Seated around a table at a lavish estate in the Bahamas, the Top Chef All-Stars judges are ready for their "last supper." The only ingredient that's missing? "I need a pillow to sit on," says Tom Colicchio, prompting guest judge Wolfgang Puck to request one as well. "Hey, Wolf, just sit on your wallet," quips Colicchio. "You'll be fine."
The judges crack up, but it's no laughing matter for the remaining cheftestants: The winner's billfold will be fattened with $200,000, the show's biggest prize ever. This week's elimination challenge is inspired by the book My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals by Melanie Dunea, who joins Colicchio, Puck, host Padma Lakshmi and judges Gail Simmons, Masaharu Morimoto and Michelle Bernstein for the feast.
In the kitchen, the heat is most definitely on. "Winning this means everything to me," one contestant confesses. "I'll cry either way — but I hope it's because I'm happy."
At least everybody was psyched to escape New York City's brutal winter for a week of filming in and around Nassau's luxurious Atlantis resort and casino. "Usually our location doesn't matter because we're so immersed in what we're doing, but I don't think that was the case this time," says Lakshmi. "I hope all the sunshine we enjoyed radiates through the TV screen."
The producers hope the tropical setting will warm up Bravo's numbers. "Padma in a bikini is going to spike the ratings," predicts exec producer Dan Cutforth of a scene that brings new meaning to "Quickfire reveal." Lakshmi, who hit the beach with baby Krishna on her downtime, shrugs it off: "I wear bikinis all the time. Just not on TV."
The locale did present its own challenges. "The Bahamas is not known for having the best food in the world," says Colicchio. "Everything has to be shipped in, so that was a bit of an issue." But the show turned it into an advantage, says Lakshmi. "The fact that Bahamian culture doesn't have its own cuisine leaves the field wide open. The contestants can't study up, like they did [last year] with Asian cuisine in Singapore."
Still, the contenders prepped during the three-month break between filming in NYC and the Bahamas. "Mike Isabella trained like it was the fight of his life," says exec producer Jane Lipsitz of the Jersey brawler. Explains Cutforth, "Mike worked his heart out learning different types of cooking. He approached it with an almost monastic devotion."
The strength of Isabella, who didn't make the cut for Season 6's finale, has been just one of All-Stars' many shocks. "I thought Jen Carroll and Tiffani Faison would've made it further," admits Colicchio of two early exiters. "And I'm really surprised Tiffany Derry and Carla Hall made it as far as they have." Adds Simmons, "We thought Marcel Vigneron's food would annoy us quicker than it did."
Even more surprises will be served up tonight: The episode — the penultimate of this season — dispenses with the traditional "judges' table" and forces the diners to pick a winner on the spot. "After eight seasons, it's hard to keep people on their toes," Cutforth says. "We wanted to shake them up." And there's another twist after that one. Hints Lakshmi, "It's a very small challenge with a very big reward."
But the biggest mystery may be how the show will top this drama-packed season. "I have no clue," says Lakshmi. "I'm really worried about that." Fear not, reassures Cutforth: "Let's just say we have some big plans for next season."
Alas, one of them does not involve Colicchio sporting a Speedo. Chuckles the head judge, "No bathing-suit work for me."
Top Chef All-Stars airs Wednesday at 10/9c on Bravo.