Top Chef Comes to Seattle
The city wooed the popular chef competition show with promises of total secrecy and cold, hard cash.
On the first warm Friday evening this summer, sightseers and locals milling around Seattle Center noticed something unusual happening at the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit. It was closed for a private event, though through the trees that surround the outdoor portion of the garden, passersby could glimpse cocktail tables and outdoor bars being set up for a party. If they tried for more than a glimpse, private security stationed around the perimeter gently encouraged gawkers to keep moving. Space Needle–admiring photographers whose lenses strayed too close to the action swiftly met with splayed hands, or even entire bodies, blocking the view.
Shortly before 8:30, television host Padma Lakshmi arrived, followed by Edmonds-raised actress Anna Faris and her husband, actor Chris Pratt, and a stream of locals dressed up for the mysterious occasion, mostly unaware that they would be stuck in this building until nearly 1am. What exactly happened inside will remain a contractually enforced secret until it’s revealed on national television this fall.
For nearly five weeks in June and July, spotting Top Chef’s hyperclandestine film crews around town became a cat-and-mouse sport for its many local fans. The show, which premieres November 7 on Bravo, assembles 21 professional cooks to face off in a series of drama-heavy elimination challenges.
One poorly kept secret: The cities that host each season pay for that privilege. Last year Seattle was a finalist, but lost out to Texas. When the show put out feelers for its 10th season, a host of local agencies sprang into action again, assembling a portfolio of story ideas, logistics, spreadsheets, and Seattle’s best food attributes—a dossier somewhere between a balance sheet and an online dating profile.
One poorly kept secret: The cities that host Top Chef each season pay for that privilege.
Those leading the bid have been secretive about the deal, but according to inside sources Seattle spent at least $300,000, more than it could offer last year. The city also promised to clear streets for shoots and help finagle corporate sponsorships.
Local officials got the highly classified good news in April, and producers were soon on the ground, assembling a crew, contacting chefs about participating in challenges, and spreading Top Chef’s famous nondisclosure agreements like confetti. Breathe a word of these proceedings before the show airs and you could be on the hook for $1 million.
Why spend public money on wooing a TV show? The easy answer is that the new season will essentially be a series of hour-long, nationally televised commercials for Seattle. But James Keblas, head of the City’s Office of Film and Music, says having such a prominent brand come here brings more tangible benefits, like the 50 local crew members hired for the shoot, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lodging, travel, rental cars, catering, equipment rental, and (naturally) food. Like the universe, the benefits of film and media exposure work in mysterious ways; Keblas recalls one study his office did that showed houseboat prices jumped sharply after Sleepless in Seattle came out in 1993.
Keblas was among those tasked with keeping this public spectacle anonymous, and he knew interest ran high. But even he wasn’t prepared for the calls and emails from long-lost acquaintances begging for a set visit, the Twitterazzi, and the general frenzy any time camera crews were spotted. “People are fans of the show that I had no idea would be fans of TV in general, let alone a reality TV show about cooking,” he says. On the upside, anyone he called, from an unnamed “grungy punk-rock record label” to perpetually packed restaurants, “were jumping over themselves to participate,” he says. All Keblas had to do was mention—in veiled language, of course—that the city was coordinating a shoot for Top Chef. “It was so easy to get them anything they wanted.” Yes, the project had a secret code name around city offices. No, Keblas won’t reveal what it was.