The untold truth of Top Chef

There have been plenty of cooking shows on television over the years, yet when a high-stakes, lightning-paced culinary competition debuted on Bravo in 2006, viewers had never seen anything like Top Chef. On the show, some of America's most talented up-and-coming chefs embark in extreme cooking challenges that put their considerable skills to the test as they create the most delicious delicacies possible.

Once their dishes are completed — under strict time constraints, of course — the chefs' creations are then evaluated by host Padma Lakshmi, and judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, along with the occasional guest judge. Together, their trained palates determine which competitors will be eliminated and which will stick around to cook another day. 

After all those successful seasons, Top Chef is arguably one of the biggest, most enduring shows to ever air on the Bravo channel, but prepare to be surprised and enlightened by what you may not know about this Emmy-winning series. This is the untold truth of Top Chef.  

Only one Top Chef contestant has ever been disqualified

The second season of Top Chef can lay claim to what is arguably the weirdest incident to ever take place on the show. After a competition, some of the contestants got drunk and decided to shave the head of a competitor, Marcel Vigneron — very much against his will. What was apparently meant to be a tipsy prank, however, escalated to something far more egregious. As one producer wrote, it was "a strange and uncomfortable situation for everybody."

As a result of the incident, one of the culprits, Cliff Crooks, became the first and only contestant ever disqualified from Top Chef. Judge Tom Colicchio (also one of the show's executive producers) addressed the bizarre situation in a blog post, writing that the show's legal department advised him and the other producers of the show's rules, "which stated that harming or threatening to harm other contestants was potential grounds for disqualification. According to these guidelines, it was clear that Cliff needed to go."

Added Colicchio: "In a flash I understood how frat pranks can morph into ugly acts of hazing, or how a rowdy bachelor party can become the scene of a crime."

Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi consumes a lot of calories while filming

Consider the plight of Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi. While sampling the culinary creations of some of America's most talented chefs may be a treat for the taste buds, eating all that food is not great for the waistline. In a 2017 essay she wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, Lakshmi broke it down. "When filming Top Chef, I consume about 5,000 to 8,000 calories a day," she explained. "We start with anywhere from 15 to 18 contestants, and I have to take a bite or two from each of their plates to adequately judge each dish. Every day. It adds up."

She revealed, "I typically gain anywhere from 10 to 17 pounds every season." And, as she pointed out, the need to get "red carpet ready" after filming ends just before awards season means she must embark on an intensive diet and exercise regime. What she's come to learn, however, is that gaining that weight is a lot easier than shedding it. "Once I get home, what's taken me six weeks to gain takes me 12 weeks to take off," she admitted.

Top Chef producers spend big bucks on groceries

You can't cook up Top Chef-level cuisine without fresh, quality ingredients — and those do not come cheap. That was one of many revelations made by Seattle chef Shannon Wilkinson, a former culinary producer with the show who shared some Top Chef secrets with Seattle Met.

According to Wilkinson, the Top Chef pantry that viewers see has been completely stocked to provide a wide array of food, from the mundane to the exotic. "We came up with the ingredient list, the stuff you see when they're in there grabbing ingredients during a challenge," Wilkinson explained. "The culinary producers, we'd go to Whole Foods and spend $5,000. Imagine what it's like being able to go to Whole Foods and buy everything you could possibly want."

Shopping for Top Chef, Wilkinson revealed, was an adventure. "We'd roll through there with four or five carts, just loading stuff in... we'd have these receipts that were taller than Lee Anne [Wong, a season one Top Chef contestant — and Wilkinson's pal — who also worked as a culinary producer on the show]."

Here's what happens to Top Chef food that doesn't get used

Having all that food available is essential for the Top Chef challenges, but only a fraction of what's purchased for the show actually gets used. As Top Chef culinary producer Shannon Wilkinson told Seattle Met, he and his fellow culinary producers got to grab whatever goodies were left over. 

Since "most of the best products" don't get utilized, and given the lengthy period between challenges — sometimes weeks — Wilkinson revealed that "we would take any leftover product that would have spoiled back to the hotel and have dinner parties. For me that was one of the best perks; we'd go back to our hotel and eat caviar and foie gras and lobster."

However, some food simply couldn't be salvaged. "At the end of the day, we'd have to throw a lot of product away because it sat too long during filming," WIlkinson pointed out, with one caveat: "We always made sure the caviar was saved."

Top Chef contestants must make two of every dish

One of the secrets of Top Chef that viewers likely don't know is that whenever chefs prepares a dish, they're required to make two of whatever it is they're cooking. 

"On pretty much every single challenge on the show, the chef has to make two plates of everything," revealed Top Chef producer Shauna Minoprio in a 2007 interview with the New York Daily News. One reason, Minoprio revealed, is because they'll often need a dish to photograph "before the judge gets to it... We have a camera set up in the area that we call the food-porn area, because we want the food to look as sexy as possible."

Meanwhile, she also divulged there there is "only one person on the whole production team who pretty much tastes everything, and he is a guy called T-Bone." The show's technical coordinator, he takes closeup shots of the chef's dishes, and apparently also winds up sampling them. "So he's sort of the inside mole," she explained, "and if you want to get a sense of whose food tasted the best and who he thinks might do well at the judges' table, go ask T-Bone."

Padma Lakshmi replaced Top Chef's original host after one season

When Top Chef debuted in 2006, the host was Katie Lee Joel — who was then married to rocker Billy Joel (they split in 2009) — with Padma Lakshmi brought in to replace her in the second season. The blog Televisionary was the first to report Joel was exiting after just one season. "Top Chef's robotic host Katie Lee Joel... will NOT be sticking around for a second course of Bravo's hit culinary competition," reported the blog. "According to a well-placed insider, Joel will 'not be returning' to the show. No reason for her departure was cited." 

Andy Cohen, a top exec at the Bravo channel at the time, shared a strange anecdote about Joel in his 2012 memoir, excerpted by the Christian Science MonitorDuring a taping, Cohen wrote, a "strange thumping noise" could be heard, its source baffling the audio crew. "Finally the audio guy realized what he was hearing. 'That's Katie's heart!' he screamed," Cohen explained. "I love a host with a big heart, and Katie Lee felt so bad about having to send anyone home that hers was pounding hard enough to be heard in the sound mix."

Top Chef time limits are real

While certain things tend to be fudged in the making of reality television, the Top Chef competitions' time limits are 100 percent real. Series producer Shauna Minoprio made that revelation in a 2007 interview with the New York Daily News"People often ask me, 'Are the times the chefs given real? When it's a quick-fire [challenge] and it's 10 minutes, do they really get 10 minutes?' And they really get 10 minutes," she explained. "Anytime you're watching the show and you're seeing that the chefs have been given four hours or whatever it is, that is absolutely, very strictly the amount of time they get."

That was backed up by Top Chef judge and executive producer Tom Colicchio. "If we say you have a half an hour to cook, you have a half an hour to cook," Colicchio told Food & Wine in 2017. "There's no suspended time on our show."

One part of the show that has no time limits, however, is the judging. "There have been eight- to 10-hour judging tables," judge Gail Simmons told Food & Wine, recalling one session that went on for so long that she fell asleep at the table.

A Top Chef contestant became the show's culinary producer

Loyal Top Chef viewers may recall Lee Anne Wong, who competed in the show's first season (but didn't win). However, Wong won something even more impressive when producers offered her a job as the show's culinary producer. Wong wound up working behind the scenes for the next six seasons.

Wong returned for Top Chef's 15th season, dubbed Last Chance Kitchen, and this time she was back in front of the camera as a contestant. In an interview with Food & Wine, Wong divulged that she decided to return "on a whim, to see if I still have what it takes to be the Top Chef." 

As she explained, her role as culinary producer gave her some insight into some of her Last Chance Kitchen competitors. "I was a culinary producer on Jenn Carroll's and Marcel [Vigneron]'s seasons, so I already knew they were both fierce competition," said Wong. Pregnant during the Last Chance Kitchen season, filmed in Colorado, Wong withdrew after being diagnosed with severe altitude sickness. When doctors advised the best thing for her unborn baby would be to get to a lower elevation, "I didn't give it a second thought."

The reason why Top Chef contestants are "quarantined"

Kwame Onwuachi competed in the 13th season of Top Chef in 2015. Later, he wrote a memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef, that included his observations about appearing on the show. One of the behind-the-scenes secrets he revealed is a rule meant to keep any spoilers from leaking. "Because there's such a long gap between filming and airing, eliminated contestants are kept quarantined together in a house until the season finale is filmed," he wrote, according to a passage from the book excerpted by RadarOnline.

For the already-eliminated chefs, this pseudo-imprisonment wasn't exactly a rollicking good time. "There was not much we could do but stew in a mixture of boredom and depression," he admitted. 

Interestingly enough, shortly after the 2019 release of Onwuachi's book, Variety reported that Notes From a Young Black Chef was going to be adapted into a movie, with Lakeith Stanfield (whose screen credits include the horror hit Get Out and TV's Atlanta) cast to play Onwuachi in the film version. 

Top Chef has inspired numerous international editions

Top Chef is a huge hit on American television, and it's also successful in numerous other countries throughout the world, each following a similar format while adding their own unique regional touches. For example, Canadians have embraced their own version, Top Chef Canada. Further afield, on a whole other continent, Top Chef Middle East was launched in 2011.

Other international versions include Top Chef Thailand, Top Chef Mexico, Top Chef IndonesiaTop Chef Italia and even a Finnish version titled Top Chef Suomi. As of early 2020, there have been 24 international versions of Top Chef, including the U.S. original. All versions have been licensed through NBCUniversal, parent company of Bravo.

In 2019, NBCUniversal announced it had entered into a deal with Brazil's Record TV to produce a Brazilian version based on the Top Chef format. "We are very excited about this never-before-seen format on Brazilian television," Record TV's Marcelo Silva said in a statement to Variety. "This TV show is going to be very competitive and thrilling."

Top Chef spawned an online cooking school

Viewers of Top Chef have been able to pick up numerous cooking tips over the years, but they can also receive culinary training thanks to Top Chef University. Originally a website (which is no longer active), Top Chef University can now be accessed via an app, promising to teach "professional cooking techniques and food preparation methods."

When first introduced in 2010, reported Eater, the online course cost $200, and offered more than 200 different lessons spread across 12 categories, ranging from "Kitchen Basics and Technique" to "Entertaining, Molecular and Advanced Culinary Skills." The school's culinary director Anthony Hoy Fong worked with Top Chef judge Gail Simmons on the project, noted the press release, creating "an innovative and comprehensive curriculum, covering everything from basic knife skills and preparation, to correct cooking techniques and insight into advanced culinary trends."

Following the announcement, Esquire writer Peter Martin decided to take the course and share his experiences in a series of weekly columns, following his progress as he attempted the online lessons. Among the skills he acquired: the proper way to roast garlic, how to prepare steak with chimichurri sauce and the best way to roast tomatoes.

Top Chef has its own video game

Not only could fans of Top Chef enhance their culinary abilities with Top Chef University, they could also test their virtual cooking skills in a Top Chef-themed video game. "Sharpen your kitchen knives and dive into a frenzied culinary competition in this tantalizing Time Management game!" declared the synopsis for Top Chef: The Game. "Compete against a seasoned lineup of talented chefs in a blur of intense Quickfire and Elimination cooking challenges!"

A review of the game for IGN described the visuals as "functional, yet basic," and outlined the ultimate goal of making it through 15 episodes, taking the player through a variety of culinary challenges fitting various themes. Ultimately, the review wasn't particularly glowing, pointing out that "the pace is so frenetic at times that you feel like you're just throwing things into a pot and hoping they'll stick. Top Chef: The Game is an interesting diversion at best, but if you want to learn to cook, you'd be far better off just buying a cookbook."

Top Chef contestants undergo a psychiatric evaluation

The producers, stars, and past contestants of Top Chef spilled some secrets about the show during a 2018 panel at Los Angeles' Paley Center for Media, with The Hollywood Reporter detailing some of their more fascinating revelations. Chief among these was that contestants must undergo a "gruelling" psychiatric test before being approved to compete on the show.

The show's "cheftestants" are posed an array of seemingly bizarre questions — including, "Did you ever want to light a cat on fire?"— in order to identify any psychological issues that might present problems during production of the show. "They stick you in a room with a psychiatrist for two hours," season 14 winner Brooke Williamson recalled during the Q&A. "It's awful. I cried because that's what I do, and I failed my first test!" 

Season two's Marcel Vigneron also shared his experience. "They ask you things," Vigneron recollected, "like, 'Do you see things other people don't see?' I said, 'Yeah, I have really good vision.' They said, 'No! We mean things that aren't there!' 'Well the question didn't say that!'"

Former Top Chef contestants say cooking isn't always the most important skill on the show

Top Chef isn't just a culinary competition, it's also a gruelling endurance test that becomes increasingly tougher for the finalists as they progress through a season. Several Top Chef finalists spoke with Delish to share what they'd learned about the show in the course of their experiences, including season 14 finalist Shirley Chung.

Chung's advice to any chef looking to compete in the show is to exit the kitchen and head for the gym. "It's very physical, because the hours are really long, and especially this season — oh my god! — it's unbelievable," Chung said. In order to prepare herself for the physical demands of Top Chef, she doubled up on her workouts, from three per week to six, and mixed it up by alternating between lifting weights, interval training and cardio workouts on an elliptical. She also took spin classes in order to build up stamina, in addition to running. The latter activity, she explained, helped to clear her head.

Appearing on Top Chef has given Chung huge respect for the show. "It's one of the truest, real-time reality shows, and [that's why] so many professional chefs really respect it," she said.