While filming the 20th season of “Top Chef” last fall, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons were tasked with judging three dishes of Wellingtons — a classic British dish that fits the show’s newest location.
For this particular episode, the trio were joined by Kirk Westaway, the executive chef at two-star Michelin restaurant JAAN, at Tobacco Dock, an event venue dating back to the early 19th century. It’s one of several iconic London locations that will be featured on “Top Chef: World All-Stars,” the latest edition of Bravo’s reality competition series and the first season to take place entirely outside the United States. The landmark season is set to begin on Thursday.
The format, where contestants compete in a rapid-fire challenge and then an elimination challenge in each episode, remains the same. However, the 16 chefs in the kitchen are drawn from a much wider pool. Producers brought together all-star contestants from 11 global editions of “Top Chef,” including four from previous U.S. seasons.
“This is the 20th season and there are [dozens] of ‘Top Chef’ producers around the world, so we thought it would be great to bring in talent from some of the other ‘Top Chef’ shows,” says Colicchio, speaking in the green room after the Wellington challenge. “Once we decided to do this, we thought it would be best to leave the United States, and London is a great international city.”
Several international destinations were considered, including cities in Italy, Spain and France, but London was ultimately decided to be the best choice.
“In the whole world, New York and London are probably the best food cities in the world for food, so there’s an abundance of different produce, different meats, different ingredients,” says Lakshmi, who has hosted the show since 2 season. “London also has a very high population of immigrant cultures and different ethnicities. This is a wonderful playground for chefs to shop and cook.”
Once the idea of an international version of the series was set in motion, the producers had to figure out how to play “Top Chef: World All-Stars.” There are currently 29 global editions of “Top Chef,” and each uses a different format. Performance varies from region to region and some are more competitive than others.
“We were looking for diversity in terms of the shows they come from, the countries they come from, the cuisine they cook, the personality and, of course, the skills,” says executive producer and showrunner Doneen Arquines. “We were lucky enough to find really great contestants from 11 different countries representing many different regions who also spoke very good English. At the end of the day, it’s still an American audience.”
Competitors include chefs from Jordan, France, Canada, Thailand, Poland, Spain, Brazil, Republic of Congo, Lebanon and more. Longtime fans of the American version of “Top Chef” will recognize Dawn Burrell, Sara Bradley, Buddha Lo and Amar Santana, who join the global contestants. Some of the guest chefs and judges include Asma Khan, Jeremy Chan and Clare Smyth, while several came from global publications.
For the judges, the global diversity of chefs helped keep things interesting. It also resulted in better cooking, according to Lakshmi. He says the chefs inspire each other and the diversity “brings a lot of fresh air and new perspectives and points of view to the show.”
“Expanding America’s place in the world is really, really important, especially from a culinary perspective,” adds Simmons. “Because as much as we’ve had an incredibly diverse cast over the years, diversity in America is one thing and diversity in the world is another. It makes them cook differently and learn different things and it just sets a different tone.”
Logistically, moving the production to London had its ups and downs. “Top Chef” typically relocates each season to the US, often visiting an international destination for the finale. Colicchio says things were similar, except “it takes longer to get everywhere in London”. The chefs still cook in the “Top Chef” kitchen, this time built in a studio just outside London, and they still shop at Whole Foods, but in Kensington.
“In some ways, it always feels the same,” says Simmons. “We’re just picking up where we left off last year with each other and we have a shorthand and we all know each other so well. But this year, I think, it’s bigger. We’re upping our game. Season 20 is definitely not something I thought I’d be doing when we started 17 years ago.”
The crew arrived in London in July 2022 and began filming in August, taking in locations including Kew Gardens, Alexandra Palace, Highclere Castle and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, as well as the historic Lamb & Flag and Jack Horner pubs. London’s favorite Indian restaurant, Dishoom, also makes an appearance. “Restaurant Wars” took place in a real restaurant for the first time, at the three-star Michelin Core by Clare Smyth.
“Everyone who competes started either as a winner or as a runner-up [and] Most of these people have their own restaurants,” says Lakshmi. “It was more interesting to focus on their food. Additionally, we wanted to shoot with Clare in her restaurant. It has a beautiful kitchen.”
The episodes highlight British cuisine, albeit perhaps in an unexpected way. There’s a whole challenge focused on rice, another where chefs recreate pub food, and another focused on Indian dishes. And, of course, there was the Wellington challenge, where teams of chefs cooked a fish Wellington, a meat Wellington and a dessert Wellington.
“Whether it’s Kentucky or London or Charleston, we always try to incorporate as much of the local cuisine as possible from where we’re shooting,” says Lakshmi. “It really guides our hand when we think about challenges. And people don’t realize how local food is. We use it as inspiration. “One of the keys to ‘Top Chef’ is that we respect the city we’re going to and we’re really curious about the food, the chefs and the people there.”
The two-episode finale, with guest judge Hélène Darroze, was filmed in Paris. The judges hope to continue the show’s international streak in future seasons.
“It’s going to be hard to come back,” Simmons says. “I don’t know what we’ll be allowed to do, but I’m ready to get on the rocket ship and move to the next international location. I’m sure if we go back to the States, we’ll take what we’ve learned and carry on — that’s the great thing about our show. We never rested on our laurels.”
Changing location each season has been a key aspect of the show’s longevity and momentum, Simmons says.
“We’ve really made sure that every season is so special [and] that you want to come back,” he says. “There is no repetition. A lot of how we structure the show depends on our location each season, and we’ve traveled all over the world.”
By showcasing international chefs, Lakshmi believes “Top Chef: World All-Stars” is an opportunity to broaden the horizons of its U.S. viewers.
“It’s good for Americans to experience another country and its traditions,” he says. “It encompasses your knowledge and your power. And that’s especially true of cooking at this level.”