For 19 seasons, the gifted contestants on Bravo’s Emmy-winning “Top Chef,” produced by Magical Elves, have been thrown into the reality competition show deep end with the show’s signature Quickfire Challenge. While the Quickfire Challenge is not as diabolical as, say, “Chopped’s” baskets, it’s fast-moving, and constructed around themes or local ingredients or even cooking utensils (or lack of).
What usually emerges are memorable bites. But who comes up with the challenges? The “Top Chef” producers — all as passionate about food and storytelling through the culinary arts as the cheftestants — spill the beans.
“When coming up with Quickfire Challenges, I first start off with, ‘What’s a fun fact about our host city? Is it known for ramen? Was the fajita invented here? Does it have the largest Nigerian population? Is their local hero a sports star?’” says Thi Nguyen. “From there, I dig deeper into the backstory to develop a challenge around it.”
Nguyen offered a Quickfire example from the most recent season of the show, “Top Chef: Houston,” in which the chefs were asked to cook swallows, which are starches dipped into a stew or soup. “Nigerian cuisine consists of swallows, and has so many rich spices and flavors,” Nguyen says. “But we’re not asking the chefs to make their own swallow — we want them to experience this, take inspiration, and then turn it into their own interpretation.
“So how do you make this challenging?” Nguyen continues. “You break them up into groups by the swallow, have them pull from a knife draw and push them outside their comfort zone by introducing them to spices and ingredients that they may be unfamiliar with. At the end of the day, I look at how to build a challenge that tests them on their creativity, agility, and/or skills. Quickfires should be fun, exciting and work up not only a sweat, but give you a little fun history lesson.”
Frank Crane, whose credits also include “MasterChef Junior” and “Below Deck,” says: “Everyone has their preferences, but the best part of ‘Top Chef’ is the ability to research a new city every year and find out what ingredients help establish a sense of place.
“I love exploring new cities but as a Southerner, I was patiently waiting to highlight my all-time favorite — queso! Houston became the perfect opportunity to ‘research’ my favorite food while also finding a way to turn this classic on its head, and find a new way to approach something I’ve known my entire life, which is exactly what we hope our chefs will do: Face an ingredient they may already know, and create something familiar in a completely new way.”
Another producer with elite culinary show credentials is Justin Brooks, whose work on “MasterChef USA” paired him with world-class cooking talent. “Many times I am asked about what it’s like coming up with challenges for a show as big as ‘Top Chef,’ a show that prides itself on testing the most talented chefs in the culinary world,” he says. “One would think it’s as simple as testing the chef’s cooking abilities. But I would say there is a little more to it than that. It’s really about creating a meaningful hurdle for our chefs, not just to keep them busy on live TV, but one that allows for new learning experiences they couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Whether they dive into a culture or use an ingredient they’ve never had to deal with, in the end watching their growth is the best part of the job!”
Producer John Adams has worked with some of the best (“MasterChef Junior”) and the worst (“Nailed It! Mexico”), and says of the Quickfires: “I feel there’s a deep part of my brain that is always working and thinking of challenges. Ideas and inspiration for a challenge will pop into my head at random times: while driving, at the gym, or sometimes just what I’m hungry for in that moment! Taking a deep dive into the host city really helps to get the brain working to find some unique and little-known facts then figure out a creative way to relate it to food. Though I’m not a chef, I try to always think of fun, unique challenges and locations that I would like to personally take part in or experience.”
Producer Caitlyn Owens notes, “I will be honest, before Season 19 of ‘Top Chef,’ I had been to Houston twice, and I couldn’t tell you where I went or what I experienced. But coming back as a producer with the show and falling for a city through its culinary culture and overwhelmingly welcoming people was so unique. It was extremely inspiring hearing from local chefs about their passion for food and especially their city. These hard-working people were the root of our Asian Night Market Challenge, giving our viewers a virtual taste of something you may not normally associate with Texas. To share even a small bite of their stories through our show, it made me proud to do what I do.”