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'Top Chef D.C.': Behind the scenes

In tonight's premiere of "Top Chef D.C.," host Padma Lakshmi explains the elimination challenge assignment to the cheftestants: Represent where they're from, while "cooking for 300 young, successful Washingtonians at the kickoff party for the annual cherry blossom festival."

When the chefs, having arrived at the location in their Toyota Siennas, no doubt, start wheeling their food into the room, one beams that the room is decorated "so beautifully."

I can tell you for sure that the room was beautifully decorated ... by Bravo. This party was not affiliated with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which had had its opening ceremonies almost two weeks earlier. It was by, and for, "Top Chef D.C."

So much for reality, right?

I'm sure about this because I was at this so-called cocktail party only because Bravo and production company Magical Elves allowed me to be -- certainly not because I'm a "young, successful Washingtonian." I and everyone else there agreed, signing VERY pricey contracts, not to write (or Tweet or Facebook) about it until the show aired.

Well, it aired. So here I go. Maybe you'll find it entertaining to know how everything looked from the other side of the cameras.

First, the waiting. Hundreds of us young, successful types – many of us having gotten the memo to wear something pink, but many of us (myself included) not – wait for more than a half-hour on the steps of Mellon Auditorium on a truly sweltering April day. I’m hanging out with Kate Nerenberg and Ann Limpert of Washingtonian, Erin Hartigan of Tasting Table and Amanda McClements of Metrocurean.

We see an over-gelled man in pink pants, blue jacket and matching pink pocket square; more than one pair of Nantucket red pants, and women in all manner of heels – including a two-toned-haired woman (the J-Woww effect?) in a magenta dress with shiny patent-leather magenta platform heels.

Black-clad, clipboard-carrying assistants rush around the steps asking people to make sure they sign their contracts. We use our contracts as fans and still get good and sweaty (will it be a lovely TV glow, or flopsweat?) before being herded inside.

Inside, in the entranceway, we wait for almost another hour – thankfully there were people passing around juice-box-size containers of water – before one of the producers calls us to attention. Some of the ground rules: To “protect the integrity of the competition of the show,” no photos, no cellphone, no cellphone photos. “On TV, we don’t have cellphones or cameras on set.” Cellphones even if set to silent interferes with audio, she says. Who knew?

“When we open the doors, just walk in normally and disperse. We don’t want to rush the chefs.”

She encourages us to ask them questions (“This is their day”) and says there will be seven cameras on the floor. She also says, “All of you no doubt are familiar with our judges, Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi” – this prompts some whistles and catcalls -- “but we respectfully ask you to act nonchalant around them. We don’t want it to look on camera like people are ogling our judges.”

In other words: Please don’t pet the Padma.

Another producer tells us this is a party to kick off the cherry blossom festival. Yeah, I don't think so.

“Try to keep your conversations about the food and what you like and didn’t like about it,” he says. The camera may catch such conversations, or the producers may pull you aside for specific interviews about the food. He emphasizes the confidentiality: Don’t tell anyone where you were, who you saw, what you ate. “When you go in,” he says, “mingle.”

We get arranged into lines, and are allowed to walk in in groups. I’m among the first, with Kate.

The cheftestants are working away. I don’t see anyone I recognize, but Kate points out Tamesha from the Oval Room. I don't recognize the other local contestant, Timothy.

Kate and I gravitate toward one station, and the food ends up being our favorite. Angelo has made arctic char over chile tapioca, and it’s fantastic: clean, spicy, really vibrant flavors. It doesn't hurt that he's easy on the eyes.

The cheftestants have to represent the food of their home state, or some “constituency” they want to represent: Stephen does this steak coated in potato chips over celeriac puree, with swirl of beet puree in a circle around (like a buckeye, he says, the "o" in "Ohio.") Hmm. But actually I think the steak is great. Then again, I've never been above breading and frying steak. On the other hand, the beet sauce is out of place, and the circle is, well, just silly.

Our other favorite is the deconstructed borscht by Alex. Short rib, beets: deconstructed but still all there, if that makes any sense. Really like it.

We don't get to taste several of the other dishes; they're out by the time we come around -- but our own personal losers are obvious.

Jacqueline's chicken liver mousseline (duo) in Granny Smith apple cups, one with marinated dried cherry, the other with pineapple confit, is truly disgusting. One mousse is super-grainy, and neither goes with the apple, which is also a little slimy to pick up. Actually after one bite I start to think this might make me sick. And I never feel like I'm going to be sick.

The other loser, in my mind at the time, anyway: Amanda, who’s taking an interminably long time to make her fish dish. She smears clementine reduction on a plate, then dusts with sencha powder, then blows the extra powder off, which is off-putting, then puts this fish, which just looks a mess – it’s coming apart -- then pickled cucumber slice, then extra clementine/olive oil vinaigrette. It’s taking her forever to plate. We wait once, but then have to leave because the judges are coming around. ("Excuse me everyone, we have to clear this station," the producers tell us.)

We come back later to try it, and I make a shameless bid to get on camera by waiting until she does the blowing thing again and then practically yelling out, "But is that sanitary?” She says, “I don’t know, I’m not sick. I’m just showing you guys the behind the scenes that you don’t usually see.”

It doesn’t work. The cameras seem to turn the other direction wherever we go. Are we not hip-looking enough? Is it because we didn’t get the wear-pink memo? I find myself sucking in my gut and wondering why I didn’t wear black.

We try to talk loudly (and smartly, and quotably, and telegenically) about the food around other camera people several times.

Watching a preview tape of the first episode, I try to concentrate on the cheftestants, and what they're making, but frankly I'm too occupied by one consuming question: Will I be on camera?

It appears not. I see nothing. Cutting-room floor.

I see Erin, and I see Amanda (who could resist that face?). I see no me, no Kate, no Ann. But then my friend Carol Blymire sends me a text message, with one simple line: "Is this you?" And a screen grab that clearly -- well, maybe not so clearly, or she wouldn't have phrased it as a question -- shows me, with Kate next to me. We're just walking in, not eating, certainly not saying anything, interesting or not. I guess I blinked.

More than the fact that the entire party was manufactured by Bravo, I'm realizing that the biggest threat to the so-called reality of "Top Chef D.C." and other such shows is the supposedly off-the-cuff reactions by people in the "crowd," when, really, everyone just waits to say something they think will be of interest to the producers, and only when the cameras are nearby.

And ... scene.

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  |  June 16, 2010; 11:00 PM ET
Categories:  Television  | Tags: Joe Yonan, Top Chef, television  
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