Top Chef has been a highlight in quarantine for a lot of people, as many have binge-watched the series over the last 12 months, perhaps helped by the fact that Season 17 aired right as the pandemic was rearing its ugly head and many of use were stuck at home. This week, Season 18 is also coming and this time the episodes filmed with new safety and social distancing rules in place. But if you as longtime judge Gail Simmons, that really wasn’t the most difficult thing... at least for the Bravo contestants.
To be clear, Top Chef Season 18 is going to look quite a bit different than previous seasons. Gail Simmons made it clear in a recent interview with The Daily Beast that those not actually filming were in “full PPE,” that rules were followed and that the series was able to film in its entirety without any cases of Covid-19 occurring on set. And yet, because of this safety stuff Top Chef Season 18 also only brought professional chefs on board to taste test and judge in order to keep the number of strangers on set way down. Per Simmons:
In some ways it made it more challenging too, because every single diner that they’re cooking for is a professional chef this year, every single time. We did do a drive-in episode that allowed us to have people alone in their cars at the drive-in movie theater. But otherwise every time they were cooking, they were cooking for experts. And not just experts, but experts who had been in their shoes, which in some ways brought empathy in a way, but it also made sure that we were examining and cross-examining every bite in a really intense way. But I think it lends a lot to the show, not just because we got to eat meals with our friends all the time, but I just think it adds a richness to the show that will bring a lot. So it was a way to tackle that challenge, but make the show even better for it.
While I’m pumped for that drive-in challenge, it’s worth noting that Top Chef is always pretty high-stress anyway. The chefs are put through weird challenges, they have complicated Quickfire episode segments in which they have to ideate on the fly, and sometimes they are asked to cook for their other chef heroes. Now, it sounds as if there was a lot more of those latter moments in Season 18.
The stakes are higher too. The restaurant industry has been one of the fundamental sectors of our society that has been totally changed by the pandemic. People have had to rework their entire business models and ways of doing things during the pandemic. Many jobs were changed and lost and many restaurants closed. According to Gail Simmons, this directly impacted the stories people are telling on the show and the entire attitude of Season 18, as well as the motivations to win the competition.
There is almost more at stake this year because the restaurant industry has been so challenged. And so, quite frankly, devastated, on the brink of collapse, that to have a shot at and have the opportunity to show what you can do to such a wide audience and the chance at rebirth, it’s a bigger opportunity even, right? Because most of these chefs lost their jobs, lost their restaurants, or the restaurants were closed, or they were furloughed, or they had to furlough a hundred people before they came on the show. I mean, there’s so much trauma in the industry. It’s not a trickle down of how this affected the industry, it’s a waterfall.