By now you know — and if you don’t know, spoiler, duh — that Kristen beat out Brooke on last night’s season finale of Top Chef. What you might not know is that Grub Street was in the crowd (though we didn’t share any pre-episode news with our recapper, David Rees, whose take you can read right here). We sat in on the taping, ate the food, and talked to all the previous winners. All told, the whole thing took eleven hours — see what we gleaned, straight ahead.
1. One reason we didn’t tell Rees who won: The producers make you sign a crazy-scary million-dollar nondisclosure agreement. It’s standard in the industry, but it still made Grub Street very careful about what it’s said since the show’s taping three weeks ago.
2. The location of the finale could be better: Producers took over a freezing cold, airport-adjacent soundstage in Van Nuys. For those unfamiliar with the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, Van Nuys is basically where they shoot all the porn.
3. Producers add an extra dose of mind-fuckery to the mix by isolating the finalists for hours before the judges declare a winner. Stephanie Izard, who won season four, recalls, “Me and Lisa [Fernandes] were stuck in a room together for like five hours before the final judgment. Lisa put a bunch of garbage bags down and tried to sleep. We were mostly just sitting there not talking to each other, freaking out in our own minds.” From what the judges told us, Kristen and Brooke had been sequestered for several hours before shooting, with little idea that they were stepping into a showdown with live spectators.
4. Of course, while the chefs are going crazy for hours at a time, the judges are trying to actually figure out who won. “Sometimes these conversations last four hours,” Tom Colicchio says. “And you only see five minutes of it.”
5. The winners get a lot of crazy offers — and they’re not all business deals. After winning the first season of Top Chef, Harold Dieterle received his share, including one from a Chicago fan who wanted to have his baby. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
6. Emeril Lagasse will never tire of people yelling “Bam” when they see him. “That’s the kind of thing these [chefs] are going to have to deal with now,” he says.
7. The taping takes a long time. Sitting through it felt like being at an eight-hour wedding dinner, only with less food, hotter lights, and a sight-line of Stefan Richter’s shiny head.
8. They ply everyone with booze: The production had a full bar off set for the seat-fillers and there was way more wine than food during the final showdown. People with a slight buzz are no doubt better for the cameras.
9. Everybody realizes it’s about time another female chef finally wins this thing. “In ten seasons, we’ve only had one girl,” notes Gail Simmons. “The sad and true part of that is that it’s probably very accurate to the ratio of the industry.”
10. Padma will not tolerate salty language in front of minors: The first time one former winner dropped an F-bomb, Padma reminded the entire studio that kids were in attendance — so people need to curb the swears.
11. It’s maybe kind of obvious from day one which chefs are going to move through the competition. “I think that Brooke and Kristen were probably the two best competitors all season long,” Colicchio admits. “I wasn’t surprised at all.”
12. Dieterle isn’t so sure he’d win these days: “Everybody’s so savvy now — the producers, the contestants, the judges. We were all kind of trying to figure it out.”
13. Note to future cheftestants: The judges are tired of eating so much crudo and tartare. “But when you have fifteen minutes, you’re not braising a whole hog,” Simmons sympathizes.
14. Emeril Lagasse basically talks in sound bites. Some samples from our ten-minute chat: “You’re really under a lot of pressure and sometimes you snap,” “You have to cook yourself out of this situation or you’re going home,” and “You gotta cook, you gotta execute, you gotta taste, you gotta manage.”
15. Not all the chefs blow their six-figure prize money. Izard tells us it “just paid off credit cards and stuff.” Richard Blais says he put his money into his kids’ college fund.
16. Kristen’s citrus- and lavender-cured scallop dish was one of the best things we’ve eaten in a long time. And for us, Brooke’s braised pork cheek and red snapper trumped Kristen’s own fourth dish of snapper with leeks, even if the judges didn’t see it that way.
17. Home cooks really wouldn’t stand a chance on this show. “Unless it’s a home cook that used to be a professional, there’s absolutely no way they can compete,” Colicchio says. “They’re doing 300 plates. If I came in here with three of my best chefs from my restaurants and faced that challenge, it’d be hard.”
18. Even though it looks like everyone’s eating a lot of food, the portions are small. You still have to stop for a taco after the taping.