Inside the ‘Top Chef’ Industrial Complex

Entering its 20th season, the sprawling Bravo franchise has changed the way Americans eat and become a mirror of the restaurant industry.

Credit…Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe

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By Brett Anderson

Buddha Lo was in real trouble.

Yes, the reigning champion of “Top Chef” approached the first Quickfire Challenge of the reality television show’s 20th season, which premiered Thursday, with skill and swagger. But he had cream when he needed butter. Could Mr. Lo successfully churn one ingredient from the other well enough to cook turbot?

He was just one of 16 chefs flying around the on-set kitchen amid a chaotic pileup of mismatched ingredients. They all hoped to wow the “Top Chef” judges and, by extension, a global audience of millions — and take home the $250,000 that goes to the season’s winner.

Still, Mr. Lo’s problem seemed simple compared with those of the producers, who had to turn more than 200 hours of such footage into a 54 minutes of coherent, compelling television.

The scenes of Mr. Lo and his competitors flashed across a bank of video monitors last month in the downtown Los Angeles offices of Magical Elves, the production company that creates “Top Chef” for Bravo. Doneen Arquines, one of the show’s executive producers, and Steve Lichtenstein, its lead editor, were spinning the narrative together.

“We want to hear ‘Michelin star,’ ‘James Beard Award,’” said Ms. Arquines as Mr. Lichtenstein toggled back and forth between camera angles. “And sprinkle in some personality.”

Working on “Top Chef” since it debuted in March of 2006, the duo has molded the series into one of the most influential forces shaping the way Americans think about restaurants and chefs. The show, which began as a long-shot marriage of reality television and cooking-competition programming, has also changed the way Americans eat.

Scores of its roughly 300 contestants have leveraged the show to open restaurants and grow empires in cities like Chicago, New York, Honolulu, Houston and Miami, and to draw attention and tourists to smaller markets like Boulder, Colo., Athens, Ga., and Paducah, Ky.

Through its 17 years on television, “Top Chef” has reflected the evolution of America’s culinary world, from the foam-crazed molecular gastronomy of the mid-2000s to the tattooed rejection of fine dining’s pretensions to the reckonings around #MeToo and workplace equity.

With the new season, “Top Chef: World All-Stars,” the show is looking to create a sort of Olympics for chefs. Set mainly in London, it is the first season filmed entirely outside the United States and features participants from the 29 licensed spinoff shows created in 23 countries. The flagship show airs in more than 175 international markets.

Appearing in the series is the most effective career accelerant available to working chefs, according to nearly all of the 32 past competitors interviewed for this article.

“It’s like being a sports star,” said Mr. Lo, the executive chef of Huso in New York. “People are watching who want to be like you. After I won, the restaurant had like a 500-person wait list for six months.”


The seed for “Top Chef” was planted in 2005, when Bravo executives asked Magical Elves to brainstorm a show loosely based on the premise of “Project Runway,” which Elves created, but with chefs instead of designers. Food was already a focus of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and the two shows had been hits for Bravo in the early 2000s.

The involvement of Tom Colicchio, who was already a respected chef and restaurateur, helped give “Top Chef” credibility in the restaurant world.

“I just didn’t want to be a laughingstock of the industry,” Mr. Colicchio said.

Padma Lakshmi, a host since the second season, said she agreed to participate largely because she figured it would help promote her cookbooks.

“I didn’t know much about reality television at that point,” she said. “I thought it was worth a try.”

In the era of “Survivor,” the food writer Gail Simmons, was nervous about the genre. “How was I going to explain this to my mother?” she said. “Was I going to be tied to a tree eating insects?”

What “Top Chef” did was combine the culinary fireworks of contest shows like “Iron Chef” with the behind-the-scenes character drama of reality hits like “The Real World.” The formula worked. The show helped turn Bravo into a leader in unscripted, pop-culture television.

In the process, “Top Chef” conditioned a large segment of the public — and a generation of chefs — to believe that cooking professionals should be able to prove their worth in a spectacle of cutthroat competition, where success is defined by avoiding Ms. Lakshmi’s withering dismissal, “Please pack your knives and go.”

“When people have a problem with ‘Top Chef,’ it’s because they took what is essentially an art form and turned it into a sport,” said Edward Lee, who has appeared on the show multiple times. “Others love it for that exact same reason. There are winners and losers.”

Contestants say they have no idea how they’ll be portrayed in the story lines created by producers until they watch the episodes. The fallout can be unpleasant.

Nicholas Elmi was depicted as high-strung and hot-tempered in Season 11, which he won. Soon after, his wife posted a picture online of their son dressed as the lion from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Someone reposted the picture and said, ‘Of course he’s a lion, he’s a coward like his father,’” Mr. Elmi recalled.


Cyberbullying isn’t the only downside competitors consider.

The measures taken to keep secret each season’s results require considerable sacrifice from contestants. They’re prohibited from telling their colleagues — and all but their closest family members — why they’re disappearing for six to eight weeks.

“The running joke is you’re either going to rehab or you’re going on ‘Top Chef,’” Mr. Lee said.

Once filming begins, computers and phones are confiscated, and contestants are not allowed to read books, watch television or listen to the radio — nothing that could provide an advantage or cause a secret to leak. Even contestants who are eliminated in early episodes remain isolated.

“It was like chef jail,” said Roscoe Hall, who was eliminated in the first episode of Season 18, which was filmed in Oregon during the 2020 summer of social upheaval. “I was all alone on the top floor of that hotel in Portland, watching riots from my window, drinking a bunch of microbeer.”

Contestants are paid very little — nothing beyond a $50 per diem in early seasons. Magical Elves declined to say how much contestants were paid for “World All-Stars.”

Hugh Curnutt, a professor at Montclair State University who studies reality television and has written about “Top Chef,” said that the show arrived as the post-network era prompted a swelling appetite for content to fill an exploding number of channels. Reality television offered a relatively fast and affordable model, anchored by casts of “non-unionized labor that is not paid well,” he said.

But even those who fare poorly on “Top Chef” commonly experience fame, opportunities for restaurant ownership, endorsement deals, book contracts and more television appearances.

Hugh Acheson, the Georgia-based chef and restaurateur, has appeared on “Top Chef” multiple times, as a competitor and guest judge. He compared the show’s pay structure to expensive restaurants that recruit young chefs to exchange their labor for “experience” — a practice that has recently come under fire, triggered by revelations of labor practices at Noma, the celebrated restaurant in Copenhagen.

“Like working at Noma a couple of years ago, you’re doing it to put it on your résumé, but you’re kind of working for free,” Mr. Acheson said. “At the end of the day, Elves and Bravo are making a lot of money off ‘Top Chef.’”

Frances Berwick, the chairman of entertainment networks for NBCUniversal, said that the sheer volume of chefs jockeying to be on “Top Chef” is evidence that they see value in participating. She pointed out that the stipend “Top Chef” pays contestants is “in line with the standard for reality competition series.”

“The show provides tremendous opportunity for these chefs, whether or not they win,” Ms. Berwick said.


“Top Chef: Portland” was set in a city at the center of debates over racial justice and one that prides itself on culinary diversity. For “Top Chef,” it was an ideal backdrop to showcase an ethos the series had cultivated for years.

Kiki Louya grew emotional during a challenge that included a tour of restaurants featuring food from the African diaspora, which validated one of the Congolese American chef’s motivations to appear on the show.

“It’s important for people to see that kind of cooking,” she said. “I think our cast was one of the most diverse.”

In fact, numerous veterans of the show, including Mr. Acheson, praised its track record of providing a pathway to prominence for chefs historically underrepresented in the food world. A partial list of women and minority chefs who’ve received career boosts from “Top Chef” includes Eric Adjepong, Nina Compton, Byron Gomez, Gregory Gourdet, Carla Hall, Stephanie Izard, Kristen Kish, Mei Lin, Maria Mazon, Shota Nakajima, Nini Nguyen and Kwame Onwuachi.

“It’s very difficult to garner the sort of respect and appreciation you get from ‘Top Chef’ as a Black woman in this industry,” said Dawn Burrell, a contestant on “World All-Stars” and a “Top Chef: Portland” finalist. “I consider it training for my actual life.”

Past contestants also spoke with gratitude about the opportunity the show gave them to be role models and to take stands on — and raise money for — meaningful causes.

Ms. Compton said that making it to the finals in Season 11 empowered her to turn to the cuisine she grew up eating in St. Lucia, after having focused on cooking French and Italian food for white bosses.

“When I was on ‘Top Chef,’ I didn’t have to cook their food,” said Ms. Compton, who has since opened two Caribbean-influenced restaurants in New Orleans. “I cooked my food.”

Casey Kriley, a chief executive of Magical Elves, said the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements inspired the show’s creators.

“We had a lot of conversations internally at Magical Elves as it relates to the content we wanted to put out there, in terms of our commitment to creating change,” she said. “We wanted to do better.”

The Portland season realized many of these ambitions, but it was also a low point for the show.

Shortly after the final episode aired, when Gabe Erales emerged as the winner of the $250,000 prize, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Mr. Erales was fired from his previous restaurant job “for repeated violations of the company’s ethics policy as it relates to harassment of women.”

Three weeks after the finale aired, Mr. Erales apologized on Instagram. “I had a consensual relationship with a co-worker and later reduced her work hours,” he wrote.

The incident provoked outrage across the restaurant business, but past contestants — including those interviewed by The Times for this story — signed nondisclosure agreements and generally do not criticize the show publicly.

Preeti Mistry, a past “Top Chef” contestant, said the cone of silence proves the power of the show and the extent to which stakeholders and the large network of alumni protect its reputation.

“The chef industrial complex, on a benevolent day you could call it a fraternity or sorority,” they said. “On a less benevolent day you could call it the Mafia.”

While none of the Portland season contestants who spoke to The Times voiced concern over Mr. Erales’s behavior on set, nearly all said the handling of the controversy, by both Magical Elves and the networks, suggested the show’s on-air rhetoric does not match the realities behind the scenes.

Contestants and guest judges received a phone call from an NBCUniversal public relations representative about the sexual harassment revelations.

Ms. Louya was left feeling that the priority was to tamp down bad publicity. “Protect the brand at all costs,” was how she described her impression of the phone call. “There are tons of advertising dollars behind this.”

To Ms. Louya, “Top Chef” brass offered little more than claims of innocence and legalese.

“They’re not stepping into their power,” she said. “You have a brand that can speak to and drive forward a lot of change. We should talk about sexual harassment in the kitchen. We should be talking about fair wages.”

According to Magical Elves, in response to Season 18’s problems the company added a morality clause to contestants’ contracts, broadened the pool of references contacted by casting agents during the vetting process and hired an outside human resources firm to aid with casting of all of their productions.


The line of chefs eager to appear on “Top Chef” remains quite long, despite how Season 18 ended.

While he did not win either of the cooking challenges that open “World All-Stars,” Mr. Lo, Season 19’s champion, survived the first episode.

Born into a restaurant family in Australia, Mr. Lo started watching “Top Chef” when he was 15. Landing on the show soon went on his bucket list, and watching it became a training exercise.

“Every time, I’d write down the reason why they lost or the reason why they won,” Mr. Lo explained. It is a model future contestants will certainly follow.

In a virtual meeting in December, Ms. Arquines, the executive producer, told the show’s writers and producers that Mr. Lo watched international editions of “Top Chef” to prepare himself for “World All-Stars.”

“I think he came in expecting that he’s going to blow it out of the water,” she said.

Others on the call worried his drive to win could lead to “soulless” food. They also wondered how Mr. Lo would follow his own championship performance, particularly after the death of his father, Tze-Kwong Lo, who taught him how to cook.

That he would put his life on hold to appear on “Top Chef” again was never in question, though. Mr. Lo recalled telling his wife, who is also a chef, that he’d been invited to defend his title.

He said, “I wasn’t even done with my sentence and she said, ‘You’ve got to do it.’”

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Bravo photo credits: Paul Cheney, Nathan Congleton, Carmo Correia, Jerod Harris, Michael Hickey, David Moir, Barbara Nitke, Trae Patton, Virginia Sherwood, Nicole Weingart, Nicole Wilder and Vivian Zink.

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