Successful franchises are as hard to launch on TV as they are at the megaplex. But after six years, Bravo has found that the secret ingredient to keeping “Top Chef” fresh is cooking up new ways to connect with audiences.
Firing up its 10th season on Wednesday, “Top Chef” has spun off three additional TV shows; webisodes; a line of merchandise including three cookbooks; a wine label; a nationwide tour; and a pop-up restaurant in New York City. The first “Top Chef”-themed cruise will sail to Mexico next year.
“At the heart (of the show) is a simple idea: The person who cooks the best food wins,” said Dave Serwatka, exec producer of “Top Chef” at Bravo. “It’s not about how the restaurant industry works but more about how the constraints of working with limited ingredients and resources force you to make more creative choices.”Viewers have been eating up the concept since the first season in 2006, when most of the food shows on TV revolved around cooking, not competition. Fox’s own cooking competition “Hell’s Kitchen” bowed before “Top Chef,” in May 2005. Fox’s “MasterChef,” also with Gordon Ramsay, and Food Network’s “Chopped” have since followed.
“The larger-than-life personalities of the chefs” has captivated audiences, according to Frances Berwick, president of Bravo and Style Media. But the actual cooking ability of the show’s “chef-testants” has also helped “legitimize” the series, Serwatka added. “We wanted people who could cook rather than be characters,” Serwatka said.
Still Bravo didn’t want a traditional cooking show. Viewers could turn to Food Network for that.
“A lot of Bravo viewers are not going to Bravo for the DIY aspect,” said Ellen Stone, senior VP of marketing for the network.
Creating a successful show is “always about creating exciting entertainment that multiple generations can enjoy,” Berwick said. “Much of the (‘Top Chef’) audience doesn’t cook. That’s when you know you have a good show and a good form of entertainment.”
Bravo has found the “Top Chef” fanbase hungry for more, spinning off the show into “Top Chef: Canada,” “Top Chef Masters,” short-lived “Top Chef: Just Desserts” and “Life After Top Chef,” airing now. “Just Desserts” was canceled after the detail-oriented nature of the subject proved too challenging.
After five seasons of “Top Chef,” the idea for “Top Chef Masters” came from the show’s judges Tom Colicchio and Hubert Keller, who jokingly wondered what would happen if guest judges started competing, Serwatka said. “We had all these people that were coming to judge; it seemed like a natural extension,” Berwick said. “They benefit from the television exposure too.”
Bravo also has grown the “Top Chef” brand into a powerhouse at retail with cookbooks at bookstores, cookware at Williams-Sonoma, flower arrangements through Teleflora and frozen meals through ConAgra, which has helped boost sales for its Healthy Choice brand.
For three years, Bravo and Terlato have produced a Quickfire-branded wine, which now includes seven blends sold at Whole Foods and other supermarkets for $18-$22 per bottle. Bravo and Terlato are exploring deals with restaurants to get the label, featured during episodes of “Top Chef” and “Masters,” on wine lists.
In October, Bravo opened the “Top Chef” Kitchen in Manhattan and sold out five weeks’ worth of reservations within 45 minutes. The Tribeca restaurant seems to pop right out of the show, with decor featuring its signature citrusy orange hue and two chefs from prior seasons competing against each other.
Bravo is mulling the launch of similar restaurants in other cities across the country.
In the past, producers have tested different types of tours and paid experiences, including classes at the Culinary Institute of America, but have turned to a nationwide tour of cooking demos. While Bravo considered a boardgame after producing a trivia game, it passed on deals for Christmas ornaments, clogs, and other spirits. A calendar was short lived after “it didn’t make sense to keep it going,” Stone said.
In April, Celebrity Cruises will launch a four-day “Top Chef” cruise, sailing from Miami to Key West, Fla., and Cozumel, Mexico, with Colicchio and other chefs giving lectures and Keller showing off his DJ abilities.
All of the deals “have been a natural extension of the ‘Top Chef’ brand,” Berwick said, while Stone added that the products serve as a “reminder everywhere” for consumers about the show. “The products are a huge marketing extension and essential for us,” she said.
And with online and mobile auds growing, Bravo launched the “Top Chef Judges’ Table” app and is bringing back the “Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen” as a Colicchio-hosted Web series that has two eliminated contestants compete to win a spot on the finale.
Original Web programming is designed to embrace digital platforms from mobile devices to videogame consoles and VOD services like iTunes, Amazon and Hulu while driving viewership back to Bravo’s TV network. At the same time, it gives the network a chance to generate additional advertising revenue.
While Bravo is looking at similar brand extensions for other shows, such as “The Real Housewives,” “Top Chef” lends itself more to such opportunities, Berwick said.
“Top Chef” also has promotional partnerships with Toyota and its luxury brand Lexus and has paired up with Hilton Hotels and Healthy Choice, which provide additional sponsorship coin.
“We try to integrate them as elegantly as we can into the show,” Serwatka said. “If you do a show like this you need transportation,” with chefs shuttled to supermarkets like Whole Foods. “Toyotas look better than transportation vans.” But Serwatka stresses “not everyone is a perfect partner for ‘Top Chef.'”
Not every chef makes for a good contestant, either. “The creative process for many chefs is unique,” Serwatka said. “In this format, they have to think on their feet. If you’re not that type of chef, it’s very stressful and starts affecting your ability to perform. These are chefs cooking for other chefs. A lot of people find it hard to perform in that environment.”
Each season takes around five weeks to shoot, excluding the finales. Each episode is produced as they play out in the episode, with Quickfires shot in the morning and the elimination challenge following that with judging taking place in the second day. Judges have spent up to eight hours critiquing dishes, but that’s edited down to just minutes on air.
Bravo has considered putting more of the deliberation online as additional content, as a way to drive people between platforms and attract more advertisers, after the first “Last Chance Kitchen” generated 8 million streams across VOD and online.
While ratings have grown for “Top Chef” over the years (up to an average of 1.8 million viewers for “Top Chef: Texas”), producers admit they may have strayed too far from the kitchen. That much became clear when, in an attempt to make the challenges more difficult and surprising, contestants found themselves on skis in a mini-Winter Olympics race through Whistler, British Columbia, firing rifles at targets to win ingredients.
As a result, the new Seattle season will go back to basics.
“We wanted to bring back the idea of ‘cheffiness,'” said Serwatka of the new Seattle-set season, produced with Magical Elves, which brings back host Padma Lakshmi as host, and Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Hugh Acheson and Emeril Lagasse as judges, along with new judge Wolfgang Puck.
In the first episode, Puck, Lagasse, Acheson and Colicchio weed out the 21 new contestants by putting them through a challenge designed around what chefs go through in their own restaurants when they hire someone.
“Top Chef” may be good to Bravo, but it’s also good business for the nine winners and other chefs who have appeared on the show throughout the years.
“Without the exposure the show gave us, my brother (Brian) and I wouldn’t be where we are now,” said Michael Voltaggio, behind Los Angeles eateries Ink and Ink.Sack.
Their success has also helped “legitimize” “Top Chef,” Serwatka admitted, with Harold Dieterle having opened Perilla, in New York City, shortly after he won the show’s first season. He has since opened Kin Shop, with the Marrow to become his third. Other winners, including Chicago’s Stephanie Izard and L.A.’s Ilan Hall, have also launched successful restaurants since the show.
“Some have leveraged the exposure really well,” Stone said. “We do everything we can to help them.”
What’s also helped is the online buzz generated from food bloggers and fans across social media. That same audience can also be “the bane of our existence,” Stone said, citing how producers are forced to keep shooting locations secret to prevent fans from spoiling who gets eliminated.
Moving forward, Bravo will continue to air one “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Masters” each year.
“As long as we have interesting young chefs that want to compete, and legendary chefs that want to critique their food, that’s what we’re going to do,” Serwatka said.
After setting season nine in Texas, Serwatka would love to shoot a season in California where the chef-testants travel down the state, stopping in San Francisco, Napa and Los Angeles. “It’s a rich culinary state,” he said. Serwatka also would like to shoot a finale in Paris, but there are no plans to do that yet.
The show has gotten so popular that some cities have campaigned for Bravo to film the next season in their hometowns. Boston launched a print and social media campaign.
“We get approached by cities but we look at the time of year,” Stone said. “There’s no end of cities we could take the show to.”