Everything about Aspen, Colorado, doesn’t feel real: the shockingly blue sky against the stark outlines of the mountains, the devastatingly gorgeous ski-bums-turned-baristas, the slightly light-headed feeling you get from the lack of oxygen at 8,000 feet. Which is why when I am sworn to secrecy by the Top Chef PR team and told to go to a random parking lot to be taken via school bus to an undisclosed location to sign a waiver, and then taken to a third and final location, it seems reasonable to show up and just go with it. Especially when said third location is the semifinals for the fifteenth season of Top Chef.
While Top Chef: Colorado didn’t air its first episode until December 2017, in mid-June the contestants had already been traveling around the state for weeks, cooking for the show’s judges all over the Rockies. Since the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is something like the Olympics of food, it only made sense to time one of the show’s biggest episodes to the event. Taking place over several days, the Classic includes a grand tasting, demos, and parties late into the night, all accompanied by plenty of wine. And food. It also acts like a de facto homecoming for chefs, from celebrities to up-and-comers, to gather together and enjoy all of the aforementioned food and alcohol in one of the most gorgeous spots in the world.
Which is why, standing in a parking lot outside of town, I begin to feel like a lot of the people milling about waiting for the bus look kind of familiar. In that kind of weird way when you see someone in your hometown and can’t tell if you went to high school with them or not. But, in this case, it’s even more disorienting because instead of high school, it’s people you’ve seen living in your TV. After 15 seasons, the Top Chef alum network is extensive, and many favorites have returned to weigh in on the food the semi-finalists have made.
The bus drops us off in a sort of dude ranch campfire area, where we all sign a final promise to say nothing of what we are about to see (until the episode airs). Then we are lead up a hill to a field already filled with tents and chefs serving up food. Like everything else in Aspen, it is stupidly beautiful: A hidden valley with the Rockies as the backdrop, under the perfect midday sun, filled with food.
Here, we are finally told what the challenge is: cooking vegetarian food on a cowboy cauldron. I have never heard of a cowboy cauldron, but it’s easy to figure out what they are: beside each cooking station is a giant cast-iron oven over open flame. Later, in an interview, Tom Colicchio revealed that he was able to take one of the cauldrons home; I would have to cede most of my New York bedroom to fit a cauldron.
Approximately eight food stations are arranged in a horseshoe, and we immediately rush to get in line. It would have felt like just any other food festival, except for a few cameras racing around capturing the scene. At each station, I get a small plate of vegetables prepared by two contestants. My fellow attendees are all Top Chef superfans; they quickly fill me in on some of what was going on. Each of the three finalists (chefs Adrienne Cheatham, Joe Flamm, and Joe Sasto) got to pick one eliminated contestant to help them out throughout the penultimate challenge. To further disguise who the finalists were, the eliminated contestants also made dishes. We have no idea whose food is whose, though, as we wait in line, I pick up on some more gossip: cameras are definitely going to some tents and not others to capture judges eating, which seems like a pretty big clue about who is still in the running.
As a member of the press, I also get a behind-the-scenes look at the behind-the-scenes taping. Along with several other food writers, I am ushered to Production Village, the traveling command center where producers direct the camera crews. We are allowed to slip in, one at a time, to observe the controlled chaos. The head producer, is like an orchestra conductor, if she was conducting a completely improved symphony. In front of a wall of TVs, she somehow keeps an eye on every possible shot editors might want when it comes time to put together the episode.
It’s here I learn my favorite secret of the day. As we watch from inside the makeshift Production Village (the back of an 18-wheeler), the head judges and Padma Lakshmi walk to the field. A producer explains to me that, of the judges, only Padma has an in-ear device to hear instructions from the producers. I am able to watch, completely impressed, as she gently guides conversation effortlessly based on the instructions only she could hear without getting confused or thrown off. The judges, I also learn, are kept from the kinds of on-set drama that the producers are already aware of: who will come across as a villain or who could be the next fan favorite. By keeping contestant interaction minimal, they can be unbiased.
I was soon ushered back to the field, where I do another spin around the food lines. While all the food was good, I think about the impossibility of choosing a favorite. Chefs like Daniel Boulud and Jonathan Waxman acting as sort of informal guest judges also weigh in, chatting with Tom, Padma, and Gail at private tables we all know well from previous event-style episodes.
“Do you want to be on camera talking to Tom about the food?” a producer asks, and I give the only answer that years of consuming reality TV have taught me: “Yes, of course I do.” Like it it’s my birthright, I saunter up to the table to share my thoughts on the food. “What was your favorite,” Tom asks, and I answer that I really enjoyed a Thai-inspired leek dish. Another attendee who had been eagerly recruited says he really like a different dish, and someone asks that he say it again, this time using the contestants name. I realize too late that, since I was not asked to repeat anything, I had probably inadvertently praised an eliminated contestant and had destroyed any chances I had of being on TV.
Afterwards, we were hustled back to the buses and to the parking lot, then returned to the normalcy of downtown Aspen. I signed an NDA and had been sworn to secrecy multiple times, but, despite the security measures, I wouldn't have been able to tell you that Jo Flamm would win the episode and move on to the finals with his grilled zucchini dish. I can only imagine what it's like for anyone in the immediate vicinity of the finale.
My TV meal was over. It was magical, but it was also mostly vegetables. I immediately went to the nearest restaurant and ordered a burger.