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Top Chef recently packed its knives and headed to Portland, Oregon, and two Colorado chefs joined host Padma Lakshmi and judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons for season 18 of the popular television cooking competition. Carrie Baird (The Ginger Pig), who made it to the final four as a contestant on the Colorado-based 15th season of the show, joins the judging panel for multiple episodes, while Byron Gomez, executive chef at Aspen’s 7908 restaurant, will vie for the title of Top Chef as a cheftestant. We talked with both about their experiences filming the show ahead of its Bravo premiere on April 1.
Carrie Baird, season 18 judge
5280: When Top Chef asked you to come back, did you hesitate?
Carrie Baird: I was instantly in. I love Top Chef and I loved my experience. It’s all very positive for me, but of course I had to ask my partner and business partner, “Do you mind if I disappear during COVID?”
How was filming different because of COVID?
CB: It’s pretty wild and cool how they did it with COVID and the restrictions; it was very creative and smart and safe at the same time. The whole crew was in one hotel…nobody in and nobody out. It was like the honor system—don’t be stupid, don’t do anything that jeopardizes everyone. We got tested every other day. If anyone tested positive, they would have shut it [production] down. The only places we ever went was to stage [where many of the challenges and judging take place], or to one of the shooting sites, where we did a challenge. That’s all we did; we just hung out with each other. It was actually pretty fun.
How was your experience in Portland different from being a contestant yourself?
CB: It was much less stressful and way more fun. This was different—I had my phone, I had my computer, I could watch TV. When you’re a contestant, you’re just there. You only do Top Chef.
Are you more comfortable judging other people’s food, or making it yourself?
CB: It was kind of a double-edged sword. It was hard not to be too critical, because you can think, ‘I would have done it like this!’ But the other side of your brain is saying, ‘Be nice, you know what they’re going through. This is stressful.’ Half of you wants to hold them and tell them it will be over with soon.
Any surprises seeing the show from the judges’ side?
CB: Being on the other side, everybody always asks, how true is Top Chef? I always believed it’s so real—they don’t put time on the clock, they don’t give you lines. Now that I’ve seen it, I was right. It’s real, they don’t pad it. Even if there was a clear winner, we still went through the motions of the ups and downs, the highs and lows. Everyone got an equal shot. That was pretty cool, and I’m glad I got to see that part.
5280: Why did you want to be on Top Chef?
Byron Gomez: Out of all the shows, all the cooking competitions worldwide, Top Chef definitely has the most weight behind it. Eighteen seasons on it—that speaks volumes. It had to do with the respect and caliber of the contestants and judges. It was something that for many years was on the back burner, and I didn’t feel equipped enough professionally to say I had the caliber to compete here. Personality-wise, I’m a bubbly, positive person, so I think that fit with what they were looking for. It was the right timing.
What were you most surprised about being on the show versus watching on TV?
BG: I’m an athletic guy, I’m pretty fit, but the physical part of it, I didn’t realize how straining that would be. Filming takes about 16 to 18 hours sometimes, and it can weigh on you a little bit. I didn’t realize the physicality and stop and go from everything. And the mental part of it also plays a big role. It challenges you outside and inside.
What was the biggest challenge you faced being on the show?
BG: The element of surprise, not knowing what every day would be like. Seeing your competition and knowing you’re in it, and it’s real life. That was very challenging. It’s nerve-racking. You’re on set, you’re meeting Padma and she’s beautiful. You’re like, ‘Oh, my God I’m here, someone pinch me’ type of thing.
How did you prepare for the experience?
BG: I worked at very prestigious restaurants in New York City—one-, two-, and three-star Michelin restaurants, working for Eleven Madison Park, the number one restaurant in the world. Being in that environment, growing up and coming up the ranks in those different restaurants, it’s very cutthroat and competitive, so that was second nature to me. You wouldn’t be able to tell from my personality that I’m competitive and hardcore, but when I’m in the kitchen, it’s a passion thing. Also, my immigrant status. [Gomez is from Costa Rica.] I’m a DACA recipient. I was always told ‘No, you can’t do this,’ and I always found a way to better myself. All those traits and characteristics got me ready for the show.
How does the stress of the show compare to a busy Saturday night at the restaurant?
BG: The stress of the show is a little bit different. The adrenaline is pumped way faster than on a Saturday night. Literally once Padma says ‘Your time starts now,’ your mind is racing. Do I go to the pantry and risk not having pots and pans, or do I grab equipment and risk not having ingredients to cook? You go back to your table and you’re sweating, your heart is racing. On a Saturday night, it builds up. On the show, it’s more adrenaline being pumped through your body instantly. But all your senses wake up and blossom, and it’s like being on a drug.
Would you do it again?
BG: Yes, in a heartbeat. It was the most humbling, fulfilling, nerve-racking, crazy, rewarding experience of my life, for sure…This experience gave me a lot of confidence—professionally, personally, as a man, as a friend, as a chef—and it’s something that, at 32 years old, I’m very blessed to have been given this opportunity.
Season 18 of Top Chef begins at 6 p.m. MT on April 1 on Bravo.