When I received an email inviting me to a tasting event for the Season 13 of Top Chef, I was sitting on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. As I lounged in the sands of one of the most famous and beautiful pieces of land the Earth has to offer, all I could think about was how I was actually going to get to taste the food on Top Chef. How did I get so lucky?
By now we’ve established that I watch a lot of television. I’m pretty sure I’ve been watching Top Chef since Season 3, but I eventually went back and watched the first two seasons. A full understanding of the canon is necessary.
Top Chef is a somewhat different beast from other reality shows. It garners more respect than other competition programs largely because most of the contestants are bona fide professionals and actual experts in their craft. Occasionally, they cast a caterer or some nutritionist/chef, but Top Chef generally pulls in the big dogs—serious chefs with real credentials. Conversely, it’s also the competition program that allows you the least insight into the abilities of the contestants.
If you’re a fan of The Voice, you actually get to hear every contestant sing. On Project Runway you can see all the clothes going down the runway and make your judgments on who’s the best and worst based off of that. In most other reality competition shows, we the audience get almost as much access to the work of the contestants as the judges do.
With Top Chef it’s the opposite. Essentially we’re watching a bunch of people cook food that we’re never going to taste and then are forced to make our own judgements or pick our favorites based off of, what exactly—personality? Plating? Imagined smell? Because Lea Michele says it’s good?
My point, as a devoted Top Chef viewer, is that the opportunity to attend a taping felt like my chance to finally and fully get the show. I was actually going to taste the damn food. It was a fan’s dream.
The taping for the premiere episode (airing tonight at 10 p.m. ET/PT) took place the day after I returned from Brazil, so I should preface all of this by saying that I was pretty damn tired. We were instructed to be at the Hollywood Bowl at 10:30 a.m. They told us that it would be a while before we actually ate, essentially warning us to not roll up completely starving. I half-heeded this advice and had some cereal for breakfast, ignoring the continental brunch spread they laid out.
We waited at picnic tables in the Hollywood Bowl parking lot for the shuttles to take us to the competition location. For some reason I assumed it would be taking place at the actual Hollywood Bowl because, I dunno, that seemed very on-brand for Los Angeles, and it was right there. But naturally we still had to drive somewhere.
The whole reason I was invited in the first place (besides the fact that the Bravo press team probably knows me by first name at this point) was because Bravo wanted food bloggers, writers and members of the media to taste the food—the idea being that they’re the ones who can help shape a chef’s career.
My ability to help in that specific regard is questionable at best, but you’re reading this right now, so their PR team was right about something. While observing my fellow members of the media—and noting that we’re in Los Angeles—it was painfully obviously that a bunch of people showed up ready to be on television.
I know that I definitely put on makeup, but you’ll see me a few times in the episode (mostly the back of my head and the side of my face) in a denim jacket and the long braids that I had at the time pulled back in what now seems like was a super weird-looking low ponytail. Just warning you now.
The shuttles finally took us on a ride that was much longer than I thought it would be. We were dropped off at a park that sat directly under the Hollywood sign. This season the city is not a city but “a road trip up the coast of California.”
Before we got to the eating, a rep from Bravo informed us that, as “the critics,” we would be given score cards to rate all the dishes. We were also given notepads and pens to take notes so that we wouldn’t keep pulling our phones out and ruin all their shots. Finally, we were instructed to try Every Single Dish, which at time seemed like a pretty obvious duh but ended up being a bit of a chore.
As you can see in this photo, I took my job very seriously.
And I really did! Our scores were going to determine some real outcome on the show. I was worried that my dumb scoring would tank some poor chef’s rating because my palate is too unrefined to appreciate a good demi-glace.
Because I would like to be invited to future Top Chef tastings, I can’t tell you who cooked any of the food, but I can give you my highly professional thoughts on the food I tasted.
In my mind we were served approximately 15 meatballs, but in reality it was only two meatballs, along with a goat cheese ball that I retroactively confused with a meatball.
The better of the two meatballs was definitely the one below, but at the end of the day, they’re both meatballs. Don’t they know that this is TOP CHEF and they have to BRING IT?
It was not super memorable, but I enjoyed this goat cheese ball a hell of a lot more than I did Lisa Vanderpump’s. (Sorry Lisa. I still think you’re a queen. Please unblock me on Twitter. Or don’t. It’s fine because I can still see all your tweets anyway.)
Somebody made lamb tartar which, OK. I like tartar but 1. I did not realize that lamb was a meat we tartar-ed and 2. I like tartar less when it’s being served outdoors. It was probably better than I remember, but overall I found the eating of this dish to be pretty stressful.
We were maybe two or three dishes in when the Top Chef judges squad rolled up: Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and Emeril Lagasse. (Top Chef alum Richard Blais will also be on the judge’s panel.)
In real life, Padma is the goddess I always believed her to be. Gail is a tiny, tiny person and is adorable. Because it’s Hollywood, everyone is shorter than you think.
I ended up being quite close to all the judges at different times during the filming because producers would herd some of us up to stand behind them while they were critiquing a contestant. This is the TV magic, folks.
Another behinds-the-scenes tidbit: The judges wear earpieces during the filming. I have no idea who exactly is speaking to them or what about, but there you go.
Now, let’s talk about this carrot soup. This carrot soup is what made me really appreciate finally being able to taste the food.
If I had seen this dish on TV, I would have thought, “Ok, carrot soup and some chickpeas—seems fine.” But eating it was a different story. All that judge’s blabber about “depth of flavor” suddenly made sense to me. I like soup fine but I rarely order it out because I’m not an octogenarian. The fact that this chef made me want swim in a vat of pureed carrots is what I have to imagine is the entire spirit of Top Chef.
By about the twelfth dish I started feeling incredibly full. Those seventeen bites really start to add up, especially when chefs are out here serving portions like this:
Some man served me a dish topped with dried grasshoppers and I don’t wish to discuss it ever again.
Like my stomach capacity, my ability to have a real reaction to the food started fading. For example, how was this dish? Fine, probably because shrimp is almost always delicious, but I really don’t know.
There’s also the fact that some dishes are much more memorable than others due entirely to my personal preference. Relatedly, here is a picture of me with my mouth full of what would be one of my favorite dishes of the day.
Apparently, during filming, Padma just says “fuck it” and eats everything, because it’s her job, and then loses all the weight in the time between the end last regular episode and the filming of the finale.
If you watch the show, you know that the chefs always seems to be on edge. I found that to be true in person as well. A few of them told me that they were already exhausted, which seems like a terrible sign for the first few days of a very long competition.
Many were adamant about asking for immediate feedback on their food so they could make quick changes if necessary before the judges got there. I understand the rationale behind this but, again, I was worried I would say something and it would make them tweak their dish in some way and then my stupid input would ruin their food and they’d have to go home and tell their kids they got eliminated on the first episode.
(Someone should ask my parents why I assume that everyone I meet will take my every word directly to heart and completely switch up their game plan because I, Kara Brown, had a thought.)
In this way, the order in which the chefs serve the judges can end up making a big difference—something you’ll see in the premiere episode.
After three hours of service, it was over. (Although to give you an idea of the length of this entire process we didn’t leave until about 5 pm.) And this next statement is going to sound like bragging because it totally is: I’d like to tell you that as viewers, you don’t miss much by not being able to taste the food, but I don’t think you’re all dumb enough to believe that lie.
Being able to actually eat the food on Top Chef is way better—like “I’m not sure how I can go back to just watching” better. I love the show but now that I’ve had the full experience, there’s a chance that I’ve been ruined. Also, I think I’m officially a food critic now.
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Images via Bravo TV.