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May and June are always great months to be in Colorado, as mud season winds down and recreational activities warm up, but this past year, there was an extra buzz in the air: Bravo’s Top Chef had come to town! A few lucky locals (like me!) had the chance to linger on the edges of a few tapings and even dine during a challenge or two. Here’s what it was like behind the scenes.
My first invitation was to watch episode two’s quickfire challenge, which aired last night. On the dreary May day of the filming, as I pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript Thornton warehouse (typically used by Northern Electric, Inc.), I passed a long line of SUVs that I recognized as the cheftestant’s wheels. Inside, the massive warehouse hummed with energy. There were clusters of people scurrying about, decked out in equipment-laden vests, speaking intensely into walkie-talkies, all hustling… the vibe was, ahem, electric.
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It had taken the Top Chef team more than three weeks to set it all up, from the photo studio where they capture the cheftestants dishes to the trailer area (replete with courtyard) for judges Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and Graham Elliott and host Padma Lakshmi. In the kitchen and separate pantry area, rows of metro shelving units abounded, packed with every conceivable tool and machine and ingredient the cheftestants could want, including products from Colorado’s own Savory Spice, Grateful Bread, and Avery Brewing Co., among others.
After the tour, I was ushered into “Video Village,” the cramped production hub stuffed with 20-plus people staring at several large screens. Directors gave Lakshmi instructions and lines to run through, and Denver chef and restaurateur Troy Guard (FNG, Hashtag, Los Chingones, and many more), the local judge for the quickfire challenge, was on set too, looking a little nervous as he practiced his lines with Lakshmi. Wouldn’t you be? Jokes and flubs were made, lines were recited several times, and eventually, the cheftestants arrived on set.
If you watched last night’s episode, you already know that the quickfire challenge was all about mise-en-place, or the prep work that cooks do so they can finish dishes during service quickly. In this case, the cheftestants had to peel and finely dice one quart of shallots; peel, stem, and slice one quart of cremini mushrooms; and clean and portion 20 pieces of beef tenderloin. Oh, and cook a dish using that mise-en-place for Lakshmi and Guard. In 30 minutes. No pressure. That’s actually a lot of work, and I said as much to one of the culinary producers. She nodded grimly; she’d performed the challenge herself the day before to determine how much time the cheftestants should get. 45 minutes would have been more fair, she thought.
But 30 minutes it was, and watching it all go down was a nail-biter. Carrie Baird (Bar Dough), Brother Luck (Four by Brother Luck), and the other competitors sliced and chopped and worried and swore and cheered one another on. Moments that were edited out of the final episode include Team Blue having to go back to their cutting boards three times to portion more tenderloin, and an utterly destroyed pot that caught fire when a cheftestant left it over a high flame after the cooking was complete.
Luck, in particular, was a leader on Blue, encouraging and supporting his team throughout. And when he started slicing mushrooms, his knife moved so quickly, it sounded as if there were woodpeckers in the studio. In the end, his energy may have made the difference, because Team Blue finished their mise-en-place first and cooked for the judges; No-Mustache Joe took the prize.
The second half of the show featured Denver chef-farmer Alex Seidel (Mercantile Dining & Provision, Fruition) and his dairy, Fruition Farms Creamery. The cheftestants visited the dairy, met cheesemaker Jimmy Warren, and then had to utilize four of Fruitions’ cheeses in a four-course meal to be served at Mercantile the next day.
While I can’t speak to the farm visit or dinner prep, the meal at Mercantile was really fun and the food, delicious. I was sitting at a table adjacent to the judges (you can see my striped blazer!), but they were behind me so I couldn’t hear or see much of what they were up to. What I could see were the cheftestants quietly scrambling and fussing over their plates in the kitchen. I agreed with the judges on most of their assessments of the food, from how rich and silky the Green team’s Shepherd’s Halo terrine was to how delicious Baird’s ricotta dumpling in whey-butter sauce tasted. The Green team’s dish of a lamb chop with corn grits was indeed a poorly plated, overly sweet debacle, though my lamb chop was perfectly cooked and well-seasoned; Team Blue’s raw lamb loin was completely off-putting. Brother Luck’s blueberry tart had lovely flavor but the crust on mine was underbaked (as was Colicchio’s).
There was, however, good news for one Colorado cheftestant: Carrie Baird won the elimination challenge with her marvelous dumplings, and it was gratifying to see such a comeback after her struggles in episode one. If Baird’s cooking at Bar Dough is any indication, we expect to see a lot more wins for her as the season progresses.
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 21 at 8 p.m. MT.