Sitting at a blufftop table on the grassy grounds of the Bacara Resort, Padma Laksmhi, Tom Colicchio, Cat Cora, Suzanne Goin, and a few more superstars of the food world are overlooking the Pacific Ocean and enjoying the coastal breeze as they critique plate after plate of culinary creativity. I, meanwhile, am inside the resort’s rather spacious yet now cramped and hot kitchen, dodging cameramen, audio engineers, and a gang of earbud-wearing producers as frantic teams of ambitious chefs throw together quickly considered but beautifully executed dishes, which they hope will impress — or at least not offend — those celebrity chefs outside. There’s cussing, finger cuts, and constant banter between cooks about which ingredients are ready, how much time is left, and whether a medic is required, peppered with the occasional zen-like aside. “Focus grasshopper!” blurts one chef, as jalapenos are sliced and radishes plated, followed soon by “oh fuck!,” “timer?,” “drinking water please!,” and “extremely hot, extremely hot — coming around!”
This is what Top Chef looks like when you’re allowed to peek behind the scenes for an hour or so, as I was this past spring when the wildly popular Bravo series came to Santa Barbara County to shoot the episode that airs tonight, Thursday, December 10, at 10 p.m. and runs into March 2016. The competitive cooking show — whose “California Road Trip” edition recently premiered to more than five million viewers — took over the Bacara on a sunny day in May with more than 120 people, including crew members, judges, and competitors, with cameras rolling and chef-to-be sagas unfolding from about 7 a.m. until midnight.
Combined with a sea urchin challenge — which included a visit to the Santa Barbara Harbor and a cook-off at Sanford Winery in the Sta. Rita Hills the day before — the Bacara footage became part of tonight’s 75 minute-long episode. That’s a “supersized” episode by Top Chef standards, but still a miniscule representation of the logistics, manpower, and money required to produce this 13th season of the Emmy Award-winning show. Consider that it was just one of more than a dozen episodes filmed in 30-plus locations statewide, from Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and San Diego to Oakland and San Francisco, it’s easy to see why such productions are considered powerful drivers for regional economies, not to mention massive boosters for tourism as well once the season airs.
The show is also a feat of storytelling magic, for the producers are never quite sure how the narrative will play out, which is why there’s so much happening behind the scenes during the month-long statewide shoot. At the Bacara, for instance, while judges sat through three hours of service from two-person teams — who didn’t realize their “surf and turf“ collaboration challenge was a “surf vs. turf” standoff until they presented their dishes — there were about 20 people, including what seemed to be about five main directors, in the “video village” watching every single move on eight different flatscreens. Much like an air traffic control room, the steady monitoring allowed for real-time direction to all players, with suggestions for judges to repeat certain comments more clearly, for competitors to stand somewhere else, or for cameramen to focus more intently on kitchen snafus. Story producers, who track potential lines of drama, were simultaneously typing away at their laptops in the village, while the “glam squad” of hair and makeup pros filtered in and out and, off to the corner, the “food porn” team took shots of brilliantly lit dishes as they rotated on a 360-degree wheel.
Back in the kitchen, the situation is both crazier and less insane than it seems on television. It’s more chaotic because there are about three times as many people in the kitchen as you can see on the screen, with near-collisions between cooks, servers, producers, cameramen, and the errant journalist happening constantly. But it’s a little less hectic, because timing is much more spread out and predictable than it feels on-screen, with ample time for cooking and plating, so long as the chefs have planned correctly.
But the emotions are 100 percent real. When one of the teams I watched delivered their dish to the table, the renowned Tom Colicchio summed his thoughts up bluntly: “I don’t like either of them.” As the contestant’s eyes started to get a little teary, admitting that this was a new dish for her, she replied, “It’s hard to learn as you go while you’re being judged.”
Tune in tonight and throughout the rest of the season to see how that judging goes.