In a state where people regularly climb 14,000-foot mountains and barrel down steep, snow-covered slopes on skis, competing on Bravo’s long-running culinary competition may not sound like much of an adrenaline rush. But the intrepid cooks who volunteer for this task are not only sequestered from their homes, families, and restaurants to live for weeks with strangers and competitors; they also have to survive (and, ideally, dominate) the outlandish cooking challenges that define Top Chef. All while on camera, and all in front of intimidating co-host Padma Lakshmi and a team of pro judges.

The show’s 15th season, which premieres this month, brought the knife-packing heat to the Centennial State, from Denver to Telluride. Alongside 13 other contestants, Coloradans Carrie Baird (executive chef at Highland’s Bar Dough) and Brother Luck (chef-owner of seven-month-old Four by Brother Luck in Colorado Springs) faced six weeks of springtime filming­—including a nasty hailstorm, extreme outdoor culinary challenges, and even cooking in the middle of Larimer Square—and lived to tell us about the experience.

5280: What was the biggest challenge you faced as a Top Chef contestant?
Brother Luck: The internal struggle of coming from a small town like Colorado Springs. You’re faced with the challenge of competing against chefs from famous restaurants and from major cities. You have to hold your ground.
Carrie Baird: They just kept upping the game with every new challenge. It never let up.

How did you prepare for the show?
CB: I brainstormed all the things I thought they might throw at us that are unique to Colorado: Rocky Mountain oysters, game like elk and bison, and freshwater fish like trout and sturgeon. Since I’d never cooked a Rocky Mountain oyster before, I sought out a few restaurants that were making them, ate a few, and then found some at Edwards Meats [in Wheat Ridge] so I could practice butchering and preparing them a few different ways.
BL: I decided to open a new restaurant! It was definitely good preparation, between buying equipment, writing menus, hiring staff, working with different personalities…. I couldn’t have done anything that would have prepared me more than that. I was at my restaurant for three days, and then I left [to tape the show].

What were you unprepared for?
CB: Colorado threw some amazing weather at us; the first episode ended in a raging hailstorm. And living in the cast house was like summer camp—it was hard getting used to sleeping in a room with seven males. I had to learn to sleep next to snoring dudes, [including] two who used those CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure] machines. By the end, it actually became quite comforting, like my white noise machine at home.
BL: Getting to meet Padma! She’s amazing. It’s surreal: You’re pushing your way through that door and you see the Top Chef logo, and there she stands with the judges. It’s poetic. Everyone on that show—including the female chefs—was trying to impress Padma.

How did you recuperate once filming wrapped?
CB: I cuddled my cat for, like, two weeks straight. It was a unique time for me because our cast house in Capitol Hill was just four blocks from my real house. We would drive right by my house on the way to the set every day—it was torture. Everybody teased me about it all the time.
BL: I flew straight to Atlanta to see my wife, who was there for a conference. The hardest part [of the experience] was being away from her.

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
BL: I wish I’d brought better tennis shoes! We did a lot of running.

Watch It: The Colorado season of Top Chef premieres on December 7
at 8 p.m.
Mountain Time on Bravo.

This article was originally published in 5280 December 2017.
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s former food editor. She oversaw all of 5280’s food-related coverage from October 2016 to March 2021.