How ‘Top Chef’ Brought the Heat – and International Flair – for ‘World All-Stars’

TheWrap magazine: “Everybody’s got something to prove,” host Padma Lakshmi says of Season 20, which features all winners or runners-up

TOP CHEF -- Episode 2001 -- Pictured: (l-r) Charbel Hayek, Victoire Gouloubi, Nicole Gomez, Amar Santana, Ali Al Ghzawi, Luciana Berry, Gabriel Rodriguez, Sara Bradley -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
"Top Chef: World All-Stars" cheftestants scramble for seafood in an early challenge. (Credit: Bravo)

This story about “Top Chef” first appeared in the Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

For its milestone 20th season, the “Top Chef” team decided it was time to make a change. So they packed up and headed across the pond. “London is a city that I used to live in for a long time so I love it,” host Padma Lakshmi said. “It’s also the center of the world in a way, and the food is extraordinary.”

Filming the entire season abroad (a “Top Chef” first) wasn’t the only international ingredient. Of the 16 cheftestants, 12 were former winners or runners-up from localized versions of “Top Chef” around the globe, including the Americas, Asia, Europe and MENA (Middle East North Africa). From that recipe emerged “Top Chef: World All-Stars.”

Shaking up the format infused new energy into Bravo’s long-running series. The cooking competition that has been presided over by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio since its 2006 inception (Lakshmi joined as host in Season 2) has been nominated for 42 Emmys and won two, including Outstanding Reality Competition in 2010. Over the years, it has bounced around the country, soaking up local flavor in various American cities with distinct culinary traditions. Now, with “World All-Stars,” the show got to showcase a truly international palette.

“We’ve worked hard on ‘Top Chef’ to make the show more diverse, but it’s still going to be, like, African American or Chinese American,” Lakshmi said. “But here, they’re just Jordanian or they’re just French. They don’t have the same common food traditions that we do in America. So it was interesting to see how they brought their heritage and their food customs to this competition.” Plus, she added, the stakes were high among a group made up entirely of finalists: “Everybody’s got something to prove,” Lakshmi said. “They want to protect their legacy from the last time they were on ‘Top Chef.’”

Drawing inspiration from London, this season’s challenges included modernizing traditional British pub food and creating a gourmet picnic at Highclere Castle, the filming location of “Downton Abbey.” For the picnic challenge, the chefs shopped at the upscale department store Fortnum & Mason, which supplies foodstuffs for the royal family.

“We had some locations that were just spectacular,” Colicchio said. “You know, our country is not that old. So [visiting historical sites] was nice. Talking about history, we were there when the Queen died. We stopped production. We were all in the studio that day, and we took a break to watch her
motorcade come by.”

For Colicchio, innovation has always been integral to “Top Chef.” “Part of the reason it is successful is that we have changed our show over the years,” he said. “Our producers and Bravo are open to change. And that’s kind of scary, because anything that’s successful, people don’t want to mess with it. But over the years, we keep messing with it — sometimes out of necessity. During the pandemic, when we did restaurant wars in a location, it was just the judges and a counter. That was fantastic. It’s a testament
to being open to going in different directions. And I think that’s what keeps it fresh.”

Colicchio has always been proud of the sophisticated look of “Top Chef” (“We don’t shoot in a studio. We’re on location. It always looks better”), and he’s particularly keen on the technical upgrade the show’s cinematography underwent for Season 20, which allowed for more dramatic overhead shots. “A couple of years ago, we didn’t have drones. And now we’re using them in every episode,” he said. “The overhead shot that we got during the Episode 5 big family-style Vrbo challenge was cool. That’s the kind of stuff that makes the show what it is and raises that production value.”

Read more from the Limited Series/Movies issue here.