Top Chef Masters concludes its third season tonight, and the show has changed a lot from its first season. Those changes have been both good and bad, but I do miss the talent, the camraderie, and the judges from the first season. So it’s a good time to revisit it via an interview with its winner.
Season one winner Rick Bayless revealed some behind-the-scenes details last August in a conversation that’s part of Authors@Google. Among other things, he noted that the show’s producers had to convince the cast to sign up, and once they agreed, plied them with alcohol and even offered to open and pour it for the contestants in order to get them “loose” at judging.
First, Rick said that after “never less than two hours” or three hours of being judged, when the chefs would return to the kitchen table, “they [producers] had it loaded with booze. Because they wanted us to just sit there and drink ourselves silly, because that was always an hour, an hour and a half while the judges deliberated. And then we would have to go back and stand in front of them, and then they really wanted us to be sort of loose, can you say,” he said.
“So we would sit down at that table and no one would drink. And then the producers would come over and go, ‘How about a beer? How about some wine? We’ll open it for you. Here, we’ll pour it.’” Also during the interview, Rick said, “There’s an always an open bar; there’s always booze every way you turn.”
During season one, producers “had a hard time getting any chefs of note,” he said. (And apparently had the same problem this year, I say!) Because the show was new, producers promised the chefs they cast, “you have to trust us on this” and said “we’re going to be gentle with you guys.” He notes that it worked out and because “nobody’s doing any backbiting,” that “really turned out to be its charm in the end.”
Still, it wasn’t easy. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Rick said, in part because producers “wear you out.” He said “there’s never a day off. You’re just dead.” They had 6 or 6:30 a.m. call times and things were “always constantly in flux, which is another way they wear you down.”
Rick also discussed his guest judging Top Chef, and said, “a lot of the food, because it’s done under such duress, a lot of the food’s not very well-seasoned, it’s not very good. You might say, ‘It might be wonderful to be a judge on Top Chef.’ Not really. I think maybe you’d like to do takeout, because sometimes it’s just not very good, what they produce. In our case, sometimes it wasn’t as good, either.”
Here’s the relevant part of the interview: