'Top Chef' secrets revealed: From the judges' mouths to your ears

This weekend, The New York Times hosted its ninth annual Arts & Leisure weekend, where bold-faced names like Natalie Portman and Angela Lansbury (!) chatted with Times staffers about their careers, creative processes and pop culture as a whole. Sounds pretty artsy, eh? Yes, but it was also a vault of gossip!

I attended a conversation between Top Chef‘s Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons and renowned chef Eric Ripert, who all spoke with former Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni about the show, which resumes taping in the spring once Padma delivers her baby, and what it takes to be a top chef. The best stuff to come out of this program, though, was the behind-the-scenes scoop. Here, some of the best bits:

Chocolate and chicken liver don’t mix: The worst dish Eric Ripert, who has made a total of five appearances on Top Chef, ever ate on the show was Ilan’s chocolate ganache with chicken liver on season 2. Padma added: “It had a rubbery, spring action, and we had to eat it. That’s the thing about our jobs.”

The most distasteful contestant: “Michael Midgley [from season 2] was as offensive off camera as he was on camera,” Padma said. “On his audition tape, he talked about ‘blanking chicks.’ I didn’t even want to taste the food he handled.”

The most egregious act of brown-nosing: Contestants are supposed to keep a safe distance from judges while on the show, but season five’s Stefan gave Padma the leftover roses from his challenge dish. A producer kindly came over and snatched the flowers out of Padma’s hand.

Who do the judges keep in touch with? Gail, who was quick to note that she socializes with contestants only after the finale airs, still talks to season one winner Harold and season four’s Nikki. Padma has kept in touch with Dale (season 3) and Hung (season 3 winner), but both women sang the praises of Lee Anne Wong, who went from season one cheftestant to Top Chef culinary producer until the end of season six. “She’s such a great unsung hero,” Padma said.

Kevin is as verbose as he is jolly: “Eeeeveryone loves Kevin,” Gail said. “He would start talking and kept talking [at the finale in Napa Valley]. We were transfixed. He’s so articulate and scientific.” To which Padma said: “For every two minutes of what Kevin said at judges’ table, there was a one-and-a-half hour culinary soliloquy.”

Speaking of judges’ table…: They sometimes last eight hours. When Gail recalled the season three judges’ table finale in Aspen, there was a collective groan between her and Padma; the decision-making had gone on until about 4 a.m. “If we can’t make a decision, the producers will sit us there,” Padma said. “It’s like detention.” But Eric added: “It’s really great TV because at 5 a.m. you truly say what you mean!”

There’s an unofficial fifth judge at that table: Sometimes when the judges can’t decide, the producers will look to the camera operator they call T-Bone, who shoots the still-life shots of the contestants’ dishes, which he eats afterward.

Other fun facts: Black beans give Gail “the heebie-jeebies,” and the reason Padma sounds so robotic when she describes the challenges is because she’s wearing an earpiece through which all of the legally approved info is being fed to her.

While we’re on the subject of Padma, let’s talk about how chatty the self-proclaimed “robotic” host is. Dominating most of the event, she was none too shy to interrupt Eric or Gail and when she did, she usually had something amazingly awkward to say. Here were some of my favorite lines, many of which included similes and metaphors:

“The terrible food usually happens in the first half of production. They get weeded out.”

“Too much bull—-.” (referring to Ilan’s chocolate ganache-chicken liver dish)

“[Kevin is] the garden gnome version of Martin Fisher. He’s so beautifully articulate.”

“[Hung] is like a little bumblebee, that guy.”

“[Lee Anne] is like the art director behind a Scorsese film. She’s the Oxford compendium of food.”

“[Gail] is a militant fascist about eggs…the Cruella De Vil of eggs.”

“They’ve been through, like, 15 pregnancies with Heidi [Klum].” (referring to Bravo waiting for Padma to deliver before they start taping season 7)

“I sit on my a–. I eat and I talk. I don’t have a to cook a damn thing. How awesome is that?”

Who was the most distasteful contestant in your opinion? How about the dish that could’ve rivaled Ilan’s chocolate-chicken liver?

Photo: Trae Patton/Bravo

Comments (19 total) Add your comment
  • sandi


  • Rebekah

    Love Top Chef too. My favorite show. So cool to hear behind the scenes info.

  • Daniel

    Tom Colicchio should be the sole host, Padma is full of s***.

  • Ed

    Tom is SO good looking. I’d love for him to be in my kitchen….and bedroom!

    • sandi

      really??? I think Tom is a pretty chubby dude….obese actually.

      • Amiee

        And yet many people find him sexy.

      • skipper

        Obese? Really? I never noticed that.

    • alex

      His eyes are gorgeous. And he looks pretty solid.

  • mangagirl

    Stefan got on my nerves but he was a good chef. That dish that was served in Aspen(?) where in the finals, a cowboyish cookout, the Jennifer Aniston lookalike served raw venison, that looked disgusting. I hope I don’t see that British judge anymore he was very annoying.

    • Merhus

      AHHH! Yeah we know you can’t get married but deal with last sseaon there was like 4 and every sseaon before this one they do wedding challenges! Don’t let that bring you down! Good episode though women are going to lose they’re all over the place and some of their dishes look week!

  • milessilverberg

    The most distasteful cheftestant, bar none, was Marcel. Some chefs you ‘love to hate’, but with Marcel, there’s no love; I really don’t enjoy seeing him make return appearances.

    However good he is at his job, or however good a person he may be to family and friends, one thing is certain: he is lousy as a TV personality. He should stick to what he does well.

  • Mark

    Good article, but really weird typo that you wrote “The most distasteful CONTEST” in bold. Think you mean contestant?

  • BuffyJunkie

    So Top Chef doesn’t start shooting until the spring means…. no new Top Chef until the fall? How emo…

  • Housewife in AZ

    How about most distasteful judge? That would be Toby Young…want him to be lacerated and dropped in lemon juice…if he turns out to be the father of Padma’s baby, I will barf…Top Chef is the best thing on TV…crap TV with class, in my humble opinion…I miss you, Tommy C.

  • NJ

    Parma sounds like a robot b/c the lines are fed to her? I’m sorry, but give or take the obvious words, many of her lines stay the same. She’s just bad at what she does.

  • Joneboy

    I always want to hear more from Gail and Tom and less from Padma.

  • laurie

    I got Padma’s cookbook for Christmas and it is pretty great. All the recipes have little vignettes with them describing how she learned or came up with the recipe. Super yummy.

  • Gary

    Padma is hands down HOT!!!

  • Mames

    I must be one of the few people that doesn’t mind Padma. She is FAR better than Katie Joel. She was like watching a cardboard cut out.

Add your comment
The rules: Keep it clean, and stay on the subject - or we may delete your comment. If you see inappropriate language, e-mail us. An asterisk (*) indicates a required field.

When you click on the "Post Comment" button above to submit your comments, you are indicating your acceptance of and are agreeing to the Terms of Service. You can also read our Privacy Policy.

Latest Videos


From Our Partners

TV Recaps

Powered by WordPress.com VIP