Top Chef has been on the air since 2005, and it still stands the test of time. In this season, the series brought back some amazing chefs to compete in Top Chef: All Stars L.A. (I will not spoil who won) In the midst of COVID-19, this show became a great comfort, watching people cook and celebrate the food of Los Angeles.
Whether it’s viewers yelling at the television during Restaurant Wars or a stove turned off by accident, the show never goes too deep on the drama. That is the brilliance that is Top Chef. Top Chef celebrates the contestants and supports their journey as they bring their culinary skills to the table and evolve as professionals. The show tackles so many beautiful moments that honor the chef, the food, and culture, and this is what makes Top Chef one of the best reality competition programs of all time.
I had the chance to speak with Executive Producer Doneen Arquines, who has been with the show since 2005. We talked about this season, and how they were able to highlight the fantastic chefs and the food of Los Angeles and Italy.
Awards Daily: This season of Top Chef focused on some fantastic all stars. What was your process in creating the cast?
Doneen Arquines: I think if you look at the cast, we look at everyone from season to season. We had contestants from season one and the most recent seasons. We had chef’s with different viewpoints. We also wanted to bring in a diverse style of cooking. We wanted to have people that viewers would be excited to watch. We wanted to bring back an array of contestants who finished. In different spots too, some who made it to the finals, and some who left maybe a little too early, and have them come back for a second or third chance with new drive and energy.
The beauty of this season was the viewers get to experience chefs coming back performing at their best. They know these contestants, and look forward to what they will bring to the table.
AD: You have been with the show from the beginning, in fact you were with the show in 2005 as PA and you are now an executive producer. How have you worked to create your impact with the series?
DA: It’s interesting, I think it’s more carrying through the stuff I appreciated about the show. I have always been proud of the show. As a company Magical Elves has been very hands off with production. There are a lot of shows that are very heavy handed. It’s very much in the hands of the chefs, judges and the challenges. I wanted to keep the integrity of the show, and I think that shows in the quality and continued fan base of the series
The more I got to learn about the culinary world, the more I was able to bring a different flair or challenge to the show. This helped pick city destinations for the show, and allowed me to understand new trends in the culinary world too.
With the challenges I am always wanting to bring in fun and new ideas for the chefs. Even if it’s a T-Mobile challenge, with their family, where they have to describe a meal over the phone and have their family member make it. This was a fun new challenge this past season that allowed you to see a window into who the chef was, learn more about their family, and see how this influences their food.
AD: The show has been on for a long time, and you started to talk about the challenges. How do you keep the show fresh outside every season?
DA: I think we are lucky in that we are traveling. The cities in the show are a character, and that helps tweak things every year. I think you saw it in the finale, with Italy playing a huge role in the food, and with the settings. We could be doing the same challenge but the city changes things up. The city becomes a character in the series. We get to see new food trends, and the way the culture of the city can be used in crafting challenges, and allowing for chefs to fuse their own style with new and different cuisine.
AD: I love the way you craft some of the challenges. My favorite challenge from this season was “The Jonathan Gold Standard.” How do you determine the challenges, and were there any challenges that stood out to you this season?
DA: I definitely think that when we settled on the show’s setting in LA that made it easy for us. It seemed only natural for us to honor him (Jonathan Gold). The last time we did LA we did a pop up restaurant. All the chefs had different neighborhoods. In this challenge we got to see the chefs experience a large number of restaurants, and experience all the different great food options in Los Angeles, although we wanted to go to so many other places, it was just logistically impossible.
I think one of the big reasons this challenge resonated with people was because of quarantine. This challenge celebrated a lot of smaller, family owned restaurants. It allowed us to showcase what Jonathan Gold attempted to do with his book, make sure that great food in Los Angeles got the recognition it deserved. I think and hope this challenge got people excited to celebrate and contribute to supporting family owned restaurants
I think the other aspect of this challenge that resonated with people is that it showed the diversity of the food scene in Los Angeles, there are many neighborhoods, and cultures represented in the food in the city, and this experience was truly special.
AD: Judging is so crucial to a reality competition program, and you have three of the best (regularly) in Padma, Tom, and Gail. How have you maintained this magic with them over the years?
DA: I think it’s interesting, especially with the main judges. The first judges table at the beach felt like a finale table, this was something that Tom and Padma noted. With our guest judges we always want to make sure we bring in people who line up with the challenge or that are known in the industry as experts. It’s hard to be judged period, and if you are being judged by your peers or someone who does not make sense then it does not work for the show or the challenge. We wanted to make sure that contestants felt they were excited to cook for.
AD: I noticed that you have been bringing in more previous winners to judge. Do you see yourself bringing in more back as regular judges?
DA: I think it’s a possibility. I think the chefs connect with them since they know they can empathize with what the chefs are going for. It works and makes sense. They also provide them with a sense of comfort. They also have a perspective of what went wrong, if something did go wrong.
AD: What are the main takeaways you hope for your viewers with Top Chef?
DA: I hope they really enjoy the series. What I appreciate about the show, and appreciate from the last five seasons is the comradery, and teamwork. I appreciate that the chefs are not tearing each other down. Brian said it best in the finale, he wants to compete against the best doing their best in the finale.
AD: I love the comradery that I see on Top Chef, and think it makes the show stand out as a fantastic reality competition program. It’s fun to watch these folks bond and celebrate each other in a meaningful way. Thank you!