The Inside Scoop on a Top Chef Taping
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a guest during the controlled mayhem of Bravo‘s long-running cooking competition show, Top Chef? As a writer for Houston Food Finder, I had the good fortune of being invited to a taping when the show’s host and judges Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio visited the Bayou City to film its 19th season, which began airing on March 3, 2022.
With some exceptions, Top Chef episodes follow a two-part format. The first several minutes of the show feature a quickfire round, where contestants must quickly prepare a dish on-the-spot. The winner receives a bonus, such as cash or immunity for the day. The bulk of each episode centers around the second competition, an elimination challenge where the chefs shop, chop and cook for a more extensive meal.
I attended the elimination challenge for episode nine. Filmed at the stunning, Bethel Church Historic Site in Houston’s Fourth Ward, the contestants, including Houston’s own Evelyn Garcia, were tasked with creating a “soul food” dish for a festive, outdoor fundraiser that benefited the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy. At tented stations set up around the park, each chef treated guests to refined versions of the foods that comfort them. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day.
Being a food writer can involve attending many events, from casual parties to elegant dinners. None of those had the bureaucratic complexity of attending a Top Chef taping. All attendees had to have proof of a negative COVID test and sign non-disclosure agreements, promising not to share details (including on social media) until further notice.
Despite regularly writing articles for the general public, I’m very introverted. So, my nervousness about attending was at the same level as my excitement, which was at a career high. I was there on assignment for Houston Food Finder. What if I couldn’t get a COVID-19 test, tested positive or forgot my vaccine card? What if I showed up and forgot to wear shoes? (Okay, that’s an irrational fear, but sometimes that’s where my mind goes.)
Fortunately, I landed a last-minute rapid COVID test and it was negative. (As it turned out, there was onsite COVID testing, but I had no way of knowing that.) The day of the event, I made sure to arrive early. It immediately felt like a big deal. Vans were whisking dozens of attendees from a downtown parking lot to the historic park.
I was in a group that included Houston Food Finder associate editor/Edible Houston editor David Leftwich and CultureMap Houston food editor Eric Sandler. A guide showed us around the set, which was a small village of Top Chef staff and equipment. There were several large production stations both inside and outside of the park; several mounted, handheld and drone video cameras; and a separate tent dedicated to 360-degree glamor shots of food (“food porn” is the term the production assistant used).
After the judges arrived, we were told to wait “approximately seven minutes” for a buzzer to sound before approaching the contestant’s stations. At the entrance was Jae Jung’s tent. Jung, who would go on to win the challenge, served my second-favorite plate of the day, Mama Kim’s Flaked Cod with Korean Sweet Potatoes, Kimchi and Shrimp Bisque. I have a soft spot for Korean food, so I was surprised Jung wasn’t getting the same level of attention from attendees as other competitors such as Garcia and Damarr Brown from Chicago. The cod was tender and mellow, while the sweet potato’s texture added impact. The bisque’s subtle flavors allowed the shrimp’s pleasant aroma to stand out. A mildly sour kimchi added needed zest. It also acted as a palate cleanser, making each bite a new experience.
Garcia initially had the most accessible tent, but that quickly changed when an enthusiastic line formed and lasted for the majority of the event. She created a beet-infused sope topped with chorizo that was based on her mom’s recipe. The vibrant red beet masa cakes were eye-catching and maintained a fluffy texture. The chorizo was good, but short on spice. It was less memorable than the kinetic sope.
In an awkward moment for me, Chris Williams, chef/owner of Lucille’s, caught me dancing to my favorite dish of the day: Brown’s hoecakes with collard greens and ham hocks. One might assume that the dancing was inspired by the thick, semi-sweet cornmeal cakes, but it was Brown’s perfectly cooked collard greens that stole the show. The dish was rich and lacked any hint of bitterness.
When watching the episode, it was shocking to see Buddha Lo at the bottom of the judging. His Malaysian curry was another favorite of the day. Admittedly the first taste was almost bland, but the spices built on each other with each bite, leaving a pleasant, lasting flavor. I think he misunderstood the assignment, as judging was done on small bites. If it was based on full-sized plates, he may have fared better.
The filming, which took place in Fall 2021, was the first time since the pandemic that I’d been in such a crowded, high-energy environment. I’d only been writing professionally for just over a year, so in light of the caliber of the other professional writers attending the event, I felt fortunate to attend.
Top Chef season 19 is winding down, and Garcia is still a strong competitor who’s tied for the most elimination challenge wins in the season. Check out the remaining episodes airing Thursdays on Bravo.