After shooting seasons in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami Beach and Chicago, the popular cooking competition series "Top Chef" ventures to the Big Apple for Season Five, which commences tonight on Bravo. Judges Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio talked with Jim Halterman about the new crop of chefs this season, their favorite foods and new judge, Toby Young.
Shooting the series in New York City proved to be a different experience than previous seasons for the judges. "Usually if we're on location somewhere else," Colicchio said, "We sort of create our own little universe. You know, myself, Padma, Gail [Simmons] and a guest judge... we'll spend a lot of time together. And I think because we were shooting in New York and we all live in New York, we're going back to our regular lives as soon as we were off the set, at least I was." For Lakshmi, there was one prominent benefit to working in New York. "I gained less weight this season because I was home and I could watch a little bit of what I ate and... I was able to go to the gym more."
Unlike Colicchio, who admitted to actually having lost 20 pounds since "Top Chef" premiered in 2006, Lakshmi confessed to regularly packing on some pounds during the production of the series. "I gain about 10 to 15 pounds over the course of six weeks. And, luckily for me, I gain it all over so I just get kind of exponentially bigger by one size. I've never gone up two dress sizes but I certainly always go up one dress size without fail." How does the wardrobe department deal with her fluctuating size during production? "We often buy things in two dresses for the first half and the second half of the show," Lakshmi shared.
As for the new chefs vying for the title of "Top Chef," Lakshmi offered, "they came from all over... and I thought they really held their own. I think the one thing I noted this season is that it was really interesting to watch the evolution of more than a few of them. I think they really... were very quick learners. And so some of the contestants over the course of the challenges and weeks really surprised us."
The tension begins with the initial moments of tonight's season premiere. The new chefs are immediately thrown into a quickfire challenge before they even enter the "Top Chef" kitchen; the loser of the challenge is sent packing right then and there. In honor of being in the Big Apple, the chefs must show their knife skills by peeling and cutting apples. "I loved that quickfire," Lakshmi said. "I really loved it because I'm a home cook and I'm a good cook. But I don't work in a restaurant so I don't have the knife skills of someone like Tom or the other chefs. So that was a fun, fun quickfire. It was a long day. It was a hot day but it was so much fun to watch these guys go at it. You know, it's a relay race. It was great."
One contestant, Fabio, was an Italian chef with such a thick accent that subtitles are often used throughout the series. His accent also proved a challenge for Lakshmi but not because she didn't understand what he was saying. "I had to really watch myself with Fabio," she said, "because I would revert into Italian. I didn't do it on camera, I'm sure they edited it out. I spent a lot of time in Italy so I love to speak Italian."
Surprisingly, when asked about their personal favorite foods, both Lakshmi and Colicchio said that simple foods are often on their plates more than high cuisine. Colicchio stated, "I think this idea that chefs eat fancy food all the time... I usually find that chefs crave a lot of sort of junk food." Lakshmi owned up to loving a grilled cheese sandwich and scrambled eggs while Colicchio said, "I like a good burger. I like simple pastas [and] usually every morning I wake up eating dry cereal."
Another unexpected element of the "Top Chef" series is the fact that many regard Colicchio as a sex symbol. Lakshmi offered a theory of why that label has found its way to the handsome, bald chef. "I think it's because of Tom's authority. I think there's something sexy about authority and I think Tom dispenses his authority very lightly."
Besides Colicchio's sex appeal, both judges talked about the sensual aspects of food. Lakshmi explained, "I think food is very sensual... it's very physical. It's also something that incorporates all of the senses, you know, the touch. When it's in your mouth... the smells, the sights... I think it's very, very sexy and seductive." Colicchio countered by saying it's the actual work with the food that is sexy. "I mean, think about it. It's the ultimate foreplay if you're cooking for somebody. There's just no better way to woo someone's heart."
As far as what makes a good cook, each judge had their own opinions. Colicchio said "To be a cook there's a certain amount of the technical [knowledge] you need to be a good cook. There's so much technique. I mean, obviously the knife skills play a part of it... but I think also having a command of seasoning, knowing how to balance flavors [and]... how acid works with a dish and how it works with salt." Lakshmi explained, "The definition of a good cook is someone who really has a command and mastery of their ingredients and knows how to manipulate those ingredients either by developing flavor through heat or marination... and really elevating the sum of those ingredients into something better."
With food critic Ted Allen leaving the series for his own show on The Food Network, new judge Toby Young is a new face on the series and makes his first appearance in episode two. The British author of the book "How To Lose Friends & Alienate People," Young definitely made an impression on the veteran judges. "Toby is somebody that I had never met before except for on the set for the first day of shooting that he came in. I didn't know what to expect but I found him very charming, very witty and very sweet." Colicchio commented on some of Young's more outlandish criticisms of the food and the competing chefs. "I really enjoyed working with him and I got many chances to roll my eyes at some of the things that he said. But he's a lot of fun." Besides Young's addition, the usual cavalcade of guest judges this season include Eric Ripert, Wiley Dufresne, Martha Stewart and Dave Grohl from the rock group, The Foo Fighters.
"Top Chef: New York" starts its new season tonight at 10:00/9:00c on Bravo.