During filming of the 20th series of “Top Chef” last fall, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons were tasked with judging three courses of Wellingtons, a classic British dish that is adapted to the series’ newest location.
For this particular episode, the trio was joined by Kirk Westaway, the executive chef of the Two Michelin star restaurant JAAN, in Tobacco Dock, an events space dating from the early 19th century. It is one of many iconic London landmarks to be featured in “Top Chef: Stars of the World” the latest edition of Bravo’s reality competition series and the first season to take place entirely outside of the US. The landmark season is scheduled to begin Thursday.
The format, in which contestants compete in a quick challenge and then an elimination challenge each episode, remains the same. However, the 16 chefs in the kitchen come from a much broader group. The producers brought together all-star contestants from 11 global editions of “Top Chef,” including four from previous US seasons.
“This is the 20th season and there are (dozens) of ‘Top Chef’ productions around the world, so we thought it would be great to bring in talent from some of the other ‘Top Chef’ shows,” says Colicchio, speaking in the green room after the Wellington challenge. “Once we decided to do that, we thought it would be better to get out of the United States, and London is a big international city.”
Several international destinations were considered, including cities in Italy, Spain and France, but London was ultimately determined to be the best option.
“Around the world, New York and London are probably the best foodie cities in the world to eat, so there are a lot of different products, different meats, different ingredients,” says Lakshmi, who has been hosting the show since season 2. “London also has a very high population of immigrant cultures and different ethnicities. That’s a great playground for chefs to shop and cook.”
Once the idea of an international edition of the series was launched, the producers had to figure out how to cast “Top Chef: World All-Stars.” Currently, there are 29 global editions of “Top Chef”, each using a different format. The show differs from region to region, with some being more competitive than others.
“We were looking for diversity in terms of what shows were coming from, what countries were they coming from, the food they were cooking, the personality, and of course the skill,” says Doneen Arquines, executive producer and showrunner. “We were lucky to find some really great contestants from 11 different countries representing many different territories, who also spoke great English. At the end of the day, it’s still an American audience.”
Contestants include chefs from Jordan, France, Canada, Thailand, Poland, Spain, Brazil, the Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, and more. Longtime fans of the US edition of “Top Chef” will recognize Dawn Burrell, Sara Bradley, Buddha Lo and Amar Santana, who join the global contestants. Some of the guest chefs and judges include Asma Khan, Jeremy Chan and Clare Smyth, with several brought in from the global editions.
For the judges, the global diversity of chefs has helped keep things interesting. It also resulted in better cooking, according to Lakshmi. She says the chefs inspire each other and that diversity “brings a lot of fresh air and new perspectives and opinions to the show.”
“Extending America’s position in the world is very, very important, especially from a culinary perspective,” Simmons adds. “Because even though we’ve had an incredibly diverse cast over the years, diversity in America is one thing and diversity in the world is another. It makes them cook differently and learn different things, and it just sets a different tone.”
Logistically, moving production to London had its ups and downs. “Top Chef” typically moves to the US each season, often visiting an international destination for the finale. Colicchio says things have been similar, except “it takes longer to get everywhere in London.” The chefs still cook in the “Top Chef” kitchen, this time built in a studio on the outskirts of London, and they still shop at Whole Foods, but in Kensington.
“In a way, it always feels the same,” Simmons says. “We just pick up where we left off last year between us and we have a shorthand and we all know each other really well. But this year, I think, it feels bigger. We are upping our own game. Season 20 is certainly not something I thought I’d be doing when we started 17 years ago.”
The crew arrived in London in July 2022 and began shooting in August, taking in locations including Kew Gardens, Alexandra Palace, Highclere Castle and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, as well as the historic pubs. the lamb and the flag and the jack horner. London’s favorite Indian restaurant, Dishoom, is also featured. “Restaurant Wars” took place for the first time in a real restaurant, in the three Michelin stars Clare Smyth Core.
“Everyone who competes started out as a winner or runner-up (and) most of these people have their own restaurants,” Lakshmi says. “It was more interesting for them to focus on their food. Also, we wanted to shoot with Clare in her restaurant. She has a beautiful kitchen. ”
The episodes highlight British cuisine, though perhaps in unexpected ways. There’s a whole challenge focused on rice, another where the chefs recreate pub grub, and another focused on Indian dishes. And, of course, there was the Wellington Challenge, where teams of chefs cooked up a Fish Wellington, a Steak Wellington, and a Dessert Wellington.
“Whether it’s Kentucky, London or Charleston, we always try to incorporate as much of the regional cuisine of the place we’re shooting in,” says Lakshmi. “It really guides our hand when we’re thinking about challenges. And people don’t realize what regional food is like. We use it as inspiration. One of the keys to ‘Top Chef’ is that we respect the city we go to and feel genuine curiosity about the food, the chefs and the people there”.
The two-episode finale, with guest judge Hélène Darroze, was shot in Paris. The judges hope to continue the show’s international streak in future seasons.
“It’s going to be hard to come back,” Simmons says. “I don’t know what we’ll be allowed to do, but I’m ready to jump on the rocket and move to the next international location. I am sure that if we go back to the United States, we will take what we have learned and move on, that is the best thing about our program. We have never rested on our laurels.”
Changing the location each season has been a key aspect of the show’s longevity and momentum, Simmons says.
“We’ve really made sure that each season feels so different (and) that you want to come back,” she says. “There is no repetition. A lot of how we structure the show depends on our location each season, and we’ve traveled all over the world.”
By showcasing international chefs, Lakshmi believes that “Top Chef: World All-Stars” is an opportunity to broaden the perspective of his American viewers.
“It’s good for Americans to experience another country and its traditions,” he says. “Expand your knowledge and your power. And that is especially true for cooking at this level.”