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Top Chef Portland’s physical distancing makes no sense. It’s not alone in its mixed messages.

In the first episode of Bravo’s Top Chef Portland, host Padma Lakshmi stands before the contestants for the first time on the kitchen set. “Speaking of the kitchen, you guys might have noticed that it’s larger than normal, because we are living and working in the middle of a pandemic,” she says. “And we’re getting tested very regularly. If I got tested any more often, I’d live with a swab up my nose.”

Padma says this while standing at a considerable distance from Top Chef alum Gregory Gourdet, who’s one of the returning alum who will serve as guest judges.

A little later, Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio walk into the kitchen, and are so close together they could be walking arm in arm.

The difference is striking and obvious and makes absolutely no sense.

I’m thrilled to have Top Chef back, and the chefs seem like a talented group, but watching the first episode, I couldn’t stop focusing on the bizarre physical distancing, and thinking about what that meant.

Let’s take a closer look.

For the first elimination challenge, the panel of Top Chef alum and the judges are seated at this long table, indoors, and are basically sitting next to each other:

Dale Talde, Gregory Gourdet, Melissa King, and Tom Colicchio judge the first challenge without knowing which chef cooked what dish.
Dale Talde, Gregory Gourdet, Melissa King, and Tom Colicchio judge the first challenge without knowing which chef cooked what dish. (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)
Dale Talde, Gregory Gourdet, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, Kwame Onwuachi, Amar Santana, and Richard Blais judge Top Chef Portland's first elimination challenge.
Dale Talde, Gregory Gourdet, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, Kwame Onwuachi, Amar Santana, and Richard Blais judge Top Chef Portland’s first elimination challenge. (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Then, when the judges are back on set, at the Judges’ Table, they’re separated by several miles:

Melissa King, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons at the massive judges' table during episode 1 of Top Chef Portland
Melissa King, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons at the massive judges’ table during episode 1 of Top Chef Portland (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Why does Top Chef Portland go from this…

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)

…to this:

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)

…and this?

Top Chef Portland's judges walking through a park in episode 1. From left to right: Dale Talde, Melissa King, Gregory Gourdet, Padma Lakshmi, Kwame Onwuachi, Tom Colicchio, Richard Blais, Gail Simmons, and Amar Santana
Top Chef Portland’s judges walking through a park in episode 1. From left to right: Dale Talde, Melissa King, Gregory Gourdet, Padma Lakshmi, Kwame Onwuachi, Tom Colicchio, Richard Blais, Gail Simmons, and Amar Santana. (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

The strangest of all, however, is this:

Some of these Top Chef Portland judges are not distanced like the others! From left to right: Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Kwame Onwuachi, Dale Talde, Amar Santana, Padma Lakshmi, Richard Blais, Melissa King, and Gregory Gourdet
Some of these Top Chef Portland judges are not distanced like the others! From left to right: Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Kwame Onwuachi, Dale Talde, Amar Santana, Padma Lakshmi, Richard Blais, Melissa King, and Gregory Gourdet.(Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

As we’ve all known for a year now, staying at least six feet away from other humans is one part of avoiding getting infected with C0VID-19.

But if you’re indoors, unmasked for a period of time, distance isn’t useful, because respiratory droplets travel like cigarette smoke does.

Inside a locked-down set and with a cast and crew that was living together in a hotel, it’s not surprising that no one on Top Chef Portland is wearing masks. Because of the frequent testing, I certainly don’t expect anyone on screen to be physically distant from each other.

When Top Chef Portland’s chefs are in the kitchen, prepping or cooking, the chefs are on top of each other. Again, that’s fine. The show has made it clear they’ve been tested and quarantᎥned.

When the chefs go out in public to pick up groceries from Whole Foods, or travel back to their hotel, they are masked, which is great, and modeling good behavior.

But why do the judges sit next to each other for dinner but separate themselves for judging? Why is there this inconsistency?

I asked about this when I talked with producers, and in a follow-up e-mail sent via a publicist, Magical Elves COO Dan Murphy told me this:

Dan Murphy
Dan Murphy (Photo by Magical Elves)

“Safety of the cast and crew was our highest priority. Even though we were in a bubble and tested everyone regularly, we also socially distanced whenever possible out of an abundance of caution. Additionally, we implemented creative solutions like having the cast mic themselves, added fixed cameras, a longer judges table, and created crew pods to assist with tracking and tracing as added layers of protection.”

I appreciate the “abundance of caution,” but it seems to me that Top Chef—and so many other reality shows—are sending mixed messages.

ABC’s The Chase spreads its contestants and host apart, but then the host and contestant stand next to each other during the first chase.

Fox’s The Masked Singer has its judges somewhat separated but has a fake studio audience, and that’s a dangerous lie.

CBS’s Big Brother 22 had its contestants leave the house masked—even though they’d been inside an essentially virus-proof bubble, while the person going to and from her home every day, host Julie Chen Moonves, was unmasked while interviewing them. Since masks mostly help by preventing respiratory droplets from spraying all over a room, that’s basically backwards—but on par for CBS’s most insultingly stupid show.

On Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible, Robert Irvine and the restaurant owners he’s helping stay masked—until they’re inside and and talking, and then they take them off.

It’s all nonsensical. I want TV shows to be responsible both in terms of their production, keeping the cast and crew safe—and it seems Top Chef Portland did just that—but I also want networks and producers to be aware of the very clear messages they’re sending.

When the message is confused, it’s easy to dismiss as theatre instead of meaningful action. And we need clear messages, because of how few of them we’ve gotten.

We have more deaths from this virus in the United States than any other place on earth because we had no leadership and no consistent messaging, because public relations and ego were prioritized above safety and science. Our reality TV president may have done that, but our reality TV shows don’t need to.

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About the author

  • 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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