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‘Top Chef’: Showrunner Longevity Is the Secret to Awards Season Sizzle

Doneen Arquines has worked on "Top Chef" since the show began in 2005, working her way up from PA to executive producer of the perennial Emmy favorite.

Doneen Arquines

Doneen Arquines at Bravo’s “Top Chef” and “Project Runway” Emmy event in Los Angeles.

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Doneen Arquines is at the top of the team behind “Top Chef,” but the executive producer wasn’t always leading the ship of the hit Bravo reality competition series.

In 2005, Arquines’ story was a fairly typical one for entertainment industry hopefuls: She was a new Los Angeles resident, relatively fresh out of college, and looking for work. Arquines heard about a new cooking series that was on the hunt for behind-the-scenes talent and ended up scoring a job interview via her college connections.

Arquines didn’t know much about the show and was a picky eater at the time—her words—but was told it was essentially a food-themed “Project Runway,” a show she loved. And so, Arquines became a production assistant for “Top Chef,” which the team hoped would become a hit in the (at the time) largely uncharted genre of reality competition TV.

Fourteen years and 16 seasons later, “Top Chef” is one of the kings of the reality television industry and Arquines, now an executive producer, is one of the most experienced individuals working on the series. It’s rare for a show, regardless of genre, to not just endure but thrive as long as “Top Chef” has, let alone maintaining strong ratings and stellar critical reception since Season 1 aired in 2005. The solid backbone and longevity of Arquines’ leadership has paved the way to the Emmys, with a nominations this year for Outstanding Competition Program, the 13th year in a row the show has been honored in that category.

“One of the pieces of advice I got when I moved to Los Angeles is if you get on a show, try to stick with it for as long as you can,” Arquines said. “There are so many people who have to bounce from show to show, but when you find a show, it’s nice to not have to worry.”

As a production assistant, Arquines spent the beginning of her “Top Chef” career pitching and creating the various culinary challenges the series is famous for. As “Top Chef” grew, so did Arquines’ responsibilities, and she was continually promoted to increasingly senior producer roles before becoming an executive producer in 2015.

There are plenty of talented producers in Hollywood, but there’s no substitute for an individual with intimate knowledge of every aspect of a given show. Arquines has been “Top Chef” since the beginning, and that experience is invaluable for keeping the show engaging, hundreds of episodes later. “I know everything we have done on “Top Chef,” so now that we’re in the process of doing Season 17, people are pitching great ideas but I know we’ve already done some of them,” Arquines said. “I have that info at my fingertips because I’ve been here so long, which helps me in a lot of ways.”

“Top Chef” has received 28 Emmy nominations and won the award twice, for Outstanding Picture Editing for Reality Programming in 2008 and for Outstanding Competition Program in 2010. Arquines has been nominated 10 times, nine times for “Top Chef” and once for the “Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen” spinoff in 2018. Arquines has worked on a handful of other Magical Elves—the production company behind “Top Chef”—shows, including the “Project Runway” series she was a fan of before starting her Hollywood career.

Magical Elves co-CEO Casey Kriley noted that Arquines is an asset to every show she works on and said her encyclopedic “Top Chef” knowledge has been integral to making the series bigger and better every season.

“Doneen has a nickname on the show, Wiki, because she knows everything about ‘Top Chef,’” Kriley told IndieWire in a recent interview. “You can go up to her and she’ll remember what happened in any season. When you find those rare gems of people who click with the company culture and the team, it’s not something to take for granted.”

An Emmy nomination is cause for celebration, but Arquines and the rest of the “Top Chef” team are also busy gearing up to work on Season 17.  “It’s always exciting to get nominated for an Emmy but as long as you love what you do, it doesn’t really matter,” Arquines said. “I am excited about my job and I would still do it even if people weren’t recognizing it in this way. If you’re out there producing a show and not getting nominations but still love what you’re doing, you’re still in a good place.”

Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 10 through Thursday, Aug. 24 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.

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