If you haven’t yet watched the season 15 premiere of Bravo’s Top Chef—do. It’s great fun to see so many of our beloved Centennial State landmarks—DIA! Larimer Square! Maroon Bells! Telluride!—as well as local chef icons judging, tasting, and chatting alongside the fresh crop of cheftestants and the illustrious judges.
As someone who had the pleasure of attending the filming of that first elimination challenge back in May, I was curious to see how it would play out on the screen and find out who won and lost. But it was most fascinating to witness how Bravo’s editing process transformed the IRL event into the slick, highly-produced episode. Here’s my take on the experience, and a few things you won’t see in the final cut.
1. The process was highly confidential.
Before the Larimer Square challenge, Bravo’s crew had the 200 “Denver locals” attending as extras meet at the sixth floor of a nearby parking garage. There, we signed very stringent non-disclosure paperwork. Media folk even had our photos taken with our signed documents, just to really seal the deal (and our lips). No photos, no social media, and absolutely no stories would be tolerated.
2. There was a dress code.
For the Larimer Street Challenge, we were instructed to wear “block party chic” and avoid clothing with logos, artwork, solid white, or intricate patterns. Seeing that this is über-casual Denver, and many of us had no idea what block party chic meant—I still don’t—the crowd took a high-low approach. From high-heels-and-lipstick to jeans-and-T-shirts, the Mile High City’s laid-back take on fashion was on full display.
3. The food was good, given the setting.
Make no mistake—all 15 of this season’s cheftestants know how to cook. For this challenge, they were instructed to create inventive plays on “meat and potatoes,” a phrase that has long been invoked to describe the Mile High City’s dining scene—that is, until our recent “culinary renaissance,” as judge Gail Simmons puts it. Despite the influx of tartare and potato chips, co-host Padma Lakshmi thought much of the day’s food was good, and I’d agree.
On the other hand, the contestants were understandably nervous as they embarked upon their very first tasting event, and they were cooking ambitious food for 200 people and four pro judges on portable outdoor setups. Keeping things hot and crunchy was a challenge. My favorite dish of the day—sweet potato purée with crispy potatoes and smoked pork gravy from chef Tyler Anderson of Millwright’s Restaurant and Tavern— won the judges’ favor, too. As for our hometown heroes? The judges seemed to like Brother Luck’s lamb, but they weren’t very fond of Carrie Baird’s meaty chip-and-dip dish.
4. The judges truly are intimidating.
If you’ve tuned into the premiere, you’ve caught cameos and quick shots of local culinary luminaries such as Hosea Rosenberg (past Top Chef winner and chef-owner of Blackbelly and Santo), Gregory Gourdet (former Top Chef contestant and Departure chef), Josh Wolkon (Vesta, Ace Eat Serve, Steuben’s), Keegan Gerhard (D Bar), and Denver empire-builders Troy Guard and Frank Bonanno. But the Top Chef judges and hosts were indisputably the real stars on set. Diners were given instructions not to approach, stare at, or crowd them as they meandered about—and certainly not to ask for autographs!
5. Bravo’s production was stunning.
Translating that four-hour-long, open-air cooking event into a watchable television show took some serious work. For this episode, Bravo’s army of staffers—90 were flown in to work on the episode—stationed themselves in nearby Larimer Social. Several, armed with cameras, roamed the event getting footage. Oh, and those pro photos of each chef’s dish that you see sprinkled throughout each episode? Turns out the crew sets up a special photography tent replete with lighting and a revolving lazy Susan surface to capture each dish during the filming process. The production crew encountered a special challenge at the end of the shoot, when the Denver skies conjured a ferocious hail storm that left everyone soaked and running for cover.
We’ll share more behind-the-scenes stories from season 15 as the episodes air. To watch the next one, tune in to Bravo on Thursday, December 14 at 8 p.m. MT.