Padma Lakshmi Reveals How ‘Top Chef’ Season 18 Had to Change During COVID

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As fans of Top Chef (or any cooking show, really) are aware, you can’t hold a cooking competition without other people being nearby to taste the food. So how does a show like Top Chef, which requires its contestants to travel to multiple locations throughout the season, cook for different judges each week, and race through crowded Whole Foods stores in search of scallops, tweak their process and still create a successful season? Padma Lakshmi revealed all of the show’s COVID-related protocols for this season during an interview on the New Hollywood podcast. Padma explains that while some of the changes were a challenge, others were a benefit to the show.

“Not only did they make the changes that we needed but they made them very creatively,” Lakshmi says of the show producers who were faced with new safety concerns this season. “Like, obviously we can’t have a guest judge that’s different because… you needed to quarantine, and some people don’t want to quarantine for two whole weeks just to come on for half a day for a Quickfire.”

Instead, she says the show, which filmed in Portland, OR, had a recurring “jury” that consisted of show alumnae such as Nina Compton, Richard Blais, Kristen Kish, and Kwame Onwuache and stayed on location for the duration of the season. “That was great fun, that was an unintentional benefit of having to address these COVID protocols,” Lakshmi said, comparing the panel of judges to an extended family reunion where every judge participated in nearly every challenge. (It sounds clear from the interview that the guest judges are all former contestants that Lakshmi has formed true friendships with over the years, likening herself to a fifth grade teacher who forms a bond with certain students.)

In addition to changing up the judging panel to remain consistent throughout the season, Lakshmi explains that the show couldn’t just let contestants roam the aisles of grocery stores en masse, although there were some instances where they did take over certain markets that production would have to clear out and then sanitize. “The grocery shopping was a bummer,” she says. “They had to order their groceries. And sometimes they’d be like ‘I would never pick this tomato, this is a terrible tomato,’ but that’s what happens when we order online.”

What other changes had to be made to accommodate social distancing? “Judges’ Table is not the regular Judges’ Table, it’s a huge-ass horseshoe. Because you need six feet of space,” she says, a change that was very welcome because she was often cramped and would straddle the leg of the old Judges’ Table during filming.”

Lakshmi adds that while the cast and crew did prepare themselves for changes that had to be made due to the coronavirus, there were other factors that further challenged the production. “We thought COVID was going to be our greatest challenge, we didn’t bank on civil unrest. We didn’t bank on fires. That was very, very scary,” she says.

The new season of Top Chef premieres on Bravo on Thursday, April 1.

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