Top Chef has packed its knives and moved cities once again — this time Big Easy-style to New Orleans, where the 11th season of Top Chef will be filmed. From what host and judge Padma Lakshmi says, the team let the good times roll, as is local custom:
“We’re lucky in that we’re filming in New Orleans because it’s such a rich city, so deep in history, culture, food, music, and soul. It was a pleasure to be there. No matter how much we love a city we’re in, and no matter how much we love each other, by the end of a shoot we’re usually like, Okay I want to sleep in my own bed,’ Okay I want to go home and see my friends.’ This time we were all a little sad to leave.”
Host Chef Tom Colicchio feels the same way, at least about the food:
“I love eating in New Orleans, my aversion to okra notwithstanding. When I arrive, I’m smelling beignets and po-boys and chicory coffee before I’m even off the plane. So I was psyched to learn that Season 11 was taking me from home in the Big Apple to the Big Easy, not that the natives often call it that.”
I am right there with them, or at least I wish I had been. New Orleans is one of the best food cities — and just one of the best cities, period — on the planet, and as a die-hard Top Chef viewer, I’m so excited about this weekly peek into the local food scene and NOLA-inspired challenges. Top Chef has used ten different cities as its backdrop in 11 seasons, with New York as its only repeat performer. New Orleans is quite the departure, in distance and in culinary terms, from last season’s Seattle/Juneau, Alaska destination. The show always does a great job of highlighting the very best of a region’s food sources, chefs, and urban personality, and there is an embarrassment of all of these riches in New Orleans.
In this week’s season premiere, the Top Chef challenge got right down to Louisiana business, taking the cheftestants to a swamp — a “Soiree in the Swamp,” if you will, — where they had to cook with alligator, turtle, or frog for 150 guests who arrived by pontoon boat. Guests voted for their favorite dishes with beads (naturally), but judges Emeril Lagasse, Curtis Stone, Padma, and Tom Colicchio had the final say.
The local flavor got off to a good start with Padma’s new web series, “Padma’s Picks,” a pre-season series of elimination challenges that ended with her picking two New Orleans chefs to represent on the show this season. She chose Michael Sichel of Le Galatoire, and Justin Devillier from La Petite Grocery, both of whom got immunity in the first week since they’d had to work so hard to make it on the show.
And that will be the only tiny spoiler you get from me.
Here’s a peek at the 11th season, plus a look at the celebrity and celebrity chef judges who will be dropping by the Top Chef kitchens.
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Celebrity Guest Judge Questlove 2 of 15
Questlove likes to eat well. Check out his Instagrammed trip to Toyko sushi legend Jiro's place, where my favorite quote, easily, is "Jiro coulda easily been a DJ, yo." He's a restaurateur now, as well, opening Hybrid in NYC's Chelsea Market:
"We did different events, and once the blogosphere was in our corner Stephen Starr [Philadelphia-based restaurateur behind Morimoto and Buddakan in Chelsea] approached me and said, 'Instead of you doing a food truck why don't we do this at the Chelsea Market?' It's the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me in all of New York City for food people. They come to you to open, you don't go to them. Once they offered us an opening I could not resist."
Dumplings and fried chicken? I'm there. And if I were the cheftestants, I'd bring my super A-game for a guy with high standards who just auditioned a bunch of chefs for his own place.
Image credit: YouTube
Celebrity Guest Judge Jon Favreau 3 of 15
Chef Judge Curtis Stone 4 of 15
Celebrity Chef Judge Paul Prudhomme 5 of 15
Celebrity Guest Judge Lea Michele 6 of 15
Celebrity Chef Judge John Besh 7 of 15
Chef John Besh — owner of nine restaurants in New Orleans and San Antonio, Texas — is somehow able to fit in Top Chef judging along with hosting a show called Family Table on PBS.
"It is arduous [on Top Chef] when you start and you have ten chefs in a room and you're judging and you're creating these battles and circumstances that Top Chef thrives on and so it's arduous. It's fun, but [to me] there's no feeling like just going on set and just cooking as we did for Family Table, which is so easy and natural."
Image credit: Instagram
Celebrity Chef Judge Emeril 8 of 15
Celebrity Guest Judge Anthony Mackie 9 of 15
Actor Anthony Mackie appears in the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier and has a second career as a restaurateur and bar owner, set to launch his second location of NoBar in Williamsburg this fall. His places, like this season's Top Chef, have a New Orleans vibe:
"We're going to do all Creole, Cajun, Southern cuisine. We're going to have great Ã©touffÃ©e and, literally, the best gumbo in the state of New York, hands down. We're going to have hot sausage po'boys... I hate when I go to a New Orleans-style bar, and they're like, 'Oh, we have Bloody Marys.' And I'm like, 'Do you have milk punch?' And they're like, 'What is that?' I'm like, 'You're not a New Orleans bar.' It's just as New Orleans as Sazeracs and Bloody Marys."
Image credit: Pacific Coast News
Celebrity Judge Dr. John 10 of 15
Judge/Host Gail Simmons 11 of 15
A permanent judge on Top Chef and head critic on Top Chef Masters, Gail Simmons gave rave reviews to Hansen's Snow Bliz Snowballs in New Orleans. (Here she's at In-n-Out Burger after the Emmys. She is a versatile soul.)
Image credit: Facebook
Celebrity Chef Judge Eddie Huang 12 of 15
Eddie Huang is scheduled to visit the Top Chef: New Orleans kitchen, in addition to a busy fall with the second season of his web series, "Fresh Off the Boat." This season he'll visit Mongolia, Moscow, Detroit, London, Chengdu, Shanghai and New York "to document communities and cultures undergoing rapid transformations." He owns Taiwanese restaurant Baohaus in NYC's East Village.
Image credit: Facebook
Celebrity Guest Judge Kermit Ruffins 13 of 15
Trumpet player and singer Kermit Ruffins' tune "Smokin' With Some Barbecue" would make a great Top Chef: New Orleans theme song. I think he's excited about being on the show:"Y'all see me in the previews of upcoming shows last night during the premiere of Top Chef's new season on BRAVO?...Thanks for buying CDs! Whodat! Check me out on Top Chef!!! — with Padma Lakshmi and Jason Marsalis."
Image credit: Facebook
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Celebrity Chef Judge Hugh Acheson 15 of 15
Top Chef regular celebrity chef judge Hugh Acheson owns restaurants in Athens and Atlanta, Georgia, and is a James Beard Award Winner for Best Southeastern Chef, among his many awards and honors. A former competitor on Top Chef Masters, he now appears on that show as well.
Image credit: Facebook