Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio dish about 'Top Chef: New York'
By Christopher Rocchio, 11/10/2008
Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi said she's glad the series filmed its upcoming fifth season in "The City That Never Sleeps."
"I was so excited for it to be in New York. I really was," Lakshmi told reporters during a Friday conference call. "I mean I'm very proud of this show for, you know, like not only going to fine restaurants... but also really looking at the city holistically."
While Lakshmi was enthused about the culinary competition series filming in New York City for its fifth season, lead judge and restaurateur Tom Colicchio said the setting didn't make it any easier.
"What's interesting about this season, it was somewhat of a difficult shoot. Usually if we're on location somewhere else we sort of create our own little universe," Colicchio told reporters. "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."
Colicchio added that despite the filming location making it "hard to sort of get back into the sort of mindset of the show," he also enjoyed shooting in the Big Apple.
"Obviously shooting in New York lent itself to a lot of just amazing things that New York has to offer - you know, a lot of different ethnic cuisines," he said. "That sort of worked itself into the challenges at a lot of different locations."
"We shot everything through the finale," Colicchio told reporters. "We'll go back and [film the finale] in January sometime. I don't think we have a location nailed down yet for the finale."
Rounding out the judging panel with Colicchio and Lakshmi are Food & Wine magazine editor Gail Simmons and new judge Toby Young.
"Toby is somebody that I had never met before except for on the set on the first day of shooting that he came in," said Lakshmi. "I didn't know what to expect, but I found him very charming, very witty, and very sweet."
Lakshmi added she "didn't always agree" with Young, but said she was "always very interested to hear his take on things."
"He was brash. He was opinionated," said Colicchio. "He was very funny and witty as well. I really enjoyed working with him."
Young, a best-selling British author and food critic, will replace Ted Allen, the former Queer Eye expert who had served as a judge on Top Chef's last two seasons. Earlier this summer, Allen began serving as the host of Food Detectives -- a new Mythbusters-like Food Network series that attempts to debunk food myths.
While a Bravo spokesperson had told Reality TV World last month that Allen hadn't been able to participate due to the show's time commitments, Colicchio told reporters Food Network actually disallowed Allen'sTop Chef participation.
"Ted got a show picked up on The Food Network and The Food Network, they have this little policy," said Colicchio. "That's why you don't see any of the chefs that are on a Food Network show."
Despite the absence of Allen and other Food Network chefs, Top Chef: New York will feature guest appearances by several culinary and mainstream stars including Martha Stewart, The Foo Fighters, Jean-Georges, Eric Ripert, Rocco DiSpirito, Wylie Dufresne, Jean-Christophe Novelli and Natasha Richardson.
"To have all of those palates on one table was, for me, a great, great honor," said Lakshmi. "And, you know, also obviously the Foo Fighters being on was pretty damn cool."
Top Chef: New York's 17 contestants range from 21- to 44-years-old, hail from across the country and have a wide variety of culinary credentials.
"They're an interesting bunch," said Lakshmi. "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 are - were very quick learners. And so some of the contestants over the course of the challenges and weeks really surprised us."
Lakshmi said she feels the keys to succeeding atTop Chef's challenges are composure, using the provided resources and attempting to not only survive to the next round -- but hit the challenge out of the park.
"How can I, you know, do something that's really interesting or do something that's really simple but just execute, you know, execute it to the fullest," explained Lakshmi about the contestants' mindset.
Since the judges are "not privy to all the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on," Lakshmi added the winner is solely based on their finished product.
"We're not there when they're shooting it. We don't really know much about it," she said. "We strictly judge on food."
Colicchio agreed that "the strategy of winning and getting to the finale is making great food."
"I think it's pretty well documented that we only -- we just [go] each episode to episode and challenge to challenge. We don't look at past performances," he said. "And it's for a lot of reasons. You know, there's a saying in our industry that you're only as good as your last dish."
In addition, Colicchio assured viewers that the Top Chef judges taste everything that is presented to them by the contestants in an effort to ensure that the best participant wins.
"We're getting everything when it's hot, when it's first made so it's not sitting around for five or ten minutes, sitting around wilting," he said. "So much of eating is obviously visual, and so food will start to change very quickly after it's plated. So we're very, very much on top of making sure we get everything, you know, as soon as it's finished."
Lakshmi added the amount of food and lack of time does make the judges' job more difficult.
"The amount of food consumed is staggering," she said. "And also, we -- especially in the first half of the show when we have so many contestants -- you know, I feel and I'm sure Tom would agree the (onus) is on us to make sure we sample every contestant's dish adequately, you know, in fairness. So it does become difficult."
Having been with Top Chef all five seasons, Colicchio said it's been a "mission of the show to try to always find better contestants" -- something he thinks has been achieved despite recent comments by The New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni.
According to The Times, Bruni recently statedTop Chef "gets [young chefs] thinking more about mass-media glory -- about big, quick fame -- than about disciplined professionalism, dedication, sacrifice."
"I find that to be a very strange comment," Colicchio told reporters. "I don't think there are any shortcuts to getting there. I mean there's a vetting process and, you know, you're not going to sort of get through that process if you haven't some sort of skill."
"It's very easy to badmouth the show for - you know, if you're a professional chef for whatever reason because some people look at this as a shortcut to fame. But you know what, most of these guys who have been on the show, if they don't back it up in their everyday life they're going to fade away, you know, a year from now. They're going to have their 15 minutes."
Lakshmi -- not surprisingly -- also defended Top Chef and said nothing the contestants do escapes the cameras.
"I think Top Chef is a great opportunity," she said. "If you're lucky enough to actually make the cut and be one of the contestants, it's just a chance to show if you're good or not. But if you're not good, you're not going to last on the show. And that comment about how TV and media has changed, you know, the food industry, guess what? The TV and media have changed all of our lives in every industry."
In addition, Lakshmi said Top Chefcontestants aren't the only ones who benefit from the show.
"I think that Top Chef also does a great service in informing people about food and cooking technique, and eating right and using good local ingredients," she said. "You'll see that a lot, especially on this season. And so for that, too, I think it - yes it has - TV has changed the way people look at food for the good, you know, for the better I believe."