Film and TV

A Behind the Scenes Look at How Top Chef is Spreading Good Houston Vibes

Top Chef has put Houston in the spotlight this season
Top Chef has put Houston in the spotlight this season Photo by David Moir, courtesy of Bravo
Okay, I saw Padma Lakshmi’s scar up close. It’s real and it’s spectacular. Also, what is pani puri and how have I not eaten this before? How do I even eat this? It’s so pretty! Oh my god, it’s delicious.

These are actual notes taken from my visit to the set of Bravo’s Top Chef. Unless you’ve been buried under a rock lobster, roasted and slathered in herbaceous garlic butter, you probably know the Emmy and James Beard Award winning series has lovingly placed Houston in the world’s culinary spotlight in 2022. The show announced late last year that Houston would be the setting for its 19th season and the city’s food scene went abuzz. The show was shot last fall but finally began airing in March and was met with premiere parties across the city. The excitement has built week after week.

Part of the enthusiasm has come from seeing the places and faces we connect with Houston food on the program. “Ooh, there’s 99 Ranch Market, I’ve shopped that aisle!” or “My, the Houston Museum of Natural Science looks much different as a dining room than a field trip for the day care.” The faces of renowned Houston chefs like Chris Shepherd, the Blood Bros. BBQ crew and Top Chef alum Dawn Burrell have filled the screen. Since the show frequently challenges contestants to cook for large groups, perhaps a few of our neighbors, just your average unknowns, got a little airtime, too.

I’m one of those unknowns. For reasons I still can’t really explain, I received an invite from the producers of the show to enjoy a meal during the show’s hallmark “Restaurant Wars” episode, which aired last week. I was granted brief on-set interviews with Top Chef judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, who were extraordinarily nice and said extraordinarily nice things about your city and its food scene. I took notes about my night in one of the world's most exclusive restaurants to try to offer a behind the scenes glimpse of one of TV’s best-loved food series.

click to enlarge The author, lower left, awaits a meal and the judges - SCREENSHOT
The author, lower left, awaits a meal and the judges
The main question I wanted to ask Colicchio and Simmons was how they felt Houston fared compared to  other food cities. Simmons, the veteran food writer and trained culinary expert, has been with the show from the start. She emerged from a makeshift dressing room in the hidden corners of The POST, where the episode was shot, to take that question. She’s said she’s become the unofficial city researcher for fellow hosts Colicchio and Lakshmi.

“I still have a laundry list of things that I want to do in Houston myself before I have to leave. I always come armed. I do a lot of research. I mean, my research is mostly texting my six friends who live in Houston, have lived in Houston, are from Houston or have spent time in Houston and forced them to send me (suggestions) and then just grilled them with a thousand questions,” Simmons said. “But luckily because of the work that I’ve done for 25 years, I know someone everywhere, usually a chef. I’m lucky because we have some amazing guides, local chefs who have taken us under their wing and made sure we’re well taken care of.”

“No question,” she said of whether Houston deserves a spot among the nation’s best food cities. “I will say that I had never been to Houston until I landed here three weeks ago, four weeks ago. I’d been all over Texas but for some reason had only been in the airport in Houston before. And before I got here, when I was creating this list that Tom was talking about, I couldn’t believe how many restaurants people were writing me about. You know, usually I’ll tell someone, ‘I’m gonna be in Denver, can you send me your favorite restaurants right now?’ I’ll get like six or seven restaurants.

“And the lists they sent me were endless. And I was like, ‘They can’t all be this good,’” she said. “It was as much a surprise to me because having never been here I didn’t understand when people read off the statistics about Houston like ‘Oh, it’s the most diverse city in America,’ ‘Oh, there’s such incredible immigrant communities and their food is outstanding,’ and then there’s all these hybrid things they’ve created that don’t exist anywhere else and you’re like ‘You’re just reading a press release.’

click to enlarge Chef Evelyn Garcia is one of this season's breakout stars - PHOTO BY DAVID MOIR, COURTESY OF BRAVO
Chef Evelyn Garcia is one of this season's breakout stars
Photo by David Moir, courtesy of Bravo
“But I have to say, it’s been amazing and I feel like how, after so many years in my professional life, have I not understood and known about all this? I feel like I’ve been smacked in the face. So, it’s time Houston.”

It might be time for Houston's culinary close-up, but it wasn’t quite time to dine on set yet. Rewinding back a bit, one of the truly impressive but not unexpected notes about Top Chef is how well-organized the entire endeavor is. Everything runs smoothly because they’ve done this for 19 seasons. The episode shot in mid-October 2021 and Harris County was still on a high COVID alert at the time. So, before we ever set foot near the set, we were sent for COVID testing. I arrived one Sunday morning to a Galleria area parking garage where the now-familiar COVID test tents had been erected and I prayed to the food gods that my test would return negative.

That hurdle cleared, the show’s producers sent over their media protocols and some legal paperwork related to the do’s and don’ts of discussing or writing about the show ahead of the episode’s airing. When you stop to think about all that’s at stake for shows like these, with massive draws and millions of dollars spent producing them, it’s amazing so many participants have never gone human spoiler and given away some unforgiveable secret. Add in your social media over-sharers and the risk heightens.

I signed the papers and promised a zipped lip until the coverage embargo was lifted. We were asked to dress nicely so I fished out a suit and preened for the possibility I’d be on camera. I arrived to The POST just ahead of dinnertime, five o’clock-ish, and watched the Astros destroy the Chicago White Sox in a playoff game while I waited in the wings to be called for interviews with Simmons and Colicchio.

click to enlarge Colicchio (right) said Houston may be ahead of other food cities in some important ways - SCREENSHOT
Colicchio (right) said Houston may be ahead of other food cities in some important ways
I met Colicchio in his “dressing room,” just four curtains on rods arranged in a rectangle, a rack with a few hanging garments and a folding chair. Colicchio might be the kindest head judge of any TV cooking competition, a mentor to the show's competitors and very gracious with his time. He was also quite relaxed, having just returned to Houston from a fishing trip back home.

“I think it is,” he answered when I asked if Houston is among the country’s culinary elites. “Over the last 20 years I think what’s radically improved in the country is food across the country. You know, it used to be New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago. Now you can get a great meal everywhere.

“I think what’s really interesting, in a way Houston could be really ahead of the game because right now, especially after the pandemic and everyone looking at how to create a more equitable food system, that includes restaurants. I think the diversity here has created a (scene) where restaurants aren’t necessarily expensive. There are a lot of lower-priced, really good restaurants here. I think aside from some huge names that are missing from the scene here the food system is pretty strong here. It’s vibrant.”

While Colicchio was relaxed, I also spent a few hectic minutes chatting with Simmons, who’d experienced a stuck zipper while dressing for Restaurant Wars. That wardrobe malfunction meant she only had a few minutes to jovially answer questions before she was whisked away. Her parting words were well-wishes for a tasty meal, “but no promises,” she said, smiling as she was escorted to the set.

There were dozens of people behind the scenes, staffers who moved things and people to create a seamless evening. I was seated at a table for four in No Nem, the restaurant a quartet of the contestants, including Houston’s own effervescent Evelyn Garcia, had created within hours. I spent some time chatting with my tablemates including Lauren Bebeau from Houston Food Finder and took notes on the many suggestions she passed along for Houston, uh, food finds. She spotted Willie and Khalil Blue, the father-son team from Top Chef Family Style, dining a few tables away.

click to enlarge Our table shares a laugh with contestant Jackson Kalb - SCREENSHOT
Our table shares a laugh with contestant Jackson Kalb
We were joined by Derrick Shore, the Emmy-winning reporter and co-host of KPRC’s Houston Life. He’s as affable as he appears on your afternoon TV and was the perfect dinner guest for the evening as he’s practically a living almanac on Houston. He charmed the producer at our table with tidbits on Houston’s past and present. He pointed out celebrity diner GONZO247 and rattled off the acclaimed artist’s dossier, right from the top of his head.

Our host was Jackson Kalb, the amiable Top Chef contestant who ensured we were pleased with everything his group had to offer. And, we were. The meal was Asian cuisine served family style, a mix of pani puri and snapper summer rolls and an incredible Vietnamese sausage wrap with an outlandishly good  dipping sauce. We were astounded by the flavors. I sipped happily on Saint Arnold beer and munched away, fascinated by my entertaining tablemates and the glorious meal. The word "Houston" was said too many times to count. Kalb shared with us he’d had COVID prior to the competition and had lost his sense of taste. It still hadn’t returned. If you’re to believe the show’s editing then we learned about this before he ever told any of his fellow competitors.

Part way through the meal, the judges came into our restaurant and passed our table, led to their seats by an awe-struck server who’d been hired for the day. Lakshmi, the TV personality/food expert/model/New York Times best-selling author glided by first. Colicchio gave a knowing nod as he passed and the game was on for No Nem. With cameras all about and patrons just feet away, they worked tirelessly to please us. At least at our table it was mission accomplished.

If you’ve yet to watch the episode, I won’t spoil who was made to “pack your knives and go.” But, let’s just say the show’s judges weren’t as enthused by No Nem’s food our group was. We filled out comment cards and complimented Kalb every time he stopped by to chat. I made a note: No way the other team beat that meal. After an hour and a half or so, we left the area. Bebeau snapped a selfie of our group and off we went to wait six months to revisit the night.

click to enlarge The show has put Houston and talented chefs like Garcia front and center - PHOTO BY DAVID MOIR, COURTESY OF BRAVO
The show has put Houston and talented chefs like Garcia front and center
Photo by David Moir, courtesy of Bravo
Top Chef: Houston has been a boon to the city’s profile, food-wise and otherwise. It’s a source of pride watching accomplished Houstonians like Chris Williams, Robert Del Grande and Christine Ha represent what we’re doing well here. While viewers elsewhere learn more about Houston, we’re learning more about food, which is the show’s ultimate objective according to Colicchio, who owns and operates restaurants across the country.

“I think that the food enthusiast takes on all different kinds of forms. You have a lot of people who are enthusiastic about cooking, they’ll go out and buy books and they’ll buy new kitchen equipment and stuff like that. They’ll watch a show and try to get tips and look for recipes. And then there are people who just love reality TV and people who also love food but they’re more of a bystander. They’re happy to watch the competition but they want to go to restaurants and they don’t necessarily cook. It takes all kinds. I actually like when they want to come out to restaurants,” Colicchio said with a grin.

“There are people who really love food who just want to educate themselves more and learn more about it and I think that’s what the show does really well, you do get a good education here, we’re really focused on food here," he continued. "I think also, especially in the last six or seven seasons — much more on food, less on the drama and I think part of that is because the chefs, they’ve watched the show. This current crop has been watching the show since they were 13 years old and they don’t wanna be that guy. They don’t want to be that chef. They’re being very careful about how they portray themselves because they know there’s a life after Top Chef, and there’s a very lucrative life after Top Chef. I think they see that and understand it, but I think also it reflects where the restaurant industry is going. It’s less about the yelling and screaming, it’s more about encouraging people, it’s more about inclusiveness.”

Houston is currently the recipient of that encouragement and inclusiveness. Last week’s episode was covered by local food writers but also drew ink from Vulture, Variety and the Los Angeles Times. I’m not sure which contestant will win Houston’s version of Top Chef. Like a good homer, I’m cheering for Garcia and vow to grab a meal from Kin HTX, her restaurant concept, when I can. But as Colicchio noted, everyone associated with the show has a chance to turn their time with Top Chef into something greater and lasting, including a city looking to share with the world more of the good things it already knows about itself. 
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.