Pulling Back the Curtain on Top Chef
It hopefully comes as no surprise that Top Chef—like any television show of its ilk—is full of drama-enhancing artifice. And one of the people who made that magic happen in seasons three and four was Shannon Wilkinson, now chef and owner of Little Water Cantina in Eastlake. He got the gig through longtime friend and season one contestant Lee Anne Wong, who later went behind the camera as a culinary producer and brought in Wilkinson to work alongside her (Wong teamed up with Wilkinson for a China Latina pop-up dinner at Little Water back in January).
Wilkinson doesn’t have much of a connection to the show these days. And since he hasn’t had cable for the better part of two decades, he hasn’t actually seen some of the episodes he worked on. But the chef did share some insights into how the show gets made, as well as his experiences working on the Miami and Chicago seasons. Read on for tales of hotel room parties, handlers, and who gets to be on restaurant wars.
Culinary producers grocery shop. A lot.
When you see the Top Chef pantry, we built it and stocked all the supplies. We came up with the ingredient list, the stuff you see when they’re in there grabbing ingredients during a challenge. We also supplied and managed all the equipment. 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. Chicago was the season we started working with them, and the people there were super friendly. We’d roll through there with four of five carts, just loading stuff in. The person they always designated as our checker would just be tickled; we’d have these receipts that were taller than Lee Anne.
Since Glad is one of the primary sponsors, there is an endless supply of every kind of Glad product. You’ll notice a giant wall of bags, containers, etc. in the pantry. I think everyone developed an addiction to using Glad products; we were just so used to having all these huge, different-sized containers and we were always on the move. They were especially useful for taking unused product back to our hotel room.
Speaking of hotel rooms…
When you see something like a quick-fire challenge, they walk in, and there’s this big table piled high with various proteins, vegetables, etc. We would buy all that food and create the table. Subsequently [the contestants] didn’t use most of the best products. Since these challenges were often weeks apart, 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 and lobster. At the end of the day, we’d have to throw a lot of product away because it sat too long during filming. We always made sure the caviar was saved. Sometimes after filming, we’d be in the Top Chef kitchen cooking stuff up and take it all over to the hotel, have the lighting guys over, the camera guys. There are many different personalities on set. I met some really cool, interesting people.
Chefs don’t always pick the good proteins.
We’d go buy all this amazing product, and I always felt like the awesome product wouldn’t get used. You’re looking at this really cool elk meat or delicious fish and people are grabbing chicken.
It’s helpful to know a conch guy.
We did a conch challenge in Miami, so this guy, The Conch Guy, came round with about 50 conch that we placed in a fish tank. Sourcing was a constant challenge. We did the Chicago finale in Puerto Rico; we had no idea how to source anything. We had to run around to restaurants asking where they got their product. That was a lot of the challenge with the show—you would have producers suddenly decide they want to do some crazy protein challenge…tomorrow. You’d say, “Hey, I can’t just go find rattlesnake last minute.” And then you’d go find that rattlesnake.
I don’t really watch reality TV, but there were definitely entertaining moments when I was actually standing there watching people go through these cooking competitions. I think my favorite one wasn’t a cooking competition at all. In Miami, they actually had to do a kitchen skills relay where somebody chops up onions, the next person breaks down a chicken, and so on. Lee Anne and I helped come up with that one. Some people were surprisingly good, others surprisingly bad.
Expect Top Chef Seattle sightings to last into early August.
It was about six weeks of shooting. We usually arrived a week or two before to set-up and stayed a week or two after to break everything down and pack it up into PODS. You just knew you were going to work 16, 18 hours a day. There’s a long lag between regular filming and the finale, at least a couple of months. In the meantime they’re doing all the editing and the show actually airs, which meant avoiding a lot of questions from fans.
That rumored facility in Redmond probably houses the Top Chef kitchen.
They always get a warehouse in some cheap, off-the-beaten-path place, something big and very inexpensive. It’s usually pretty far away from where the chefs are staying. That would be interesting if it’s on the eastside, with the traffic between here and there. We definitely had lots of really bad traffic scenarios in Chicago and Miami.
Food porn is a verb. And a place.
In Puerto Rico, we had to have this giant platter of seafood filmed outside. It was like 100 degrees, and it’s not like it just takes 30 seconds to film these segments. You do it over and over and over again, so we were constantly putting ice on this thing. Then we had to get it food porned. I remember this other guy and I finally running with this awkward 100-pound tray to food porn—that’s where the camera guys are doing the close-ups, zooming really slowly, in and out on food, and from side to side.
The contestants can’t talk to you.
The contestants have handlers; they’re basically herded around. Your job is these people, and you’re with them every seconded of the day, and you bring them everywhere they go. They’re not allowed to talk to anyone else. I mean it’s not like they’re bouncers or bodyguards, but they’re definitely in charge of keeping those people away from the public, and also make sure they show up at places on time.
We’re not allowed to interact with them outside of filming but we were always required to be on set, in case there was a food or equipment issue. They did this one quick-fire where the chefs were woken up up early in the morning. It was a Breville challenge so they had to make brunch using the blender. Product placement is very important. They only had 30 minutes, but this guy’s burner wasn’t working. I had to jump in and make his burner work. And they’re filming. I didn’t make it on TV, obviously, but I’m there to make the burner works.
Want to be on restaurant wars? You’ve got to know somebody.
It’s people who know someone who’s associated with the show. It’s friends of producers or friends of people who are associated with the show in some way. It’ not like they’re going to take an ad out in the paper.
Some cities are nicer than others.
It was very interesting to go from Miami to Chicago. In Miami everyone expected to get something, and, with a few exceptions, people weren’t very helpful. Then we went to Chicago, the Midwest, and people were super sweet and super stoked to have you there. The contestants had to go work the line at this famous breakfast place, we went to the original Pizzeria Uno. It was just amazing how accommodating people were when you’d get into their spaces. It was super fun meeting so many different people who work with food in one way or another. Like when we filmed at the Newark Airport. I don’t think we had slept in like 24 hours and had to start setting up at 4am, but it was really cool to see how a facility produces on that scale. Between the hotel room parties and the filming schedule, there was a lot of sleep deprivation in general.