This weekend, The New York Times hosted its ninth annual Arts & Leisure weekend, where bold-faced names like Natalie Portman and Angela Lansbury (!) chatted with Times staffers about their careers, creative processes and pop culture as a whole. Sounds pretty artsy, eh? Yes, but it was also a vault of gossip!
I attended a conversation between Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons and renowned chef Eric Ripert, who all spoke with former Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni about the show, which resumes taping in the spring once Padma delivers her baby, and what it takes to be a top chef. The best stuff to come out of this program, though, was the behind-the-scenes scoop. Here, some of the best bits:
Chocolate and chicken liver don’t mix: The worst dish Eric Ripert, who has made a total of five appearances on Top Chef, ever ate on the show was Ilan’s chocolate ganache with chicken liver on season 2. Padma added: “It had a rubbery, spring action, and we had to eat it. That’s the thing about our jobs.”
The most distasteful contestant: “Michael Midgley [from season 2] was as offensive off camera as he was on camera,” Padma said. “On his audition tape, he talked about ‘blanking chicks.’ I didn’t even want to taste the food he handled.”
The most egregious act of brown-nosing: Contestants are supposed to keep a safe distance from judges while on the show, but season five’s Stefan gave Padma the leftover roses from his challenge dish. A producer kindly came over and snatched the flowers out of Padma’s hand.
Who do the judges keep in touch with? Gail, who was quick to note that she socializes with contestants only after the finale airs, still talks to season one winner Harold and season four’s Nikki. Padma has kept in touch with Dale (season 3) and Hung (season 3 winner), but both women sang the praises of Lee Anne Wong, who went from season one cheftestant to Top Chef culinary producer until the end of season six. “She’s such a great unsung hero,” Padma said.
Kevin is as verbose as he is jolly: “Eeeeveryone loves Kevin,” Gail said. “He would start talking and kept talking [at the finale in Napa Valley]. We were transfixed. He’s so articulate and scientific.” To which Padma said: “For every two minutes of what Kevin said at judges’ table, there was a one-and-a-half hour culinary soliloquy.”
Speaking of judges’ table…: They sometimes last eight hours. When Gail recalled the season three judges’ table finale in Aspen, there was a collective groan between her and Padma; the decision-making had gone on until about 4 a.m. “If we can’t make a decision, the producers will sit us there,” Padma said. “It’s like detention.” But Eric added: “It’s really great TV because at 5 a.m. you truly say what you mean!”
There’s an unofficial fifth judge at that table: Sometimes when the judges can’t decide, the producers will look to the camera operator they call T-Bone, who shoots the still-life shots of the contestants’ dishes, which he eats afterward.
Other fun facts: Black beans give Gail “the heebie-jeebies,” and the reason Padma sounds so robotic when she describes the challenges is because she’s wearing an earpiece through which all of the legally approved info is being fed to her.
While we’re on the subject of Padma, let’s talk about how chatty the self-proclaimed “robotic” host is. Dominating most of the event, she was none too shy to interrupt Eric or Gail and when she did, she usually had something amazingly awkward to say. Here were some of my favorite lines, many of which included similes and metaphors:
“The terrible food usually happens in the first half of production. They get weeded out.”
“Too much bull—-.” (referring to Ilan’s chocolate ganache-chicken liver dish)
“[Kevin is] the garden gnome version of Martin Fisher. He’s so beautifully articulate.”
“[Hung] is like a little bumblebee, that guy.”
“[Lee Anne] is like the art director behind a Scorsese film. She’s the Oxford compendium of food.”
“[Gail] is a militant fascist about eggs…the Cruella De Vil of eggs.”
“They’ve been through, like, 15 pregnancies with Heidi [Klum].” (referring to Bravo waiting for Padma to deliver before they start taping season 7)
“I sit on my a–. I eat and I talk. I don’t have a to cook a damn thing. How awesome is that?”
Who was the most distasteful contestant in your opinion? How about the dish that could’ve rivaled Ilan’s chocolate-chicken liver?
Photo: Trae Patton/Bravo