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‘Top Chef’: Padma Lakshmi Promises Traveling Season Will Toughen Competition

After 12 seasons, a handful of spinoffs, two outstanding reality-competition Emmy wins and countless dishes, “Top Chef” is switching things up.

The thirteenth season of Bravo’s hit series travels along the California coast, marking the first-ever statewide “Top Chef” road trip.

“We’ve been in California before, but we’ve never done a true road trip. It really does feel like a road trip,” longtime host Padma Lakshmi tells Variety. “We’re just caravaning up the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s great.”

Though the culinary competition did travel through Texas for the ninth season, visiting San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, season 13 never finds a true home base, as it bounces around to more cities than ever before from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to Palm Springs to San Diego and finally to San Francisco and Oakland, with the bulk of the episodes taking place in L.A.

Among the five cities, the chefs never spent more than three weeks in one location — including traveling time. The entire season-long shoot wrapped in just 44 days.

“You don’t have a chance to settle down. You’re always moving,” Lakshmi says. “I think it will make the competition even more exciting and dramatic.”

The first point of drama occurs in the first episode of the two-night premiere when the new “chef-testants” have to serve up a 200-person food festival underneath the Hollywood sign, with members of the press in attendance who were acting as undercover taste-testers, weighing in on who has to pack their knives and go home at episode’s end. (Full disclosure: This reporter was at the festival rating — and eating — all 17 dishes, including a meal sprinkled with grasshopper dust.)

The chefs weren’t the only ones put to a challenge. The production staff had to perfect pre-production planning “down to the butter,” says Sandee Birdsong, a former “Top Chef” contestant who now leads the show’s eight-person culinary production team, which is in charge of everything from creating QuickFire and elimination challenges. Birdsong’s team tests out challenges and sources ingredients and equipment, which proved to be difficult on the road without familiar food vendors. Birdsong explains that she had to be creative with cultivating ingredients this season, even having products delivered to hotels where a local chef would set aside a refrigerator solely to store “Top Chef” shipments that arrived in a new city before the cast and crew.

So why put the contestants and staff to such a challenge? Lakshmi says it’s to keep the show fresh.

“It’s 13 seasons, so we have to do something more,” she says. “We have pretty loyal fans, so our fans have been watching us for a really long time, so it’s good to do things that are changing it up.”

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