'Chef' cooks up fresh ideas

Of the lengthy list of hit shows produced by Magical Elves, the “Top Cheffranchise is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to ratings.

The original “Top Chef” managed to break the seven-year Emmy stranglehold of “The Amazing Race” last fall by winning for competition reality series. It is nominated again this year.

Now shooting its ninth season, the show has spawned successful spinoffs “Top Chef: Masters,” which has run for three seasons, and “Top Chef: Just Desserts” set to premiere its second season Aug. 24 on Bravo.

The shows have “cheftestants” competing against each other in culinary challenges with one or more eliminated in each episode. Judging them are a panel of professional chefs and other foodie notables.

While the shows now attract a slew of top names in the restaurant industry for the judges’ panels, Magical Elves founders Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth say it was tricky getting these people interested in the beginning.

“The first season is a challenge because they didn’t know what it was yet,” recalls Lipsitz. “But once they could see that it’s a good show and that it was credible, then the seasons after were much easier to book in terms of the top names. It’s real important to get respected in the first season.”

Head judge Tom Colicchio says he even turned the gig down three times.

“I was a little concerned about doing reality TV,” says the award-winning chef who oversees the Craft restaurant empire. “Once I started talking to them, I started feeling more comfortable. Once I found out it was not about me, I felt better.”

He also figured it would probably be a little-seen experiment anyway.

“It would be this little cable show my family would watch late at night,” Colicchio says. “I had no idea.”

Gail Simmons, a “Top Chef” judge and the host of “Just Desserts,” says it helped that Magical Elves shows “Project Runway” (which they no longer produce) and “Project Greenlight” had already been established.

“The subject matter is always about people who would be doing this anyway, not people on an island vying for a new husband or anything like that,” says Simmons, an editor at Food & Wine magazine. “They were serious about telling a very honest story about a window into a world that not a lot of people were seeing — a show true to the experience of what a professional kitchen is about, the passion and the drive behind it.”

Padma Lakshmi, host of “Top Chef” since the second season, says the real stars of the show, however, are the chefs. When a chef is eliminated, she uses what’s become an iconic phrase: “Please pack your knives and go.”

“We make sure its an eclectic cast,” Lakshmi says. “We start out with as many women as there are men — the food industry is dominated by men. Of course we can’t tell who’s going to do well. They are really great at balancing the cast. You want to root for people, not have 16 hotheads.”

Cutforth says what has helped keep the show fresh even after eight seasons is moving it from city to city. Last season also introduced the first all-star edition of “Top Chef” comprised of past contestants who had nearly won the title in previous series.

“We work really hard to evolve the show, the format, the types of challenges,” Cutforth says. “We’ve always tried to push it forward every single season. It’s been on so long that you can try other things. People know the show and once you’ve established something, that’s when you can start to tweak it.”

Season six, for example, took place in Las Vegas, so producers decided to introduce a high-stakes element to the Quickfire challenge, which meant there were thousands of dollars at stake instead of immunity or a smaller prize. In the season eight finale, chefs were asked to create their dream restaurant instead of the usual meal of a lifetime last challenge.

“We avoid cliches,” says Coliccho. “We always try something different and something new.”

The upcoming ninth season is widely reported to be shooting in San Antonio, with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse joining the judges’ table.

Exec producer Dave Serwatka, also an executive at Bravo, is tight-lipped about the ninth season but is confident viewers will be pleased.

“We’ve got a new great season that’s unfolding right now that we’re shooting,” he says. “We started things a little differently with more chefs. A big challenge for us after ‘All Stars’ is to make everything seem big again and I think we’ve succeeded. The challenges are inventive, there are a lot of special guests and there will be a traveling element, which is new. I think it might be my favorite year.”

MAGICAL ELVES AT 10:
Magical Elves remains a top producer | Magical moments | ‘Top Chef,’ top franchise | On the slate

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