Life

A ‘Top Chef’ Producer Explains This Season’s Unprecedented Covid Bubble

So much about our lives changed in the past year, and one of the most obvious areas was eating out. Suddenly we couldn’t just go out to eat anymore and the whole industry designed around it was thrown into turmoil. Top Chef is a show that revolves entirely around this industry, so it obviously couldn’t just go back to normal when the chefs it profiles and the restaurants they work at still haven’t.

Yet when you watch Top Chef these days, with its latest season set in Portland, it still feels mostly like Top Chef always has. And being able to immerse ourselves in a world where the quality of restaurant food is a matter of great importance is both a refreshing return to normalcy and a little bit escapist. Yet this is a show that was filmed last fall, when much of the country was still locked down and indoor dining wasn’t allowed.

To produce a show that still looked relatively normal in the midst of all this, clearly, must’ve required meticulous planning and some creative thinking. Piling 15 chefs into a house together and having them go from restaurant to restaurant cooking for judges flown in for the privilege simply wasn’t going to work. Instead, Top Chef‘s producers moved the thing to a hotel and created a big “bubble,” with a handful of past contestants and winners as judges, and everyone otherwise rigorously tested and kept separate from larger society whenever possible. I spoke to Top Chef producer Dan Murphy this week about what was different about this season and the work that went into keeping it consistent.

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Can you tell me your official title and explain what your duties entail?

I’m Dan Murphy, I’m the COO of Magical Elves, and basically, I’ve been with the company for about 13 years, been the head of production for many years, before recently becoming COO this past year. I oversee physical production, from the budgeting and the planning, and the scheduling, and I oversee all of the safety protocols in terms of getting our shows back up and running during COVID.

Your last season got delayed, right?

The previous season we had actually filmed before the pandemic started, and we were in editorial during the pandemic, and we quickly pivoted to having editors and producers working from home, and communicating over Zoom, which was fine. We were basically able to continue post-production with very little downtime when the pandemic started, but it gave us a runway to figure out how and when we were going to be able to come back to filming. We prepped and loaded this season in September, shot in October and November. So we had a long lead time to figure out all of our protocols and work with the network. We took all of the CDC guidelines and the state and local laws and guidance, and we worked with NBC, and our own sort of high standards of safety kind of guided us through that process.

So then what did the “bubble” look like, and how did this season differ from past seasons?

Well, in terms of creating the bubble we kept everyone together in a hotel, we made sure everyone was wearing masks and PPEs, and social distanced. There were obviously a lot of things that we did differently behind the scenes that we hoped would not distract from what people saw on screen. We tried to make the show as seamless as possible from previous seasons, but did include some additional elements that you probably haven’t seen before; we had the All-Star panel [of past contestants judging], that we kept within our bubble, and we were able to showcase former Top Chef contestants in a way that we hadn’t necessarily done before.

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So with the hotels — in the past, the competitors would have all been in the same house together. Did that create any new challenges from a content standpoint?

We knew that we had to change how that was going to work this season, and we kind of leaned into it. There were some challenges but we always have such a, I would say ‘a richness of content’ that in a lot of ways it may have made the editing process easier. Because we just didn’t have that element to have to incorporate. We always get such great content out of the cast houses, but there’s always so much that’s already there within the show itself and the competition, that it was not difficult to make that pivot.

In the past, the contestants would be going out and visiting restaurants and working in other restaurant kitchens. I know this was shot in the middle of a time when a lot of restaurants were closed. What were the challenges there, and what were the kinds of ways that you had to improvise?

The challenges were finding the right spaces, I think, and on a normal season of Top Chef we can shoot just about anywhere. But when we’re dealing with a large crew, and contestants, we had to be very mindful of how we could work within a space, when indoors, and keep everyone safe. So we had to find spaces that were large enough, and had large enough support spaces, etc.

So that was definitely different for us, and a bit of a challenge this season.

On the other hand, with restaurants not at full capacity, or not serving indoors, was it easier in any way? Like, was it an easier sell to get restaurants to let you film in their space?

I would say there was definitely more availability. Some restaurants had shut down. There were some spaces available to us that that may not have otherwise been.

Had you guys chosen Portland before all this happened?

I mean we had been wanting to go to Portland for many seasons. It’s a rich, celebrated culinary destination and we’ve been wanting to go there for a long time. We had gone to Seattle in one season, and then a couple seasons later we were still like “well, let’s go somewhere else,” but we were really glad to get the opportunity to come back to that region, and go to Portland specifically.

Chefs normally take, I forget what it is, six or eight weeks off to come film the show. Was it an easier sell for contestants in any way? Because maybe they were having to not work as much, or close down restaurants during the pandemic?

I would say it was probably more of the opposite. I think that most of our chefs were extremely busy as frontline workers in terms of keeping people fed, and a lot of the restaurants that our contestants were working with were very busy. So it was a bit of a challenge to get them to come out and quarantine prior to shooting. It was a lengthier time off of work for many of them.

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Did you manage to get through the whole season without any positive tests?

Thankfully, we did. We did not have any cases on the show and it was, I think, all because everyone took it seriously. We had training in advance of the show that everyone had to participate in. We talked about how serious we were taking it as a company. And we gave everyone on the crew side ample opportunity to not participate if it was not something they felt that they could live up to.

Thankfully, everyone was excited about getting back to work.

I don’t hear this that much anymore, but every once in a while you hear people say that “the judging that goes on on Top Chef is all fake,” and that the contestants who go home, that’s all decided by producers behind the scenes. Can you shed any light on that process?

I would say from the time that I started at the company, at the end of season four, the producers have always had a hands-off approach when it comes to deciding who the winner is, and who the people are that are going home. That’s always been left up to our judges.

As a producer, are there ever contestants that you think are particularly entertaining, or just they’re good for entertainment value, and then you get disappointed when the judges send them home?

Well, I’m probably not the best person to speak to that, but I think everyone has their favorites, and it’s always difficult to see someone go before you think they should. But we trust in the process. The judges really deliberate on this stuff, and it’s not always clear-cut answers. You don’t always see the amount of deliberation that goes into the decisions that they make, but I’ve been on seasons, and I can remember a specific episode where they took hours and hours deliberating and disagreeing over decisions amongst themselves.

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Do the judges ever surprise you with how seriously they take the judging?

I will say that I personally was surprised, again it was literally hours one night, probably three in the morning until four, five, six in the morning before they could finally agree on a decision. So yeah, they take it very seriously. They all have strong opinions about each of the contestants, and the meals, and I would say most people would probably be very surprised how much deliberation goes into the decisions that they make.

In terms of just time and budget, and sponsorships, was this season pretty comparable to past seasons, or was there anything different about it in that sense?

I’m not sure how much into detail I can go and send you this stuff. I mean there were definitely costs as a result of doing show during COVID that we don’t ordinarily incur, but I can’t give you a percentage or a dollar figure or anything like that. It’s definitely more expensive to produce, to put these protocols into place. We’ve spent a lot of time as a company, and a lot of people put in months of work sort of developing the guidance and the protocols, and revising them, and refining them, and we’re really proud of the show that resulted from it.

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