Jealousy, Scandal and 8,000 Calories A Day: 18 Fascinating Secrets About Top Chef

Can you guess how many calories the judges eat in a day while filming the longrunning Bravo reality hit? The answer will shock you

By Tierney Bricker Dec 06, 2018 11:00 AMTags

Hands up, utensils down!

16 seasons in and we still can't get enough of Top Chef, the Bravo reality hit series that proves viewers can totally stand the heat in the kitchen, no matter the city they're in or which cheftestants dare brave the toughest culinary test on TV.

Premiering tonight at 9 p.m., host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio, and judges Graham ElliotNilou Motamed and Gail Simmons are heading to Kentucky for Top Chef's latest season, with fans finally meeting the 15 chefs from across the United States who will battle it out for the title of Top Chef. 

Meet the Top Chef: Kentucky Contestants

Before a winner is crowned after the finale showdown, which will take place in Macau, China, the cheftestants will have to endure some of Top Chef's craziest twists yet, including earliest and first-ever three-team Restaurant Wars battle. 

So what exactly goes into a season of filming Top Chef? While watching (and sometimes drooling over) the show, we've often wondered what happens to all the ingredients that aren't used, and if anyone else gets to taste the food aside from the judges. And yeah, we've tried to guess just how many calories Padma, who oversees the quick-fire challenges and the elimination challenges, consumes on a daily basis while filming. Or how about the clean-up process for the kitchen after each challenge? 

If you've ever asked yourself these questions, we've got you covered, as we rounded up 18 secrets you might not have known about Top Chef, which debuted way back in 2006. 

8,000 Calories Consumed Daily

Padma made headlines a few years ago when she revealed she consumes between 5,000-8,000 calories a day while filming, gaining at least 10 lbs during the six weeks of production. 

"I usually gain about 10 to 15 pounds every season," she reveals to New York magazine's The Cut. "It's the only bad part about my job."

She went on to reveal that she and the costume designer actually "buy clothes in three different sizes so that you don't notice my clothes getting tight. Everybody tries to squeeze into the size-six jeans or the size-eight dress, but who's looking at the tag to see what number is on it?"

In 2017, the host wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter about the pressure she always felt to get "red carpet ready" for the Emmys after filming, revealing he rigorous diet and exercise regime. But she said her entire perspective changed when she realized how her young daughter was being impacted by the way she talked about her weight and food and it "scared" her when her then seven year old said she was eating too much. 

"Every message I telegraph about food and our bodies is important," she wrote. "So, this year, I've decided my weight will not be my focus. If I need a bigger dress, so be it." 

Weight Loss for Tom

While Padma typically gains weight during filming, the head judge actually tends to maintain or lose, and he had a pretty logical explanation for why that is.

"She eats more than I do on the set because she does the quickfire challenges and the eliminations and I only do the eliminations," Tom told People. "I actually tend to lose weight believe it or not."


In its 12-year history, only one chef has been kicked out of the competition: Cliff Crooks.

In arguably Top Chef's most scandalous moment (that will go down in reality TV history, that's how shocking it was), an intoxicated Cliff physically pinned down fellow competitor Marcel Vigneron and tried to shave his head, as three other contestants laughed and filmed the incident, as they had been left them a camera "because one of them had asked for one because it was their last night and they wanted to mess around and have some fun," an executive producer later explained.

Marcel was able to get away, locking himself in the bathroom for the rest of the night, but was left bruised, and revealed 10 years later that it was actually worse than what aired. Cliff threw chocolate bars at him, and that Ilan Hall and Elia Aboumrad shaved  their heads after the attack, not before as was aired on television, as an attempt to possibly mitigate the situation, he told The Huffington Post

"It's not cool to be picked on and assaulted," Marcel said. "Beyond the physical pain of getting hit in the head with chocolate bars, there's the human aspect of wanting to belong to something and having everyone be like, ‘You're weird, we don't like you, we're going to abuse you.'" 

After seeing the footage the next morning, which happened to be Tom's birthday, the producers and judges were shocked.

"In a flash I understood how frat pranks can morph into ugly acts of hazing," a disgusted Tom wrote in his Bravo blog post about the scandal after the episode aired, revealing he wanted to send all of the chefs home and crown Marcel the winner.

Producers stepped in to stop that from happening, with Tom explaining, "Bravo's Legal department advised us of the Top Chef rules, which stated that harming or threatening to harm other contestants was potential grounds for disqualification. According to these guidelines, it was clear that Cliff needed to go."

Hair Care

Sort of tied to the infamous incident, Marcel, who was nicknamed "Crazy Hair" by some fans when season two aired, revealed that production would not let him get a professional haircut during filming. 

A publicist for the show explained to HuffPost that it was to "prevent continuity errors from arising during the editing process, and producers told Marcel there was a way around this: "The only way you can cut your air is if one of the other contestants cuts it for you," he recalled.

He declined that, given his less-than-friendly relationships with most of the other competitors. "Nobody here is a f--king barber," he said. "These people don't even like me." 

All-Night Fights

If you think Thanksgiving dinner with your weird relatives gets intense when politics come up, just wait until you hear about how long judges' deliberation can take. 

"There have been eight to ten-hour judging tables," Gail, one of the show's original judges, revealed during a public discussion for the show in 2017, and added that she once fell asleep at the table during one particularly long debate. 

So why does it take so long? Because the decision about a winner must be unanimous—with producers having no say in the winner. "If we can't make a decision, the producers will sit us there," Padma said during the same panel. "It's like detention."

Sometimes a secret judge is brought in: T-Bone, the camera operator who shoots the still-life shots of the contestants' finished dishes, as he often eats them afterward.

Sick to Her Stomach

As any loyal viewer knows, the judges will sometimes refuse to eat food if they believe it is undercooked. And Gail revealed she once got sick after eating one of the contestant's dishes. 

"There is always food that isn't exactly as you hoped it would be; the chefs cook in really difficult circumstances and sometimes they are not on their game, but I've only gotten sick on the show once," she told AOL. "Only once" is one time too many, Gail!

Back-Talk Is Welcome

While some reality TV judges aren't thrilled when the competitors challenge their ruling or opinion, Tom welcomes it. 

"As far as talking back, I really don't care at all if they talk back," Tom told HuffPost. "I mean, it's actually fun, and I'd rather they fight for themselves. I'd rather them say, ‘You know what? You're wrong.'"

However, Tom does have one rule when it comes to the cheftestants: he won't hire them in his restaurants following their time on Top Chef

"I would hire a lot of them, but I haven't and I won't, only because I don't want someone to say, 'o and so won because Tom wanted to hire them,' So I just stay out of it," he told AOL

Grocery Shopping

Anyone else ever feel some serious jealousy when they see how stocked the Top Chef pantry always is? Now, imagine it's your job to shop for all of that goodness on a large budget. 

"When you see the Top Chef pantry, we built it and stocked all the supplies. We came up with the ingredient list, the stuff you see when they're in there grabbing ingredients during a challenge," a former culinary producer Shannon Wilkinson revealed. "We also supplied and managed all the equipment. The culinary producers, we'd go to Whole Foods and spend $5,000."

5K at Whole Foods is a millennial's dream!

No Need For Room Service

Wilkinson went on to reveal what happens to all the ingredients the cheftestants don't end up using during quick-fire challenges: crew dinner parties!

"Since these challenges were often weeks apart, we would take any leftover product that would have spoiled back to the hotel and have dinner parties. For me that was one of the best perks; we'd go back to our hotel and eat caviar and foie and lobster," she said. "At the end of the day, we'd have to throw a lot of product away because it sat too long during filming. We always made sure the caviar was saved. Sometimes after filming, we'd be in the Top Chef kitchen cooking stuff up and take it all over to the hotel, have the lighting guys over, the camera guys."

No Contact Rule

During filming, the chefs have very limited contact with anyone except their fellow competitors and their handler, and they are not to have any real interaction with the judges outside of their critiques. 

"The contestants have handlers; they're basically herded around. Your job is these people, and you're with them every seconded of the day, and you bring them everywhere they go," Wilkinson shared. "They're not allowed to talk to anyone else. I mean it's not like they're bouncers or bodyguards, but they're definitely in charge of keeping those people away from the public, and also make sure they show up at places on time."

Still, the culinary producers are always on set and  ready to jump in "in case there is "a food or equipment issue."

Timing Is Everything

A 10 minute quick-fire really is 10 minutes. A four hour challenge ends at exactly the four hour mark. 

"Anytime you're watching the show and you're seeing that the chefs have been given four hours or whatever it is, that is absolutely, very strictly the amount of time they get," former executive producer Shauna Minoprio told the New York Daily News in 2012. 

She went on to reveal that the strict timing rule is actually the hardest part of producing the show.

"If you've told a bunch of chefs that their food is going to be served in 4 hours and 3 minutes time, then they're going to be focused on making sure their food is going to be perfect to eat in 4 hours and 3 minutes time. So what may seem like quite an insignificant delay [like a foggy camera lens or someone using the bathroom] is just completely unforgivable," she explained. "Because when the food is ready, we have to be ready to shoot at all costs."

It Takes Two

Forget one perfect plate, the cheftestants need to have two dishes ready when Padma calls for them to put their utensils down. 

"On pretty much every single challenge on the show, the chef has to make two plates of everything. And before the judge gets to it, we sneak in and grab it for [photography purposes]," Minoprio said. "We have a camera set up in the area that we call the food-porn area, because we want the food to look as sexy as possible."

Clean-Up Crew

Probably the best part of being a chef on the show is that you don't have to worry about the mess you're making, as it is the production manager's job to coordinate the kitchen's clean-up and set-up for the next challenge. 

"We call it 'turning the kitchen,' as in basically getting cleaned, getting it all back to shipshape again for shooting," Minoprio spilled. "He's basically in charge for all of that stuff—all of the equipment and cleaning and keeping it looking nice and any adjustments that need to be made."

Leaving On Their Terms

In the history of Top Chef, only five cheftestants have chosen to go home, eliminating themselves: Cynthia Sestito, Otto Borsich, Mia Gaines-Alt, Howie Kleinberg, and Lee Anne Wong. Lee Anne, a season one competitor who would later go on to become the reality show's supervising culinary producer for six seasons, returned to compete in season 15 as the series' first pregnant contestant, but was advised by her doctor to leave the competition.

When It's So Obvious

Without much hesitation, Tom called Paul Qui the "most talented chef" that's ever competed on the show. And he was so good that it was hard for the judges to critique during his season (nine). 

"In fact, we had to dumb down how good he was, because it would've been pretty obvious that he was running away with everything," he said on HuffPost Live. "If you can figure out who's going to win 30 minutes into it, you turn off the TV. And so you have to keep the suspense going until the very very end."

Death By Chocolate?

Desserts are to Top Chef what menswear is to Project Runway, right?

While sweets and baked goods often appear to be the kiss of death for may chefs, it isn't the food category that has caused the most eliminations, according to Top Chef Stats. That would be seafood, with 84 contestants being sent home after making it for the judges. 31 have gone down for vegetarian dishes, while just 12 were sent home for desserts.

Making the Jump

Richard Blais is the only former contestant to become a judge on the show, after placing second in season four and winning All-Stars (season eight). 

And according to Top Chef Stats, he is the cheftestant whose won the most prize money during their stint on the show, raking in $225,000. 

Original Host

Now the host of her own Cooking Channel show and a co-host on Food Network's The Kitchen, Katie Lee, who was married to Billy Joel at the time, was the host of Top Chef in season one, with Padma being brought in to replace her in the second season. 

In his 2012 memoir, Andy Cohen shared a memorable moment from Katie Lee's short stint on the show when he and the crew heard a loud, thumping noise during the first-ever elimination. 

"Nobody could figure out what it was. Was someone pounding on a door somewhere? Was a piece of equipment failing?" he wrote. "Finally the audio guy realized what he was hearing. 'That's Katie's heart!' he screamed. I love a host with a big heart, and Katie Lee felt so bad about having to send anyone home that hers was pounding hard enough to be heard in the sound mix."

(E! and Bravo are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)

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