the beginning of the venerable show’s decline. (Thank you, Jon Hein!)

Not only does Top Chef remain the cream of the food TV crop, but there’s absolutely no evidence that decline is even in the show’s lexicon. The magic isn’t the result of dumb luck or smoke & mirrors either but instead is owed to a tried and true recipe that continues to produce television gold.

Key among the not-so-secret ingredients that make Top Chef so satisfying is Tom Colicchio, who I asked what makes the show so special.

“From day one, when I was asked to do the show, I was concerned that it was going to be a cheesy reality competition show. And I wanted no part of that. One was that the judges make decisions. Number two, it was making sure that this was something that the industry would actually be proud of and making sure that we didn’t ever jump the shark.”

While Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons remain the constants, the quality of cheftestants is vital.

“We’re bringing on chefs. We’re not bringing on wannabe chefs or maybe chefs one day. We’re bringing on executive chefs, a chef de cuisine, maybe a senior, senior sous chef, and so you have to have serious chops to get on the show. And as much as you’ll see stuff going on behind the scenes, they’re still there to cook great food. Nobody wants to embarrass themselves. And I think the challenges themselves are very respectful.”

Tom makes it very clear that the production team and culinary team, working in concert, are dedicated to maintaining the integrity and quality that makes Top Chef so special.

“Our Executive Producer Doneen has been with the show from day one. She was a PA season 1 and now she’s an Executive Producer and she has a great team of people who are always looking at ways to create these challenges. Make them hard at times, but also make them where the chefs could do their best work. I look at the challenges and say, can they produce good food? Are the parameters such that it’s impossible? And sometimes that’s just adding extra time. I think it’s a bunch of people who really care to make a good show that the industry respects. So I think that’s why it remains the gold standard. We won’t let it get cheesy. We just won’t.”

I asked Tom to reflect on the obvious chemistry that he enjoys with Padma and Gail.

“I think we trust each other’s opinion. If Padma says that she feels x, y, and z, I don’t just dismiss it, I actually listen to that and go alright, let me think about that. Do I see that? If Gail is saying I’m seeing this, this, and this, again, I don’t just shrug it off. And so it’s really listening to what they’re saying and asking did I miss something. Food is so subjective, so you have to be willing to listen to their point of view and understand it, but I think it comes down to trust. I don’t think anybody’s grandstanding. I think we’re all past the point of trying to get TV time. We’re way past that. And we’ve learned what each other’s strengths are and we have each other’s back. Even when we disagree, it’s respectful.”

That on-screen chemistry that viewers see extends off-screen, as Tom made repeated references to the greater Top Chef team during our conversation.

“We all have life experiences. We all see food differently. We know each other so well now. The great thing about shooting our show is it’s like summer camp. You get together for six or seven weeks and we’re with friends. And when I say friends, that extends to the crew as well. And it’s the same crew season after season. The cool thing is a bunch of us play instruments, so we’ll get together and sing and play and drink a little bit.”

Top Chef’s loyal fan base enjoys a very active online social media presence, with several topics dominating conversation among the show’s followers. Even though season 17 just ended, talk has turned to season 18 and speculation about both the show’s destination and format, so I asked Tom for the skinny on future plans.

“People are asking if we can do more all-star seasons. I don’t think this is going to be an all-star season coming up next, but one of these days I’d love to a winners’ season. The chefs don’t want to do it. I think all the chefs that won are like, why would I do this again? Because only one of them could win and whenever I see them, I ask them and they’re like nah, I don’t want to do that. But maybe we can do a runner-up season. A champions season would be fantastic though. Just from a food standpoint, I couldn’t wait. That what I loved about this all-star season, some of the chefs that were on six, seven, eight years ago, they’ve been working for all those years. They’re better. It’d be really great. I’d love to see it.”

So Tom, what about season 18? I asked him to name a few cities that would make great Top Chef destinations. But alas…

“I can’t because I’m afraid I’ll give away one of those locations. There is a schedule. We are scheduled to shoot and obviously, that could change, but right now we are okay. It is a place that we haven’t shot in yet, but I can’t give too much away.”

As much as Top Chef fans love bouncing destination ideas around, the one subject that seems to generate the most debate revolves around the disclaimer that runs in the closing credits suggesting that the judges’ decisions could be influenced or directed.

“I know it’s a little disclaimer that’s there for legal reasons. Never. No. There is absolutely none of that. I don’t know how many times I have to say this. I would quit the show. We don’t care about that stuff. We don’t. Now there are, to my understanding, some food reality competition shows where they reverse engineer, they choose the winner and then they make that happen. No, I wouldn’t be with that show. It’s never even been discussed on ours. Never in 17 seasons. It has never been an issue.”

Having done a deep-dive into the making of the Top Chef sausage, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about actual food with Tom. To that end, I posed the same question to him that I did to both Padma and Gail, asking which Top Chef alumni he’d bring in to cook for a private dinner party.

“I’m probably going to go with Melissa. I thought her food was just fantastic, especially towards the end of the season. There was something about it that I just couldn’t get enough of. I loved it. I also thought that Gregory’s food was often spectacular. He also put together some great stuff. And Mei Lin, who actually beat Gregory in their season, she’s also fantastic, but I can go to her restaurant. Those are the three that come to mind, but right now I’m kind of craving more of Melissa’s food.”

Speaking of craving and sausage, I asked Tom what his last meal would be.

“Oh, that’s easy. I grew up Italian-American in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and every Sunday my mother made gravy. Now when I say gravy, it’s a little different than southern gravy. She would take meatballs and sausage and braciole and put it into tomato sauce or marinara sauce. And that’s how it became gravy because there are meat drippings in there. And that was served over macaroni. Not pasta. Macaroni. And some sort of salad. That’s the meal that I probably had most frequently in my life. And it’s the one that I want.”

Whether discussing Top Chef’s greatness or who he’d bring in to cook for friends or what he’d want on the table for his last meal, Tom Colicchio is nothing if not consistent. Consistent in his passion, his standards, and his convictions. Steady excellence. And Top Chef and the show’s viewers are the beneficiaries.

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Where would you like to see Top Chef emanate from in season 18?