"Top Chef" Season 18 premieres Thursday, introducing fans to the 15 chefs who will be competing for the title in Portland during this installment. The supersized kickoff to the season will also give viewers an understanding of what changes had to be made in order to film this pandemic-produced "Top Chef."
And one of the first things "Top Chef" obsessives will probably be wondering about -- once they see the accommodations in the first episode -- is how fan-favorite challenge Restaurant Wars is going to look when it comes around later this season. After all, COVID-19 has made running established restaurants almost impossible, so how would "Top Chef" contestants manage to safely throw together and run the pop-ups that are a staple of that particular competition?
Luckily, TheWrap has the answer.
"The restaurant world is very different today than it was six months ago and Restaurant Wars is going to reflect that," Matt Reichman, Bravo's vice president of current production, told TheWrap. "We had a lot of conversations about it. 'Is it outdoor dining or is it take out? Is it this? Is it that?' And I think that you'll see we came to a really great creative that celebrates the ideas of micro-restaurants."
Restaurant Wars for "Top Chef: Portland" will consist of the 12 competitors still in the game by that episode making 10-course meals in their own chef's table settings.
The Bravo exec likened "Top Chef's" vision for the altered challenge to dining at revered chef Jiro Ono's sushi restaurant, Barcelona's Tickets, or Brooklyn Fare.
"Very, very high-end chef's table experiences," he said. "And we were able to utilize our judges in a bubble setting where we could do this very, very high-end Restaurant War setting."
What Reichman is referring to is the fact that host Padma Lakshmi and judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons will be joined this year by a rotating judging and dining panel of "Top Chef" alums, including Richard Blais, Carrie Baird, Nina Compton, Tiffany Derry, Gregory Gourdet, Melissa King, Kristen Kish, Edward Lee, Kwame Onwuachi, Amar Santana, Dale Talde and Brooke Williamson.
Bravo and "Top Chef" production company Magical Elves made the choice to switch to this format for guest judging to ensure everyone's safety amid the pandemic by limiting the judges to this "bubble" of panelists who quarantined like everyone else involved with Season 18.
Reichman says this way of experiencing Restaurant Wars was "like theater for the judges."
"[The chefs] are on display. Every move is witnessed. So instead of the pressure of having to turn tables or have a host dealing with hundreds of diners waiting outside or having to plate up to 150 diners, the stakes are so amplified. It was one service, one setting, no mistakes, 10 courses. Like, very, very high-end, chefy, $500 a meal kind of special, bucket list dining experience. That was our approach this season. And I think the viewers are going to love it."
Season 18 of "Top Chef" premieres tonight, Thursday at 8/7c on Bravo.