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'Top Chef' returns: How Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio shot a Portland season amid the pandemic

Andrea Mandell, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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Think of the NBA bubble, but with kitchens instead of courts.

Last September, Season 18 of Bravo's “Top Chef” (premiering Thursday, 8 EDT/PDT) sharpened its knives and began filming during the pandemic, keeping its original location of Portland, Oregon, and reimagining some of the kitchen standards that make the Emmy-winning competition show sizzle.

This season’s “cheftestants,” as Bravo calls them, include 15 executive chefs and restaurant owners. All involved quarantined ahead of production, including the crew, host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons.

Lakshmi's preproduction bubble in Portland included her 11-year-old daughter, Krishna. During Colicchio's own lockdown, “I had my dog with me, so I went outside to walk her. And that was it,” says the judge, who stayed solo in an Airbnb. Both say they were tested every other day during the two-month taping.

The goal of filming Season 18 was to “keep people working” and COVID-free, says Casey Kriley, co-CEO of production company Magical Elves. “We really spent six months preparing to try and shoot during the pandemic.”

"Top Chef" contestants Chris Viaud, Roscoe Hall, Shota Nakajima shoot a Season 18 challenge at the Portland, Ore., set.
"Top Chef" contestants Chris Viaud, Roscoe Hall, Shota Nakajima shoot a Season 18 challenge at the Portland, Ore., set.

But 'Top Chef' couldn't ignore the reality of 2020

In step with the times, the season premiere opens with a somber look at the decimated restaurant industry, as chefs share personal stories of shutting down their acclaimed restaurants and furloughing staff. “Those are conversations I’ll never forget,” says contestant Sasha Grumman, wiping a tear. (A former chef de cuisine at an Italian Los Angeles hotspot, Grumman’s official bio currently lists her as starting a focaccia business during the pandemic.)

“Top Chef” also rolled its cameras amid Black Lives Matter protests making international headlines in Portland. "Everything was so intense," says Lakshmi, noting the unrelenting trifecta of the political climate, the pandemic and a deadly wildfire season that hit Oregon after they arrived. "One of the reasons we went to Portland is because it has such beautiful open space and glorious nature. Because of the fires, we had to just completely lock down again in another way."

Richard Blais is back! The guest judge is joined by other "Top Chef" alums Melissa King and Gregory Gourdet to join rotating challenges.
Richard Blais is back! The guest judge is joined by other "Top Chef" alums Melissa King and Gregory Gourdet to join rotating challenges.

What does Season 18 look like?

The new season was shot inside a cavernous convention center. “Once we were on the set, you had to wear masks the entire time, except when the judges and contestants were in the kitchen cooking or eating,” says Colicchio.

The judges’ table, refashioned as a giant horseshoe, seats the series' most discerning palates six feet or more apart. The contestants grocery shop virtually and live in a hotel instead of sharing a house, to create physical distancing. Challenges were rethought, including the all-important ‘Restaurant Wars,’ now scaled back to “micro-restaurants” in which contestants serve a seven-course tasting menu.

The show itself “wasn’t that different,” says Colicchio, a shrug almost perceptible by phone. “We couldn't bring 200 people in to do big parties, but we worked around that, and we did other things. Restaurant Wars was a completely different Restaurant Wars. But I loved it.”

“Top Chef” fans will notice some differences. For Quickfires (the first timed challenge of every episode), “I was no longer able to go around to (contestants') stations to check out what they did,” says Lakshmi, who was brought plated dishes instead. “I gain a lot of information from looking at their station and seeing, are they a messy cook? Have they wasted a lot of food? I could try to see from far, but it wasn't the same.”

Viewers will spot judges being served by waitstaff in masks and face shields. Production also rethought guest judges, given the strict quarantine standards: This season, “Top Chef” alumni including Richard Blais, Melissa King, Brooke Williamson and Dale Talde step in as a rotating panel of judges, who “quarantined with us all the way though,” notes Lakshmi. (Massimo Bottura and Alice Waters pop in as guests, too.)

"Top Chef" is bringing back series favorites as guest judges: From left: Dale Talde, Melissa King, Gregory Gourdet, host Padma Lakshmi, Kwame Onwuachi, head judge Tom Colicchio, Richard Blais, judge Gail Simmons, Amar Santana.
"Top Chef" is bringing back series favorites as guest judges: From left: Dale Talde, Melissa King, Gregory Gourdet, host Padma Lakshmi, Kwame Onwuachi, head judge Tom Colicchio, Richard Blais, judge Gail Simmons, Amar Santana.

'Top Chef' set was divided into zones

As with other TV production, designated zones kept everyone apart as much as possible. “I couldn't go into the culinary department where they were keeping the groceries because that's not my zone,” says Lakshmi, who resorted to phoning a friend. "We would stand across the soundstage and look at each other and be on the phone talking to each other."

Lakshmi also applied new rules for her daughter, normally a regular on set. She visited “only on a handful of days; my crew couldn't have family with them because of COVID,” she says. “I just thought that this is going to be such an emotionally taxing season anyway, that my daughter didn't need to be running around on her scooter reminding everybody of their children at home.”

Contestants Kiki Louya, Sasha Grumman, Sara Hauman compete in Season 18 of "Top Chef."
Contestants Kiki Louya, Sasha Grumman, Sara Hauman compete in Season 18 of "Top Chef."

Fast forward to March: Colicchio, whose restaurants in Los Angeles and New York have reopened, sees hope for his industry. "The stimulus package has earmarked $28.6 billion for independent restaurants, so that’s a bright spot," he says. "Little by little, we're getting there."

And the season's biggest win?

"Top Chef," which at times balloons to a crew of 190, emerged with zero cases of COVID, says Kriley, describing a “very emotional” last day of filming. “As difficult as all of the protocols were, they were more than worth it,” says Lakshmi. “And they were the least we could do because it worked. Nobody got sick.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Top Chef' returns: How Season 18 was shot in a pandemic