‘Top Chef’ Oral History: Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio on Creating the Show that Changed Food TV

The host and head judge, alongside executive producer Doneen Arquines and Bravo's Ryan Flynn, reflect where the show has been, where it is, and where it's going.
Top Chef
Jonathan Waxman, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

Earlier this week Bravo announced that reality heavyweight “Top Chef” had started production on its 18th season in Portland, Oregon— it’s just the latest culinary competition to head back to work since “The Great British Bake Off” returned last week on Netflix.

It’s difficult to imagine that nearly 15 years has passed since Bravo first introduced the world to its merry band of cheftestants and a culinary competition that would take the world by storm. It changed the tide of reality TV, from a genre that perpetuated tawdy shock-and-awe spectacles to one that allowed for storybuilding and empathetic characters.

But empires aren’t built overnight and “Top Chef” was no different, not adding signature host Padma Lakshmi, with her warmth, withering looks, and witty repartee until Season 2 and continuing to fine-tune the series long after that.

The attention to detail and pursuit of excellence is likely why “Top Chef” remains the gold standard for its genre, displayed in its 17th season — which aired earlier this year — arguably the show’s best work to date, garnering its 14th nomination for Outstanding Competition Program at the Emmy Awards.

It was during that Emmy race that IndieWire spoke with several pivotal members of the “Top Chef” family, including Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio, Magical Elves’ executive producer Doneen Arquines, and Bravo’s senior vice president of current production Ryan Flynn and learned all about the show that is, the show that was, and all the years in-between.

Even though Season 17 offered up a whole host of familiar faces, it was still a far cry from the series that launched in 2006 with the same name, but a different host. The adjustments since the first season began almost immediately. 

TOM COLICCHIO: We started with one little truck and a little lighting kit, and four cameras. Now we often shoot with seven to eight cameras. I think our crew is up for about 120 people, the lighting is better, the sets are better, and production is just tighter.

It became clear that you can’t even compete as a cook, that you have to be either an executive sous chef, chef cuisine or executive chef to really compete. That’s the reason why we are — I would have to say out of all the reality competition shows out there — we have put more professionals in the industry that are out there winning awards and doing great things.

Top Chef
“Top Chef”Nicole Weingart/Bravo

Lakshmi took on hosting duties in Season 2, replacing food critic and cookbook author Katie Lee. But that was far from the only tweak implemented. In the beginning, fans might remember amateur chefs or students going head-to-head with the professionals, a practice quickly abandoned according to Colicchio.

PADMA LAKSHMI: I think we’ve evolved in that we’ve gotten better. It’s harder every season, but we’ve gotten better at making the challenges, not only entertaining, but making them with an eye toward having the audience understand something about culinary technique.

There’s a whole generation now, kids in particular, who watched it 10 years ago at home with their families and are now in college, as well as kids my daughter’s age, who’s 10, who watch it. They’ve grown up with ‘Top Chef,’ and so they know way more about the ins-and-outs of professional cooking than even somebody like me, who is in food, did when she was 25.

Think about our winner Melissa King (originally on Season 12 in Boston). She was always great. She was always somebody who had technique and had skill and was on point with the details of her dish, her knife cuts. All of that was already there. But this season, she really grew into herself. She understood her own identity much better.

Consider the priority the show places on not just inclusivity, but on spotlighting issues that plague the food scene, particularly those causes that resonate specifically within the area they’re filming in any given season.

DONEEN ARQUINES: When we were in Colorado (Season 15), we had learned about Comal Heritage Food Incubator, which was this community kitchen that was basically an incubator for integrating women to work, and then to hopefully go on and open their own restaurants. At the time when we were in Colorado, immigration was a very big topic of discussion. So it just made a lot of sense to feature it.

LAKSHMI: I’m really happy to say that on Top Chef, we have had a good track record of being conscious of making sure we’re inclusive and having a diversity of chefs, including women. As a woman and as somebody who is an immigrant, I’m very conscious of all of those issues.

Top Chef
Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, “Top Chef”Ernesto Ruscio/Bravo

One of the things that I think is nice that keeps the show fresh is also the fact that we go to all these different cities and we change location every season. And that location really informs the show. It informs the foods that we choose to feature. It informs the people, it’s informed by the people who live in that particular part of the country. And food is much more regional than people realize.

Being really general about stuff, doesn’t really accomplish anything. But if we’re in Seattle, then we should go visit FareStart, the kitchen that trains a lot of people who are challenged in getting jobs, because of their education, because of past incarceration, all of that. Whenever we’ve been able to find those stories in the local communities where we’re filming, we’ve embraced the notion of including them, because that is specific to that city. And we really want to be authentic to what’s going on in the food scene there.

While most episodes feature a guest judge, each final judge’s table consists primarily of Colicchio and Lakshmi, who are also often joined by OG judge and “Food & Wine” stalwart Gail Simmons. Colicchio speaks with great respect of his co-judges, whose comments force him to look at his own experiences with the food from another angle. After speaking to Colicchio, I realized that what makes the “Top Chef” judges so special is their innate symbiosis. Colicchio offers his opinion from the point of view of an executive chef and restauranteur. Both Lakshmi and Simmons are accomplished food writers, but where Simmons might look at dishes from a place of editorial experience, Lakshmi’s point-of-view comes from home cooking and global exposure, the ultimate foodie.

COLICCHIO: I’d think, “Well, okay. They’re experiencing this and maybe I’m not, or maybe I see something different, but I’m going to at least see it through their eyes.” That’s where it gets interesting, because we realized from day one that because the viewer can’t eat the food, we have to have a good, honest discussion about what we’ve eaten, so the audience understands what we’re talking about.

Top Chef
Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, and Tom ColicchioNicole Weingart/Bravo

With dine-in seating still a no-go at many California establishments and COVID-19 continuing to wreak havoc on many activities that used to typify day-to-day life, including social gatherings, shared tables, and breaking bread, it’s unclear what the next season of “Top Chef” might look like as compared to everything that has come before.

RYAN FLYNN: Moving forward, we will still continue to reflect the food world. We would be tone deaf if we didn’t. We’ll still be able to tell our stories, but the stories we’re telling are chefs, who instead of may be ready to open their third or fourth restaurant, have just had to close their third or fourth restaurant. And then what does it mean for them to be part of this competition at this point, knowing that what we are in is for now, not forever.

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