This story about “Top Chef” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Comedy issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
For its milestone 20th season, “Top Chef” headed across the pond to London, the first time an entire season of Bravo’s culinary competition show was set overseas. In addition to highlighting talented chefs, the show also showcases the cultural and historical sites of its host cities, of which there was no shortage in London.
“From very early on, we talked about the location for that first intro being the Tower of London and us wanting to make this feel as big as it possibly could,” director Ariel Boles said of the season opener, which introduced the 16 “World All-Stars” and saw them meet host Padma Lakshmi in a nearby park. “Seeing all of these chefs from around the world for the first time in this iconic place and being able to shoot it live with drones and ten cameras and a jib was amazing.”
But it was not without complications. “In London, you’re not allowed to fly a drone anywhere except for over the (Thames) river,” executive producer Doneen Arquines said. “We had to have our drone operator actually on a boat. That was why shooting at Tower Bridge was nice, because we could be in a place where the drone could film us.”
After meeting Lakshmi, the 16 cheftestants went to another London icon, a double-decker bus, which drove them through the city. The tight quarters allowed the chefs to get to know each other more intimately, but it made for cramped quarters for Boles, Arquines and executive producer Hillary Olsen.
“That was really challenging to shoot because we’re on this tiny bus and Doneen, Hillary and I were huddled around the monitor on the first floor,” Boles said. “We could only fit two camera operators on the second floor, so we rigged 20 different hidden cameras on the second level to capture all of the conversations we knew would be happening. That was really a fun experiment in getting to know everybody really quickly.”
The bus ride also served as a prelude to the first quickfire challenge when the bus reached its destination: the kitchen stage. “There’s always a fine line on ‘Top Chef,’” Arquines explained. “We only have so much time to shoot as much as we need to shoot and you can’t do too much. You want to start off big, but we also need to get to the kitchen to cook. So it was a nice compromise to do the welcome beat, get them on a bus and get them going to the stage.”
“It was interesting to see who the chefs gravitated towards, and the little conversations people were having, because then they had to get into the kitchen and pair up for the quickfire challenge. Some of them were basing it completely on the ingredients that they had in their basket. Some of them were basing it off of having just met and being able to connect immediately.” She laughed. “It took us a long time to film [on the bus], but it got us a lot of the things that we wanted, because traffic in London is real.”
The task of creating a narrative from the dozens of bus conversations fell to senior editor Steve Lichtenstein. “It was a very challenging edit,” he recalled. “They’re all having compelling conversations for the most part. It’s still early in the episode so we have to think about, strategically, what characters we want to set up using this bus tour. But we can’t set up all the characters there so that’s part of the challenge. Story is number one, but this also highlights London and the sights and bring the viewer in. So it was multipurpose scene.”
The episode concluded with the chefs presenting their individuals dishes to the judges at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, a UNESCO World Heritage site. As hard as production worked, Mother Nature lent a hand, too. As Boles put it: “For the sun to be peeking through this cloudy, rainy, London day and for the last bits of sunlight shots to be hitting the judges just as they’re describing how wonderful their first meal — that makes a magic moment.”
Read more from the Comedy/Variety/Reality/Nonfiction issue here.