On Dec. 3, “Top Chef” launched its 13th season as a traveling show, bringing the culinary competition series to Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Palm Springs. The entire season, which will run over several months, was shot in a scant 44 days.
Working up and down the California coast posed new challenges for the series’ culinary production team, led by Sandee Birdsong, a former “Top Chef” contestant who’s been in charge of all behind-the-scenes food finagling since the show’s seventh season.
“This was different, because my team was a bit more staffed up,” she says. The eight-person crew selected and sourced all ingredients and equipment, created the show’s pantry, cooked up ideas for challenges, and cleaned and packed up the sets when the show moved to another location.
Plus, local staff was temporarily hired on each stop to deal with the tighter-than-usual timetable.
Finding the right ingredients in each place was another challenge. The team shopped small local grocery stores or farmer’s markets, and made sure local butchers had the cut and quantity of meat needed for, say, the “Surf vs. Turf” challenge.
Weeks of planning took place prior to shooting. “We tested the challenges for timing,” Birdsong says. “That’s my favorite part.”
Then there was the matter of cameras. “Top Chef” uses up to eight cameras per scene, plus the occasional GoPro, while trying to stay out of the contestants’ way. “It’s kind of like a little dance,” Birdsong says, praising the camera crew for mastering what’s called a “half-moon” setup, in which cameras are positioned opposite the chefs, facing their working tables.
Still, unfamiliar settings can make the job tough. “A lot of times, if we’re in a smaller kitchen, it’s not camera friendly, so I have to tuck a camera operator in a corner. I can design a kitchen how I want it, but it’s very difficult when we’re in someone else’s environment, like when we’re shooting in a restaurant.”
But Birdsong insists cameras are the least of her problems.
“If anything goes wrong from the culinary side, the cameras stop, and that’s something we never want to happen,” Birdsong says. “The entire show suffers from that because we are its nuts and bolts. It’s almost like a military action — except we’re having fun with food.”