The 2009 season of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” famous for the competing Voltaggio brothers Michael and Bryan, was the first show to break the string of Emmy Award wins for “The Amazing Race” (CBS) in the reality competition category. Since those 2010 awards, “The Amazing Race” has had only one other loss, to NBC’s “The Voice.”
“That season in Vegas has been talked about among fans as the one with the most talented cast,” says executive producer Dan Cutforth, who considers the Emmy win a highlight of his career. “Having the Voltaggio brothers battle right down to the end had a Shakespearean or biblical quality. There was an interesting dynamic to that season, even though it was fairly predictable as to who would be there at the finish. I think the clinching factor was the relatable drama of the sibling rivalry.”
“Top Chef” has been a perennial among nominees, making the cut every year since 2007. It is the No. 1 food competition show on cable among adults 18-49 and adults 25-54 year to-date, according to Nielsen, despite having no episodes ever top the 2 million viewer mark.
Not only a leader among cooking shows, the dozen editions have also launched multiple culinary careers — winners such as Voltaggio, Richard Blais, Stephanie Izard and Paul Qui have opened restaurants more successful for impeccable food than their celebrity; Blais and cheftestants Carla Hall, Fabio Viviani, Antonia Lofaso and others have built media careers as well. Secondly, it has fueled the considerable expansion of head judge Tom Colicchio’s media and restaurant empire.
Importantly, it has also gained the respect of top restaurateurs with Wolfgang Puck, Eric Ripert and Hubert Keller among them.
“ ‘Top Chef’ is responsible for the foodie revolution — it turned the average viewer into a foodie,” says Jenn Levy, Bravo’s senior VP of production. The fan of the show for 11 seasons oversaw season 12 and is midway through production of season 13, which is set throughout California. “The average diner didn’t understand what made food good, but after listening to Tom (Colicchio), people in restaurants are asking, ‘Does my fish need more acid?’ ”
From its first season through the last, won by former Ink sous chef Mei Lin, the format has remained the same as the show plants itself in a different city each season. A collection of chefs live together and compete collectively and individually in two challenges per show — one quick, the other more involved. Tweaks to the show have been subtle: season 12’s additions included sudden death elimination contests and more running commentary — negative and positive — from judges during the food preparation and final judging processes.
“It all taps into the natural competitiveness between chefs,” notes Cutforth, whose production company with Jane Lipsitz, Magical Elves, has produced the show since its inception 10 years ago.
“We’re confident in the format,” Levy says. “It’s the storytelling that keeps the audience engaged. The audience understands it’s the birth of several great careers.”
For a show that sticks to its format like fish on a dry hot pan, no two “Top Chef” casts have ever mirrored each other. Potential chefs are interviewed in the home cities — aware that new culinary scenes are popping up all the time, “Top Chef” made its first-ever audition trip to Nashville this year — and producers gauge a chef’s potential based on his ideas about food, his life story and his resume.
The cast for season 13 includes at least one restaurant owner and a chef who has appeared on multiple competition shows. (The cast has yet to be revealed, though most of the episodes are in the can.)
Cutforth embraced the idea of having a chef who had seen a fair share of TV competition. “I wanted to show how much harder it is to do well in ‘Top Chef’ than other shows,” he says. The contestant, Cutforth proudly says, “said it was above and beyond other shows. A lot harder.”