Creative ways Top Chef engages its fans beyond the episode

Top Chef Season 21 Restaurant Wars episode featuring bottles of Saratoga Springs Water
Top Chef Season 21 Restaurant Wars episode featuring bottles of Saratoga Springs Water / Bravo

For 21 seasons, Top Chef has transformed how Bravo viewers perceived chefs and the restaurant world. While the phrase, “pack your knives and go,” might be part of the food television vernacular, the words are just a taste of what the celebrated show offers. As seen through the strategic NBCUniversal brand partnerships, those images on screen become products used in the fans’ world.

When Top Chef began, few people would have considered the idea of “shop the episode.” While product placement has been part of the pop culture conversation for decades, it has become more than a close up on a box of Morton’s Salt or the slow pour from a Saratoga Springs water bottle. Long gone are the moments where action breaks to insert the carefully worded phrase. Thoughtful association has proven that brand integration does work.

Over the past several years, Top Chef has been a leader in capturing this concept. It goes beyond the Wells Fargo Quick Cash sponsorship of the Quickfire. Each challenge has a way to engage the viewer beyond the screen.

In Top Chef Season 21, the NBCUniversal Team embarked on a unique, yet thoughtful endeavor to expand that viewer and partnership engagement. By filming the final two episodes on board Holland America Line Eurodam, the episodes’ backdrops were more than the majestic ship sitting in the Curacao harbor or showing the Global Fresh Fish Program with Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

Of course, those episodes push the cheftestants out of their comfort zone within the challenges, but it excited the viewer to potentially take their own journey on board a Holland America Line cruise. It would not necessarily recreate what is seen on screen, but it allows the guest to feel more connected and engaged to the food television program that they love.

While on board the Holland America Line Eurodam during part of the finale taping, I had the pleasure of chatting with Jamie Cutburth, NBCUniversal's Executive Vice President, Marketing and Content Partnerships. While Cutburth oversees the marketing vision across the company's expansive programming, he appreciates the unique storytelling that the Top Chef brand can implement.

Looking at the Top Chef season, Cutburth said, “we work very, very hard to make sure that every single integration and every single partnership is new and unique and very custom to where we're going to be telling that story.” That concept was clear in the Wisconsin season. From pouring Miller High Life in the beer caves to showcasing Wisconsin Cheese at its own food festival, viewers can see that visual and then taste it in their own homes. It is not necessarily the ultimate watching party, but it is the opportunity to turn a show into tangible reality.

One of the reasons why Top Chef achieves this concept so seamless is because the show has been doing it for a long time. As Cutburth mentioned, “we were the first people to introduce transmedia storytelling with Last Chance Kitchen way back in 2010. It's that type of innovative, creative storytelling and thinking that allows us to work with so many brand partners each year.”

While the Top Chef brand has the history, it appreciates that the evolving media space, including streaming services, changes their approach. Top Chef sister programing, like Last Chance Kitchen and Dish with Kish, allow for different types of storytelling.

As Cutburth explained, “we tell the story differently on each platform. For example, the traditional linear program is a more passive experience. People watch it, but we can also lean into it. With digital and social content we can create more customized content and experiences,” which engages with the fan long after the credits roll.

Whether it is shop the episode or seeing the product on screen, Cutburth wants to use that moment to find compelling ways to implement those partnerships. As he said, finding the right products in the right storyline is “critical to keep people invested in the story moving forward.”

From scooping a bowl of Top Chef recipe Talenti Gelato to making a recipe with Ritz Crackers, viewers crave that moment. For the person who might not be able to dine at two-time Top Chef Budha Lo’s restaurant, those items in their grocery store make them excited to not only watch the episode on Bravo but to rewatch the seasons on Peacock.

In Top Chef Season 21, the series embarked on a new partnership with Holland America Line. For the first time, the production team set sail on board a cruise ship. While it was a huge endeavor, it held appeal because the concept targeted a multi-generational audience.

For Cutburth, it was about “finding that intersection where you can tell a compelling story and find something that inspires every challenge .” The Global Fresh Fish Program on board Holland America Line is a perfect example. Not only did the Chef Morimoto dinner create an emotional moment for the competing chef-testants, it shows a real life experience that any Holland America Line guest can enjoy on board. It is a great example of that integrated storytelling.

Additionally, the Holland America Line and Top Chef partnership does not necessarily have to end when the phrase “You are Top Chef” is said during the finale. The possibilities are many for the interaction between the two brands to continue. The long reach of the strategic partnership is a signature of the Top Chef collaborations.

As one season of Top Chef ends and another one develops on the horizon, the engagement with its fans continues all year long. Whether it is purposefully choosing that signature blue bottle of sparkling water for the watching party or planning the upcoming family vacation on board a cruise ship, those fully integrated moments have people invested in their favorite food television show just as much as their vote for the fan favorite chef of the season.

Top Chef Season 21 airs on Bravo Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Previously aired episodes, as well as other Top Chef programming, like Last Chance Kitchen and Dish with Kish, can be streamed on Peacock.