Top Chef: What It's Like to Be a Diner at the Taping
Editor's note: Ever wonder who those diners in the background are on Top Chef, and what they actually get to eat? And how it tastes? And how it feels to be that close to Padma? Friend of Serious Eats YiMay Yang, a designer and photographer based in Austin, was at the taping for the episode of Top Chef Texas that aired this week. She couldn't reveal any juicy details, until now. It's been torture for her not to tweet about it. —The Mgmt.
Living in Austin we had heard rumblings about Top Chef filming in Texas. It wasn't until my friend Mike emailed a group of us TC fans with a serious inquiry about how we could be diners on an episode that I started sending out feelers.
A few email exchanges later, I had a confirmation to participate in a taping of an unnamed Bravo show to be filmed in San Antonio. The episode finally aired this week, which means I can finally talk about it.
The only information we were given at the time was where to be, when, and a request for some canned goods. Would the chefs have to cook with these cans? Should I locate an imported can of foie? (Later we learned they'd be donated to a food shelter.)
8 A.M. Call Time
The day of the filming, we made our way to the Pearl Brewery, a multiplex compound with offices, restaurants, and a culinary institute for our 8 a.m. call. After signing some contracts, we were handed three small sheets of paper for voting.
A lot of waiting later, a producer welcomed the crowd and explained to us that we'd be voting for one chef in each group. The challenge? To make the best "healthy version" of a comfort food.
Our hearts sank. Eh, healthy? We didn't come all the way to San Antonio to taste some chef's tofu burgers. Where was all the bacon and butter and cheese?
We were also given some basic directions:
- Don't look directly into the camera
- Don't look directly at Padma
- Don't talk to Padma.
In small groups, we walked out to the filming area. As an Austin girl, I made a beeline for cheftestant Paul. (Gotta support the home team.) I chatted him up, mentioning what a big fan of Uchiko I am. He responded in his gracious way as usual.
His healthy creation? A lettuce wrap with a spicy minced turkey filling and kimchi peaches on the side. OK, has anyone else noticed how peach-obsessed Paul is? I expect a full peach tasting menu at Uchiko soon. So, how'd it taste? Flavorful and saucy and messy, which helped me forget it was "healthy."
Edward served a piece of kalbi as an open-faced "burger" on flatbread with aioli and a cucumber salad. The beef wasn't tender, and mostly just tasted of one-dimensional soy. The spicy sauce and the cucumber, however, were both good. But that hockey puck-bread really ruined it.
Onto the two ladies making meatballs. Lindsay had a delicious Greek-style meatball paired with a tangy lemon yogurt sauce and quinoa Greek salad. Couldn't get enough. My quinoa never turns out like this—un-mushy with such refreshing, bright flavors. (Get the recipe on Bravo.com) Lindsay cooks the quinoa risotto, toasting it in a pan with oil, adding a little liquid at a time. She also showed me her bottle of L'Estornell Grenache varietal red wine vinegar she found at our very own Central Market, the Texas grocery chain.
Sarah, who's from Texas but cooks at Spiaggia in Chicago, prepared a more traditional Italian meatball (with turkey) in a tomato sauce with a carrot chip garnish. It was very good, and I'm not even a huge tomato sauce fan.
And Then Padma Walked In
She finally walked in. Actually, I should say she floated in on clouds in her cream-colored blouse and shorts combo with sky-high espadrille wedges. Were those pantyhose on her legs in this searing heat? Nope, must have been her naturally glowing skin. She towered over the rest of her judge companions: Tom, Emeril, Kat Cora and Dana Cowin.
You could tell from Padma's expression that she was not adapting well to the Texas summer. She looked like she might melt as her assistants touched up her makeup and cooled her neck down with wet rags. But as soon as the cameras went on, her scowl disappeared. (She's clearly done this before.)
How the Judges Judge
The judges headed over to Grayson's and Chris's chicken salad sandwich booths first. It's quite a production when the judges appear. The crew has to clear the line of diners waiting in line. Then they bring in a small group of fake diners who must walk away as soon as the judges walk up. The judges don't have to wait in line, clearly.
After chatting up the chefs, the judges take their food back to their table, and all the crew moves with them. They eat, they critique. This same process happens for each and every dish. Needless to say it's very long and tedious. I have a deep appreciation for the talented staff and crew that makes this into a seamless, tight show.
I still had one slip of paper left, so I headed over to Chris. The whole time in line I spent staring at his hair (anyone else transfixed with his hair?). His chicken salad sandwich was underwhelming and served on very dry bread. The mayo was made from tofu. He also served a really sweet pineapple slushie with slightly frozen watermelon. It was nearing 105° that day; I wasn't complaining.
Finally, it was time to wait in the massive line for Grayson's dish—until someone yelled "bee drama!" and the entire camera crew that was on Padma rushed over to Grayson's booth. Grayson was in tears, as was Chris. Their booths had to be shut down because of a bee infestation. It was sad to see Grayson so sad. Some fellow tasters in line dropped their voting slips into Grayson's box out of pity.
Spoiler alert: The judges ultimately chose Paul's dish. Did you watch? Obviously I did, and will re-watch again this weekend with friends while cooking up our collective favorite dish from the episode: Lindsay's meatballs with lemon yogurt sauce and quinoa salad. Already purchased the bottle of L'estornell in preparation.