Inside the Unprecedented Effort to Film ‘Top Chef’ Through COVID, Protests and Wildfires (EXCLUSIVE)

The “Top Chef” Quickfire Challenge was about to start filming, and Padma Lakshmi — the Bravo show’s longtime host, judge and executive producer — was being fussed over by people wearing masks and face shields.

“This is a lot of copy to get through,” said Lakshmi, who would soon have to describe a complicated “Black Box” challenge — one imported from “Top Chef: France” — to the show’s five remaining contestants on this Sunday afternoon in mid-October. In the Quickfire, the cheftestants (to use the “Top Chef” fans’ term of art) would enter a lightless box one at a time for five minutes to try to replicate a dish before them in the pitch black. With a night-vision camera, viewers will see the chefs tasting, smelling and feeling the food in order to figure out its ingredients, and how it was cooked. The dish was created by a local star from the Portland, Ore. food scene — chef and restaurateur Gabriel Rucker.

“I fought for you guys to have more time,” a Lakshmi told the scared looking chefs with her patented half-smile. “I have limited power.”

Welcome to the first season of “Top Chef” to be filmed during the COVID-19 era. Producing a show with so many complex elements — a huge crew, fast-paced action and, on top of everything, food — seemed like an impossibility last March when the coronavirus caused TV and film production to shut down. But after careful planning, Season 18 filmed in September and October in Portland, and will premiere on Thursday, April 1, Bravo announced Monday.

Courtesy of David Moir/Bravo

The masterminds behind the Emmy-winning franchise — network executives, the show’s producers and its production company, Magical Elves — had wanted to set the show in Portland for years. It makes sense, after all: “It was a city that we’d always wanted to come to because the food scene was very vibrant here,” said Lakshmi in an interview over Zoom. (The video-conferencing app also allowed a viewing of the hours-long filming of the challenge.)

According to Bravo executive Matt Reichman, who oversees the show, picking the host cities for “Top Chef” is “a never-ending cycle” of preparation that begins years in advance. In 2012, “Top Chef” set its 10th season in Seattle, but as “a world-class culinary destination,” Portland was a natural choice for the show, Reichman said.

And they stuck with it — even after the Trump administration deployed federal troops to the city over the summer in order to squash the protests that had swept the country, ignited by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

“Once we were committed, we all felt very strongly that Portland was such a perfect backdrop,” Reichman said. “We want to try and reframe the conversation about Portland, and bring it back to the amazing, special place it is, while also honoring what’s happening there.”

The “Top Chef” braintrust knew about the civil unrest in Portland going in — the deadly Oregon wildfires in September, however, were a surprise.

But before any of that, they had to figure out the logistics of filming this particular show during a pandemic.

“Like everyone else, all of us were anxious to get back to work,” Lakshmi said. “But we wanted to make sure that we can do the show, yes, keeping everyone safe — but also not diminishing the quality of the show that our audience is used to.”

As the larger industry was working to develop COVID protocols — for PPE, for testing, and for how sets are organized — Bravo was doing the same thing, and tailoring safety rules for its specific shows. For “Top Chef,” which has an especially large crew for an unscripted show (about 150 people), the network and the show’s producers had to break up the departments into separate zones that work at different times. “I’m really close to my culinary producer, Sandee Birdsong,” said Lakshmi about the “Top Chef: Miami” contestant who has since become a producer on the show. “I’m not allowed to hang out with her! I talk to her on the phone, and I wave to her across the set.”

In the past, the judges — Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons — would share the dishes the contestants had cooked: “We do not share plates at all this season,” Lakshmi said. And because the set has to be socially distant, “Sadly for me, during the Quickfires, I no longer go around the room to their stations,” she said. (The judges’ table is now u-shaped to keep them six feet apart.)

Sanitary protocols also had to change. Cleanliness has been an issue on “Top Chef” since its premiere episode in 2006 when the first ever contestant to be eliminated from the show, was ejected for tasting a dish with his finger instead of a spoon. But now the standards have reached a whole new level: Tasting spoons have to be discarded after every taste, for example, and contestants all have their own individual spice containers, instead of sharing them. “They’re definitely working cleaner and washing hands a lot more,” says showrunner Doneen Arquines, “We just have to make the time to do those things.”

Simmons, Colicchio and Lakshmi flew into Portland together privately, and lived in Airbnbs. COVID testing was every other day, Lakshmi said: “And I don’t mean every other business day, or every other day that I’m filming. I mean, if I’m not on set, the nurse comes to my house and wakes me up and gets me out of my bed.” (Her 10-year-old daughter and nanny were also tested at the same rate.)

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Courtesy of David Moir/Bravo

As for the contestants and the crew, they lived in a bubble at a Portland hotel that had no other guests. A pleasure of “Top Chef” has always been seeing some of the best chefs in the world appear on the show as guest judges — so how would they do that for this season without bursting that bubble of safety? The answer turned out to be what Arquines called an “all-star judging panel” of “Top Chef” alumni joining the bubble — chefs who since the show have become famous in their own rights. (Richard Blais, Tiffany Derry, Kwame Onwuachi and Brooke Williamson will be among them.)

“I have to tell you, it’s been such fun, and such a godsend to have these alumni with us,” Lakshmi said. “Otherwise, it’s the same three people.”

“It’s good for the show,” she continued. “It’s good for the chefs to get that feedback.”

The decimation of the restaurant world during the pandemic factored into who among the “Top Chef” alumni were available — as well as the cheftestants who applied this year, Reichman thinks. The caliber of talent on “Top Chef” has always been at the highest level, he said: “But I do think that there were probably a handful of chefs that either have always wanted to do it, but couldn’t do it — and now they’re at home. Their restaurants are shutting down — maybe they saw this as an opportunity.”

“Now they have an opportunity to do it, and try and turn this terrible situation around for them,” Reichman said. “Get their name out there, and build up their credibility. And once — fingers crossed — everything turns around in the world and they can get back up and running, they’ll thrive.”

Arquines added: “The biggest thing is you’re seeing all these chefs who have their own restaurants coming in competing, and you’re going to hear how they’re having to handle living through COVID.”

“You’re going to hear from Tom Colicchio as well — our head judge is dealing with it!” Reichman said.

Yes, as with the Bravo docusoaps that have filmed during the pandemic — such as several installments of the “Real Housewives” franchise, “Southern Charm” and “Summer House” — what’s going on in the world will very much be reflected on the show: even in the challenges themselves. There will be a drive-in movie theater challenge, Reichman said, “So everybody was safely distant, but we’re still feeding hundreds of people;” there will be a challenge in which the contestants feed frontline workers with, he said, a “delivery to multiple hospitals in the metro Portland area.”

And the fan-favorite elimination challenge “Restaurant Wars” — which signifies the midway point of each season — has also been tweaked. Usually, two teams have to create a pop-up restaurant from scratch, for which they’re in charge of décor and service as well as food, while they serve dozens of customers.

Clearly, it’s a challenge that would not fly in the COVID era. The solution, Arquines said, was something Reichman had wanted to try pre-pandemic: a chef’s table war, in which the two teams serve the judges a tasting menu in the kitchen itself. “They’re watching them the entire service, seven-course meal — very high end,” Arquines said.

“It is the perennial favorite of the season for viewers, for the chefs competing, for the judges,” Reichman said. They wanted to “honor” what restaurants are doing now, he said: “Is it going to be takeout wars? Is it going to be curbside pickup wars?”

“And what we really, really liked was this idea,” Reichman continued. “It felt very chef-y, it felt very high stakes. We were really inspired by some of the great restaurants around the world that are doing this.”

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“Top Chef” showrunner Doneen Arquines.
Courtesy of David Moir/Bravo

Part of the appeal of Portland was its natural beauty — and the production tried to gear itself toward filming outside as much as possible. “Oregon is all about nature,” Arquines said. But while the show was able to avoid the protests in the city, which were largely taking place in downtown Portland, the wildfires that began raging shortly into filming in early September were “a massive curveball thrown to the production,” Reichman said.

There were multiple fires across the state that month, which killed 11 people and gave Portland the worst air quality in the world for weeks. “This is a house of cards,” Reichman said about the show’s intricate schedule. “And then when the fires came, completely eliminating our ability to shoot outdoors, and even indoors in some cases where we weren’t able to avoid the smoke — it turned our entire season on paper on its head.”

They had to shift the schedule around, moving locations and days off in order to make it work. But in Season 18 of the show, with a veteran crew (Arquines began as a production assistant in its first season), they made it work. “The testament goes to the producers who just were able to think on their toes, and they are just a fantastic, seasoned bunch,” Reichman said. “They just were so pumped up to shoot ‘Top Chef’ again, and they just grinded through it.”

Back at the Quickfire challenge, guest judge Gabriel Drucker addressed the cheftestants after he and Lakshmi had evaluated their creations. “I was extremely impressed with what you did,” he told them. After they awarded the winning team, Lakshmi chatted with the contestants, asking them what’s been the hardest about being there — then she gave them a night off.

Season 18 of “Top Chef” will be premiering almost 13 months into the pandemic, and this particular episode won’t air until June. It’s starting to feel like we still won’t be able to see the other side by then — especially for small businesses like restaurants. Whatever world we’re living in then, “Top Chef” has always been comfort viewing, in addition to being an effective vehicle to launch the careers of new chefs. The question is, of course: launching them into what?

“I think a lot of what we’re trying to do this season is ride that line of what feels appropriate and timely,” Reichman said. “We’re always trying to capture that snapshot of time and place, and telling it through the culinary lens.”

“As part of the hospitality industry — cooking and food — we take it very seriously,” he continued. “Not in a precious way, but in a way that we think is important and powerful. And we’re all we’re crossing our fingers that this industry — and every industry — can turn it around and get through this. It is scary times, and we just hope that whatever we’re doing right now will pay off and help boost those people up when it when airs.”

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