Padma Lakshmi was not shy about sharing some of Top Chef’s secrets at Saturday’s Times Arts & Leisure Weekend event, also featuring Eric Ripert and Gail Simmons. Frank Bruni moderated the panel and Tom Colicchio was out of town, but that didn’t stop Padma — who seemed ready to give birth any second (her doctor was sitting in the front row) — from dishing on his drinking habits. If we could peek underneath that judges’ table, we’d find a gin and tonic nestled between Colicchio’s legs. Padma suggested watching the top of Colicchio’s pate — astute viewers will notice a shiny red glow growing as the debate rages on. Judges’ table can last for as long as five hours, said Gail. We’d need a drink, too. Judging the finale lasts even longer (Eric Ripert almost missed his flight out of Aspen in season three), because the winner must be a unanimous decision. Producers sometimes seek the opinion of an unofficial fifth judge named T-Bone: He’s the camera operator who takes all the still-life food shots and then eats the dishes.
The judges had plenty to say about the contestants, too. They’re all proud of Herold Dieterle and Perilla, especially, Gail explained, because he stayed true to the concept he wanted before, during, and after the course of the show. And, like the audience, they all loved Kevin from season six. When describing his dishes, Kevin would often go on for 45 minutes or longer — but the judges, completely transfixed, wouldn’t notice how much time had passed until a producer stepped in to tell him to wrap it up.
Other than Kevin’s soliloquies, however, the judges don’t know anything about the contestants’ personalities until the show airs, as they’re barred from contact with each other until after the finale. Of course, this doesn’t stop all contestants from trying — Stephan, from the New York season, once gave Padma a dozen roses, only to have them yanked out of her hands by a producer a second later. And despite limited contact, Padma, who sees the contestants more than any other judge because of the Quickfires, occasionally gets some insight into how the contestants feel about one another. This season, she knew that everyone hated Robin because whenever she would bring up her cancer, Padma would see all the other chefs start rolling their eyes in her peripheral vision.
The judges would love to take the show international in future seasons, but the logistics of taking a crew of 80 to 120 abroad means that probably won’t happen any time soon. Production for the seventh season begins in the spring; Bravo is waiting till after Padma has her baby. (“They’ve been through like twenty pregnancies with Heidi already,” she joked). So, would Padma want her child to grow up to be a chef? “Only if she’s a really good one.”