'Top Chef' secrets: How judges Tom and Gail taste all that food, notable kitchen disasters and what we don't see on TV

"Top Chef: World All-Stars" judges and cheftestants on what goes on behind the scenes.

<em>Top Chef</em> is celebrating its 20th season in 2023. (Photo: Getty Images)
Top Chef is celebrating its 20th season in 2023. (Photo: Getty Images)

Top Chef has been serving up the drama for 20 seasons, the latest of which, Top Chef: World All-Stars, is coming to a close on the Thursday finale, when Buddha Lo, Gabri Rodriguez and Sara Bradley (after a miraculous comeback from Last Chance Kitchen) will face off. The episode will also mark the last for host and executive producer Padma Lakshmi, who has also been the face of Top Chef since she joined in Season 2.

"I feel it's time to move on and need to make space for Taste the Nation, my books and other creative pursuits," Lakshmi wrote of her Hulu show, which debuted last month, while expressing her appreciation for the reality TV competition series that started it all.

But before the kitchen closes for the season once again, judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, plus a few cheftestants — Bradley, Ali Ghzawi, Lo and Amar Santana — spoke to Yahoo Entertainment about the parts of Top Chef that the audience doesn't see on-screen.

Here's the (delicious) scoop:

How do the judges manage to eat all that food?

Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio judge the gourmet eats on
Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio judge the gourmet eats on Top Chef. (Photo: Getty Images)

Colicchio puts it bluntly in an interview at his Los Angeles restaurant, Craft: "You don't eat before. You go hungry, and you also, you don't necessarily eat the entire dish. And for Restaurant Wars, the portions are fairly small, and it's only four courses, so it’s like eating an eight-course tasting menu. And you have a two hour break or so in between, so it’s not that bad."

As fans know, the show's annual Restaurant Wars challenge sees the chefs divided into two teams to create their own eateries in days or even hours. Colicchio elaborates about one particular round of judging that was a little much.

"The worst it's ever been on the show, in terms of eating, was... where the chefs got together and they had to pitch the concept," says Colicchio, who's been with the show from Season 1, which aired in 2006. "So the individual chef had to pitch the concept and they made four dishes. So every chef made four dishes. That was insane. That was a grotesque amount of food I had to eat."

One of the winning team's pretty and delicious dishes from Restaurant Wars on this season's
One of the winning team's pretty and delicious dishes from Restaurant Wars on this season's Top Chef: World All-Stars. (Photo: Nicole Weingart/Bravo) (Nicole Weingart/Bravo)

Simmons, who's also been on the show for 17 years, has an equally simple approach to having the lucky job of taster — and the unlucky job of having to decide who, in the words of Lakshmi, has to pack their knives and go at the end of each episode.

"We're professionals, and you don't have to finish your plate," Simmons says. "I try to eat breakfast in the morning, because if I don't, I'm starving when I get to the challenge, which is usually around lunch hour or a little later, and then I eat too much too quickly and then I don't feel great and can't get through it all. But I think it's just about eating just enough so that you understand the food... You just have a couple bites. And it's usually really delicious, and you're fine. It's your meal. That is my lunch or my dinner for the day. And it’s usually really good, so it's a good problem to have."

Is Restaurant Wars really as difficult as it seems?

Take it from Lo, the winner of 2022's Top Chef: Houston and one of the finalists on Top Chef: World All-Stars, that the answer is, unequivocally, yes. YES. And he should know. He was on the team that won the challenge on both of his seasons.

"I think people underestimate how hard it is," says Lo, whose day job is executive chef at Marky's Caviar in New York City. "It's 24 hours from the moment you find out and the moment that you actually start serving customers. It's not just only a cooking experiment. It's a social experiment. Because if you've got four chefs at the top of their games, how are you gonna decide who's taking the lead, which concept are you gonna go for, because everyone's got their own concept. So it's as big a mental game as it is a cooking game, because if you rub someone up the wrong way or someone doesn't agree with how a thing should be cooked... and it’s happened so many times in kitchens."

He has some advice, in case any future competitors are reading: Ending up on the right team and working well with your teammates is everything; He calls it "the biggest curveball." (On World All-Stars, Lo teamed up with Bradley, Ghzawi and Santana.)

<em>Top Chef</em> stars Sara Bradley, Buddha Lo, Ali Ghzawi and Amar Santana were on the winning team for Season 20's Restaurant Wars-themed event. (Photo: Nicole Weingart/Bravo)
Top Chef stars Sara Bradley, Buddha Lo, Ali Ghzawi and Amar Santana were on the winning team for Season 20's Restaurant Wars-themed event. (Photo: Nicole Weingart/Bravo) (Nicole Weingart/Bravo)

"It's really a people management situation, where, if you're a good chef, you would follow your role. If you're the cook, you're the cook," Lo says. "If you're the chef, you're the chef. If you're the front of the house, you're front of the house. And those are what makes a good chef a good chef. If someone said to me tomorrow, your role in Restaurant Wars is to clean the dishes, I'm gonna make sure those dishes sparkle."

How do the chefs really feel when Colicchio comes through the kitchen?

The head judge has a ritual of whisking through the area where the magic happens, just before or as the plates are being assembled and time is running out — catching the chefs in their most frantic state. It benefits them, of course, to hold it together, and act like everything is going swimmingly. Ghzawi experienced this awkward interaction himself when he cooked a dish with jus. Colicchio promptly decided that he hadn't had enough of it on his plate, so he decided to peek at how the chef was preparing them.

"I was like, 'S***, what happened?,' Because he came to my station, he said nothing... I had no clue what was happening... until the Judges' Table," Ghzawi, chef and owner of Alee in Amman, Jordan, says of his lamb dish. "And you know what's worse than that? Seeing it again on TV, because I lived it twice. The first time in the kitchen. The second time on-screen."

What don't we see on TV?

Bradley, the runner-up in 2018's Top Chef: Kentucky, notes that, while the competition is tough, it's extremely fair.

"Everything on Top Chef is designed to make the playing field very level," Bradley says. "How we determined, like, who served first and who served second [in Restaurant Wars], that was done randomly. How they determined who got to pick plates, that was done randomly. They have a little bag that they bring out with ping-pong balls, and they draw your name. That's what I think like gives so much integrity to Top Chef is that it's all done by random design. It makes it so equal and level. Everybody's food has the opportunity to speak for itself as opposed to like, 'Who gets the best plate? Or who does this? Or who does that?'"

And there's something else, that was more of an unpleasant surprise.

"They are literally recording everything. Because some of the stuff that comes out of my mouth, I watch it later on, and I'm like, 'Oh my god. Did I really say that?'" says Bradley, who specializes in Southern cuisine, such as shrimp and grits, at her restaurant Freight House in Paducah, Ky. "They're always listening. They're always watching."

When asked what she wishes she would have known going into the Emmy-winning Bravo staple, she has an inspiring answer.

"I think that I wish I could go back and tell myself, 'You made it this far because you're doing wonderful things and because you are doing well,' as opposed to always questioning why I was chosen to be on the show," she says. "I wish I could go back and tell myself, but I feel like we all wish we could go back and tell our younger selves, 'You are enough.' It takes a long time to recognize that, and I think that four years, five years from now, I'll go back and watch Top Chef with my daughters, once they're grown enough to realize what's happening and I'll be able to realize that everything — maybe a decision I didn't love — was OK, because it led me to where I am."

Sara Bradley and Padma Lakshmi promote Season 20 of
Sara Bradley and Padma Lakshmi promote Season 20 of Top Chef. (Photo: Jordan Strauss/Bravo) (Jordan Strauss/Bravo via Getty I)

Bradley notes that she was impressed by something we did see: the fact that she was pumping breast milk for her daughter, who was then just nine months old, during filming.

"I was so happy that Top Chef and [producers] Magical Elves gave me a platform to talk about women and how, especially in this industry, we have to a lot of times choose between being a mother and working this job," she says. "And no one should ever have to choose, and so, for me, that was a driving motivator this entire season... like, keep going and keep pushing so you can talk about this more and women who are out there will see it, and we'll normalize it together."

What happens to cheftestants once they leave the show?

It can mean truly good things for those who do well, and Santana says he was always aware that potential customers were watching. Even when he first competed in 2015's Top Chef: California, that playing into reality TV tropes, like being seen as the villain, could have repercussions.

"Like Season 13, when I was there, they wanted drama to some point," says Santana, the executive chef and owner of Broadway in Laguna Beach, Calif. "And I said, 'Listen, I'm a businessman. I have restaurants. So I'm not gonna be a drama queen or nothing because people watch this show, they come to my restaurant. And I didn't want them to be like, 'Oh, that's Amar, he was an a**hole in that episode. I'm not gonna go to his restaurant.' So I always knew that: I have to portray myself a certain way, because I'm a businessman."

He's friendly with Marcel Vigneron, who first competed on the show in 2006's Season 2, when Top Chef was, like all of the nascent genre of reality TV, more focused on heroes and villains. Vigneron, who now helms the Lemon Grove eatery in L.A., was part of the controversial head-shaving incident, when other contestants found him sleeping and pinned him down with plans to shave his head. They didn't, but the chef responsible was disqualified.

"Usually when they say, you know, bad press is good press? For him, it wasn't," Santana says. "When he did Top Chef, it did not benefit his restaurant. People didn't go to his restaurant because they saw him on the show."

But Vigneron later returned to Top Chef for an all-star season in 2010, and he's gone on to appear on other food shows, too, along with his work in the restaurant industry.

Hundreds of other chefs also have found a platform on the TV staple, which has brought more visibility to what we eat and the people serving it.

"We got serious people cooking," Santana says. "So then the show became more about the food than the actual drama."

The finale of Top Chef: World All-Stars premieres Thursday, June 8 at 9 p.m. on Bravo.