Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio
As we all know, everything is bigger in Texas — and that includes Top Chef.
Top Chef heads to Texas for Season 9
The Emmy-winning series hits the Lone Star State for Season 9 — bigger than ever before with an unprecedented 29 cheftestants. That's not the only difference this season though. Here are five things to know before you saddle up for the premiere (Wednesday, 10/9c, Bravo):
1. Extra-large cast: Yes, this season will boast 29 cheftestants, but before you have a conniption trying to remember all the names and faces, know that they all won't be around for long. That's because the 29 are only hopefuls, and in the first two episodes, they will compete in three heats to win a spot in the 16-person cast. Producers came up with the change after the show's Emmy win last year (Season 8's All-Stars outing was already in production then), host Padma Lakshmi says. "We're coming off of an Emmy win. We're coming off people knowing and loving the show and being very familiar with the format," she told reporters on a conference call. "In a sense, the people that we have to top are ourselves and I think it's a challenge we face every day in doing the show to just make it better." Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio love the cook-off addition because it forced the chefs to put their knives where their mouths were. "There were some people we were led to believe [in their audition tapes] would've been great contestants, really strong cooks, and they weren't good at all," he says.
2. New places: Unlike past seasons and not counting the finale, the show will take place in three locations instead of one, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio — another result of trying to outdo themselves. "We hadn't been down to the South in a while. We had been to Miami several seasons ago. One thing that's great about traveling is that you really get to see local color and regional cooking. That's what this is about," Lakshmi says. "Moving cities is about making the show different and special every season. Every season, wherever we go, infuses the challenges with its own kind of flavor and influence. It was nice to be in Texas."
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3. And new faces: Joining Lakshmi, Colicchio and Gail Simmons at Judges' Table will be Emeril Lagasse and Top Chef Masters alum Hugh Acheson, who will replace Anthony Bourdain and his notorious crude and cruel mouth. Though she did not name names, Lakshmi says she thought a judge was particularly insulting to a contestant — and not about his dish — not unlike how Bourdain dissed Fabio Viviani in the Season 8 premiere. "One of our contestants said, 'Hey, if you don't like my dish, tell me, but you don't have to insult me,'" Lakshmi recalls. "I actually think our contestant was right and I supported him."
4. The defense will not rest: Speaking of Judges' Table, expect more fireworks and arguments from cheftestants, which Colicchio says he does not mind. "Aside from getting personal, they can defend all they want. If someone says, 'You don't know what you're talking about,' great! OK, that's fine, you're still going home," he says. There's nothing to take offense at. ... What Elia did last season — she personally attacked me afterwards. That I think is going too far, but even then, it was just like, 'Eh, let her do what she wants to say.' I commented on it and that was it. ... But please defend yourself. ... Just don't make it personal."
5. So big, it's online too!: In a Redemption Island-esque twist, the show will launch a concurrent web series, Last Chance Kitchen, in which eliminated chefs — who are not aware of this — will cook for the opportunity to re-enter the competition. "I thought it was a great idea," Colicchio says. "It addresses the person whom the viewers think got a raw deal or maybe they were more talented, but were kicked out too soon. I think back to Tre who was kicked out in the middle of the competition for Restaurant Wars [in Season 3]. He made a series of bad dishes, but everybody thought we should've given him a break because he had competed and done well in some of the earlier episodes. ... We judge on that dish; it's not cumulative — so if you make a bad dish — you can win five [challenges] in a row — you're gone. [Last Chance Kitchen] gives that person the opportunity to get back in."