Tom Colicchio Talks About the 'Top Chef' Finale
by Joel Keller, posted Sep 15th 2010 10:00AM
The 'Top Chef' season finale is upon us, and, despite what many (including me) think has been a disappointing season, it looks like the cheftestants have finally decided to step it up and produce consistently good food.
"Quite frankly with this finale, overall was better than any finale we've had," executive producer and head judge Tom Colicchio told me on Monday. Yes, the final four this season -- now down to Angelo, Kevin and Ed with Kelly's elimination -- have impressed the usually impassive judge that much.
The lush Singapore location has helped, of course, and it seems that the prospect of one of the finalists getting sick (if you see the ads for the finale, you'll know who) did little to dampen his enthusiasm.
We talked about the unexpected events of the finale -- he didn't give much away -- and about Tom's general frustrations with how the audience perceives the judging process. He also dropped a hint or two about next season, which has been rumored to be an all-star year.
Were you instrumental in helping to choose Singapore? What was your reaction when you found out you were going there for the finale?
Well, I think it was something they had been working on for a while - working with the Singapore tourism board. Whenever we have to travel with our crew, which is a pretty large crew at this point, it's helpful when you're working with a partner to help with hotels and things like that. So aside from being a great food destination, there's other reasons for choosing places as well.
As far as being excited, I was totally jazzed for it. I hadn't been and it was somewhere I really wanted to go. I thought it was an amazing location to shoot.
When you think about the four people who made the trip to Singapore, just by what you saw as a judge and later on as you were watching the show, did you think the four chefs that made the final four deserved to be there?
I think there were a number of chefs that could have made the final four. Like most seasons there are stronger chefs and weaker chefs and there are always people's favorites who don't make it and they get upset. I know people were upset that Kenny didn't make it and Tiffany didn't make it but it's an elimination competition. It's not like soccer where you can lose and you're still in the tournament for the World Cup. It's a single elimination - some of them have a bad day and that's it, they had a bad day, that's the way it's set up, but I think that you have to be consistent.
But yeah I think the four that made it, I wasn't surprised that any of them made it through. Also knowing their resumes and knowing what they do, I'm not surprised at all, for instance Kevin didn't have a strong season, he didn't win a lot but he hung around. Looking at his resume, you could tell. Sometimes these challenges naturally select more chefs that can think on their feet very quickly. There are chefs I know who won't put things on the menu unless they've tried it four or five times. so you just naturally select a certain kind of chef, people who maybe don't win a bunch of challenges but they hang around.
The people who hang in there hang in there but when the time comes.. You see it happen. Also, there are chefs who choke at the end. You look at Richard Blaze, his season Stephanie won. Now Stephanie's a good chef but everyone thought Richard was going to run away with it. He blew it.
Yeah, Stefan a couple of seasons ago as well. He blew it right at the very end.
Quite frankly, I thought he was playing over his head. I didn't think he would've made it that far.
You have to understand something he's a cocky individual he's been around but I think a lot of people bought him for his own PR. I was actually surprised he made it that far.
It's easy for the viewers to buy into someone's PR because they can't taste the food. So with someone like Stefan or even someone like Kenny this year, what would you tell viewers to look at other than what they're saying in the talking head segment?
You know, I would just say to trust us. We got so much hate mail when Kenny left and Tiffany left, and you've gotta just trust us. And people, especially this season, go on and on about the rules. They kept saying that "he broke the rule." But my response is, "What rule? At what point do you ever hear people say something about the rules?"
What you hear is a general conversation about what the challenge was looking for; there are no rules. That being said, the viewers hear these hard and fast rules, right before we start, (then the contestants) start running and we stop them for a second and they're actually sat down and read the actual rules. There just has to be a certain amount of trust.
You hear that he said this or we said that, you're hearing snippets from a two or three hour conversation boiled down to five minutes. At a certain point, you've gotta trust us. This is what I tell people -- I'm not a fan of the show, so I don't have someone who I'm rooting for. I don't know these people, we're not allowed to interact. I'm not allowed to talk to them, the only time I see them is on camera. I don't know them as people, we don't know who the personalities are going to be. All the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, we don't see that.
How difficult is it for you to convince people that the chefs are judged challenge by challenge, that that they're not judged on what happened before?
I don't know how often and how I can say it any clearer, that this is just the way it works. Is it the best way? I don't know. Perhaps what should happen is that if you win a challenge you should be immune from the next one instead of (using) the quickfires (for immunity). That's something I'm going to talk to producers about for next season. I think it does reward the best chefs.
For the most part the best chefs get in. That's what we do and we do it for a lot of reasons. Number one, the guest judge would be irrelevant if it was cumulative they wouldn't know that prior. The other thing they need to understand is that we shoot in the course of a month.
When you mention cast members from this year that could have made it to the finals, do you want to mention anyone in particular that maybe could have made it?
I mean, Tiffany could have definitely made the finals. Without a doubt, I'm trying to think who was off before her. Amanda, maybe not. I mean Kenny certainly could have, he just didn't. The season before that Mike Isabella certainly could have made it to the finals,he's a good chef. Every season there are people who could do it.
It's one of those things where, which I don't think the average person gets, the chefs are working pretty much every day. They're up 16 hours a day, they're under a tremendous amount of stress, constantly on the go. That's something you hear mid-season when they start saying they're so tired, "I watch this on TV and I thought it was easy."
They don't realize how intensive it is. They're getting scrutinized every day, reviewed every day and they're exhausted. That has a lot to do with this. Some people wash out because they get too tired. There are a lot of factors that go into it but I think overall you have to keep really focused every single day, every single challenge and it's hard to do.
Do you think that the contest is designed to weed out the people who can't cut the mustard?
I think so. Sometimes things happen, people get tripped up. I think yes, it is. Because typically people tend to, it's amazing, almost screw up when they're supposed to. And you see it season after season, people drop off almost where you think they're going to drop off. At least for me, it just kind of happens that way. Is this the best system in the world? Probably not, but the best system int he world would be boring as hell. The best system would be to cook a five course meal every challenge, do nothing but just cook. We're making TV too.
When someone like Carla from a couple of years ago steps it up at the end and makes the finals, does that surprise you? Or do you just say you knew she was going to be able to do it all along?
Was I surprised at that? Actually that was surprising. But also you gotta look at the challenges too. Certain challenges actually play into certain chef's hands. Like in the first season, you would think the first challenge played right to Angela's hands. It didn't work out that way. but certain challenges do. So you can get on a winning team where you're not going to get eliminated because you're on a winning team, that could happen a couple times, you could find a challenge that's right in your wheelhouse, and all of a sudden, you put together a string of wins. It can happen but I still think that overall it definitely selects for the best cooks because of consistency.
Most of the challenges we look at and right away and we know who the top is, who the bottom is, but we have a show to make. There are certain points where the viewers have to trust us. I don't care who wins this, I really don't. The fans of the show really care. I don't. There's no motives. I said this over and over again, people just don't seem to want to believe. The producers have absolutely no say in who stays or who goes. Absolutely none. None of this is done for TV. The producers don't even taste the food.
Now saying this, I'm a producer of the show so I guess it's sort of a true statement, but the judges are completely responsible for who stays and who goes, that's it. And we work until we get a consensus and if it's not a consensus, we'll go 3 to 1, That's OK. If it's split down the middle, I get two votes.It's a good position to be in.
It's frustrating to me because I've been on other reality shows as a guest and that's not the way it works, the producers do pick the winner. This I can tell you is honest as it gets. I think for reality shows, this is as close to reality as far as I can see.
Do you sometimes think that the things get lost in the editing process? Stuff that would explain better why you would eliminate one contestant over another?
Of course, but the problem with that and the reason that happens is because if it were as obvious to us and we didn't go through and edit it a certain way, people would turn out halfway through the show. As soon as the food comes out and we take the first bite and say I know who wins, turn it off.
It's a TV show we're making too. It's part entertainment, which is why I think we're as popular as we are - we have the foodies tune in because they want to see the food and then you see the reality junkies who want to see the reality side of it. They usually aren't watching the same show.
Why do you think people have this perception that this season's set of contestants haven't been as good as in the past? Where do you think the perception is coming from?
I think because last season the chefs were so strong and lived up to their potential. And I think following that season, any season was going to be tough to beat that (sixth) season. So I think that's part of it... You know who knows? I don't do the casting. I'm not involved in casting. I don't know if it was purposely done because last season was more of a foodie season, and this season they tried to, I don't want to say dumbed it down, but made it, more about the reality. I don't know, you're always trying to figure it out, you never know what you're going to get.
Sometimes the group mentality takes over and you get a sense that they're not pushing it as hard as they can. Some seasons you get the sense they're playing not to lose and not pushing to win. That's what I thought was so great about Ed in the last episode, that he had immunity He could have slacked off and just made food and gotten by, but he chose to take the immunity as a way to really push it because he had nothing to lose.
I want to try those banana fritters at some point.
They were great, they really were. These chefs are capable but sometimes who knows. Sometimes you'll get other seasons where people who really step it up because of the people they're competing against.
Was it satisfying to you that that first elimination challenge in Singapore, where everyone stepped up and did a very good job?
Well not only that, I thought that was possibly our second best episode ever. The first one for me was the one episode that was at the Joel Robuchon restaurant in the Vegas season. That's the show we submitted and won an Emmy for.
I thought that it looked great, and I had people comment to me over the past week. It looked great number one, it was an exotic location, just the idea of walking through the market and you can see the food, you could see that it was hot.
Right until that challenge was "here's the wok start cooking," and it all just kind of went down and the food was great for the elimination challenge. To me, this is what we were waiting for. All season long was frustrating. We know, we can tell. All season was like "Come on guys, you've got to cook better." We give them pep talks like, "I know it's in you," "I know you can do it but it's not happening." But it was just great to see this level of cooking in the finale. Hopefully it's saving the season.
Let's talk about the true season finale that's airing this week. Obviously you know who's won already. Give us a little idea, what we know so far is that Angelo is going to get really sick and in past 'Top Chef' champions, are they going to be the sous chefs as in the past, or is it going to be different?
I can't comment. You do know we bring back some past winners and you do know Angelo gets sick, that happens but I can't tell you what capacity we bring them back in but they're not the chefs, they don't come back to take over the kitchen.
Well in the past, people came back as sous chefs for the three finalists.
I can't say something but all the chefs that came back every single year, they came back as sous chefs.
When you guys got there, and you had mentioned this earlier in the interview, did you think it was because of all the travel, that because of the fact that you were in Singapore, that different foods were being eaten that people don't have tolerance for, that something like some getting really sick could happen?
No, it's not something we thought would happen. It's not something we even thought could happen. They all ate the same food so I don't think it was the food. There must have been some flu going around because there was a member of the production crew who was in bed the whole time we were there. Angelo could've been caught something on the plane, who knows.
Quite frankly, we were more concerned about Padma, who was traveling with her baby. We were concerned that if the baby got sick Padma would have to deal with that. Angelo's been in that part of the world a bunch. It was never something we thought was going to happen.
Can you give me any hint on how that's dealt with, or is it too much information to say that kind of stuff?
All I can say is that he was really sick.
It does some interesting drama to the finale though.
Without a doubt. He was sick to the point that we thought he was going to have to bow out.
Is this something when his comes as a producer, are you saying that this is good TV or as a judge are you saying this kind of stinks that he's come all this way and he's going to have to bow out?
I have both hats, but quite frankly I don't think that's good story. I think it sounds like it's a good story but at the end people want to see people compete.
Remember when Michael Jordan played in the finals with a 102 fever? He had the flu. Not only was he able to do it he scored 40-something points - he's out of his mind. It only made good story because he was able to compete. Could you imagine if it's at the finals and Michael Jordan doesn't play? That's not a good story, that sucks. If you're a sports fan, that's terrible. So no, I don't think it makes good story. It only makes good story because he was able to compete.
Well there's the factor that he's playing basketball, he's not cooking things people are eating.
A few people emailed me on the blog asking if I was nervous eating Angelo's food even though he was sick. I wasn't. Also, we were told from the medic that whatever he had at that point he wasn't contagious. They knew what he had at that point and they said it wasn't contagious. That helped, we were concerned obviously.
So no challenges that dangerous this year?
No, we hope it's not, I've never got sick on this show. And I don't have the best stomach either.
With all the traveling, I'm surprised you don't have the best stomach you'd think your system would get used to eating everywhere.
No I've always had stomach issues. I can't deal with a a lot of spice but I have to eat it. I pay the price -- I'm on medication for heartburn, so that's how I deal with it.
It seems like from your blog Buzz Aldrin was the guy you were most thrilled about meeting this year.
Oh man, that was awesome. You know, it wasn't that it was when I first heard he was coming on, it was like "Oh cool, this guy has walked on the moon, that's pretty awesome." But when I was in the car, he was there with another astronaut, I forget his name, and they were going on and on about what it takes to go to Mars, and I was sitting there going "I can't believe I'm listening to this conversation." They were serious, no tongue in cheek at all, they were talking about going to Mars.
Buzz Aldrin was going on and on, saying "They won't listen to me, this is the only way to do it." And the other guy was like "Buzz, you're not a great politician, you're getting into people's face telling them they're idiots and they don't know what they're talking about. You're the smartest guy in the room but sometimes you need to use politics here" And he's like "That's why I'm not a politician. I can't stand this s--t." It was a fascinating conversation, fascinating. "You gotta go to this rock, this asteroid." It was like, are you f-----g kidding me? This is stuff you read in a bad movie, a bad script and they're actually serious about it.
At least he wasn't talking about 'Dancing With the Stars.'
Exactly, Well he did mention it a few times but it was like I didn't know what he was talking about because I don't watch it.
I know Eric Ripert has been a guest judge in the past, how do you think he did in his first year as a regular judge?
I love Eric I love having Gail to my left, that's always my favorite. It is great having another chef. Sometime there are things that I say that non-chefs say, "Ah, what do you care? Technique," but yeah, it's important. It's nice to have another chef you can bounce off of.
I think he did a great job, the language barrier sometimes he had a little trouble with. The neat thing is, I don't know if this always comes across on TV that there are certain guest judges that the chefs have an amazing amount of respect for. When Eric is sitting in that chair, the chefs have a lot of respect for him. If he says some thing's not right, it's not right. If he has the heavy accent thing, the contestants don't care. They really put a lot in what they have to say.
When Toby Young was judging did the chefs think Toby gave them good criticism or were they like "Who the hell is Toby Young to criticize my food?"
Well it's not "Who the hell is Toby Young to criticize my food," it's just "Who the hell is Toby Young? Who is this guy?"
Listen, they know they're going to get criticized. That's what they're there for, they've seen the show, they know how it works. They sign up for that. They're never upset and we never do anything malicious. None of us play up to the camera. None of us walk on and say "I'm supposed to be really nasty and be a dick, the camera's on me and that's what I'm going to do."
For us, I realized this a long time ago, this show isn't about me or Padma or Gail, it's about the contestants. The only reason we're there and all the guests come on is to have a good conversation about food because if we don't have that conversation, the viewer will never understand. It's a direct conversation about the food.
Do you think we're going to see Eric be a regular judge next year as well or is he still thinking that over?
He's thinking it over I guess. Well, I can't get into it. Do you know anything about the next season?
Not a ton, no.
There's a lot of rumor going around out there about next season.
I haven't read it.
Go to eater.com, it's a food kind of gossip site.
Oh the All Stars, yeah. That I have heard about, yes. How much truth is it to those rumors?
I can't say yes or no but (pause). It's out there, let's say it's out there you can choose to believe it or not.
If they were to do an all-star format, is that something you have been looking forward to doing is that more of are you not in favor of an all star edition?
That decision is always made through Andy, Bravo and the Magical Elves (production company). I think it's a good idea. We've been around long enough to do it. People would like to see people come back. If we were to do it, I support it.
Call me next week if you want after the finale. I haven't seen it yet but It was a great finale. The chefs did a great job. I'm really happy to see the food that we got. Quite frankly with this finale, overall was better than any finale we've had.
Even more than last year, with the Voltaggio brothers?
They kind of didn't step it up in the finale. It was great but it wasn't... I could've seen more from them. I don't know what happened there. They each did Cuban dishes and one dish was so-so. All of the dishes were really good. There may have been one clunker in the group but for the most part, it was really really strong.