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Top Chef Portland behind-the-scenes: how season 18 was produced

Top Chef Portland is the 18th season of the Bravo food competition, and was unlike no other: it filmed during the global C0VID-19 pandemᎥc, which changed the way it was produced, and also in a city that was one of the epicenters of demonstrations for racial justice.

While the show looks surprising similar, but also reflects the moment. The chefs still drive to Whole Foods, for example, though this time they’re just getting curbside pickup while wearing their masks, having previously shopped for their ingredients online.

Instead of guest judges, there will be a rotating panel of Top Chef alum.

How did Magical Elves, the production company that created the format back in 2006, produce in this environment? How did they keep 150 crew members—plus 15 to 20 Magical Elves employees who work on the show in various capacities, and 15 contestants and 15 judges—all safe?

To find out, I interviewed Hillary Olsen, SVP of production at Magical Elves, who has worked on Top Chef since its fourth season, and has done everything from challenge producing a finale in Puerto Rico to showrunning the New Orleans season. She now oversees staffing and the creative.

Dan Murphy is Magica Elves’ COO, and has been on the show since season five. He currently oversees the show’s line producer (who manages budget and the production) and works with Bravo on the show’s budget and other aspects of the production.

Filming Top Chef during fall 2020

First, Top Chef (Bravo, Thursdays at 8) didn’t consider cancelling its season.

“It wasn’t ever a question of whether we could do it, it was a question more of when we could do it safely,” Murphy told me. “We spent months and months working through the protocols—researching everything that the CDC was putting out, and all of the different medical officials and professionals that were advising how productions could get back to work safely.”

“We spent a lot of time figuring it out and meticulously putting our protocols in place, but I don’t think we ever thought that we couldn’t do it,” he said.

Dan Murphy
Dan Murphy (Photo by Magical Elves)

While the judges lived in their own Airbnb places, the cast and crew lived together in a single hotel, creating a production bubble.

But the competition doesn’t just take place in the Top Chef kitchen: it moves around the city.

I asked about that, and Olsen said “we built our plan to be able to go out and about and stay within our bubble and also do things safely, within the guidelines of the CDC and NBC Universal’s medical health guidelines, and also state and local law.”

“But we were able to go out and do it safely and do it successfully, which was very exciting, because it plays a big [part] in the show,” she added.

Why Top Chef chose Portland, and how racial justice protests affected the show

Gregory Gourdet and Padma Lakshmi introduce Top Chef Portland's first challenge
Gregory Gourdet and Padma Lakshmi introduce Top Chef Portland’s first challenge (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

One of the alumni participating is Gregory Gourdet, Top Chef Boston’s runner-up, who’s the author of a forthcoming cookbook and a Portland-based chef.

In the first episode of Top Chef Portland, he appears with host Padma Lakshmi to welcome the chefs to Portland, which he says has a “strong sense of community,” and then he adds: “We’re also front and center in our nation’s current fight for racial equality.”

He’s referring to the protests that occurred in Portland over many months after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and generated considerable media coverage.

The decision to film in Portland was made earlier. “We were very conscious of the situation in Portland, and social justice is at the forefront of our minds as a company,” Murphy said. “We never want to diminish the importance of protesting and people’s free speech, but it was not something that was at the forefront of our mind when we chose Portland. It was something that we had decided to do before all that had started.”

In a message sent to me later, Murphy added that “the protests in Portland did not slow down production, but we were very conscious of the situation.”

Bravo executive Matt Reichman told Variety, “Once we were committed, we all felt very strongly that Portland was such a perfect backdrop. We want to try and reframe the conversation about Portland, and bring it back to the amazing, special place it is, while also honoring what’s happening there.”

So why was Portland chosen initially?

“Portland and Oregon have been on our radar for some time,” Olsen told me. “Every season we look at the landscape of places we haven’t been, and the places that really tick the boxes in terms of having the right culinary landscape and scene for us to come and explore. And it just seemed like the perfect opportunity.”

Hillary Olsen
Hillary Olsen (Photo by Magical Elves)

“It wasn’t that we looked at Portland because of C0VID, we were looking at Portland because it made sense for a season for the series,” Olsen said. “It just provides such a rich backdrop for the show, the different kinds of challenges and being outside. So it actually was fortuitous that we ended up going there because it worked out very well for us. We didn’t approach Portland with with C0VID in mind.”

Olsen also said that, “as we approach a new season, the two strongest pieces of the puzzle are the location and the casting, because they both actually end up being cast members in the show. They walk hand-in-hand in terms of the creative direction that we end up taking—from the cuisines of the local community and the backdrops and what we’re actually trying to do in the show. That’s not to say that we don’t think of new, fresh ways to bring challenges to the table, or do something different, to keep the chefs and everybody engaged and invested and excited.”

Why are there no sous chefs on Top Chef Portland

There's no physical distancing among Top Chef Portland contestants Gabriel Pascuzzi, Maria Mazon, Brittanny Anderson, Dawn Burrell, and Gabe Erales
There’s no physical distancing among Top Chef Portland contestants Gabriel Pascuzzi, Maria Mazon, Brittanny Anderson, Dawn Burrell, and Gabe Erales. (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

The cast includes four James Beard nominees, and, as Padma says in the first episode, “I think for the first time, we don’t have any sous chefs—for all of you are used to being the boss, I guess.”

Yes: All 15 chefs are executive chefs and/or restaurant owners.

But that wasn’t intentional. “It’s definitely a great happenstance where we ended up with a very talented group of chefs,” Olsen told me.

“We’re always looking for the best of the best when we’re going out to cast the show, so I don’t know that’s exactly what [Magical Elves EVP for casting Samantha Hanks] and her team were aiming for. But we’re always looking for the greatest culinary talents to come on board season after season.”

Why Top Chef brought back alumni to judge

“It was a creative decision that we made with Bravo,” Olsen said. “It added a really fun, interesting layer to be able to bring back and highlight talent from previous seasons—who’ve actually been through the paces, having been in the competition. Having their voices was a really nice pivot and change in the creative, and it really worked out nicely for all of us. It’s a nice layer that you’ll see threaded as we as the episodes move through.”

Five of the 12 announced Top Chef alumni appear in the first episode, so I asked where the others were during that time.

In an e-mailed follow-up, Murphy said, “The all-star winners, finalists and favorites judging and dining panel were part of the production bubble, and they were safely rotated in and out” during the season.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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