Padma Lakshmi On Why Top Chef Produces The Most Famous Chefs

Molecular gastronomy. Amuse bouche. Mise en place. These are terms almost any professional chef would know. But would viewers and home cooks be as familiar with these terms if not for the culinary juggernaut that is "Top Chef?" The reality cooking competition has entered its 20th season, making it one of the longest-running shows of its kind. With so many other cooking shows having come and gone, what's the recipe for its longevity? 

If anyone knows the secret ingredient, it's Padma Lakshmi. For 19 of the show's 20 seasons, Lakshmi has been along for the ride as both host and judge. She's won viewers over and broken their hearts with her signature saying that no chef wants to hear: "Please pack your knives and go." 

She's traveled the world, tasted everything from five-star dishes to chocolate-covered liver. And Lakshmi has shared the judges' table with legendary chefs including Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, and Martha Stewart.

A recipe for success

On the March 18 episode of "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," Lakshmi told the late-night host that in comparison to other reality competition shows, "no show produces genuine captains of their industry" like "Top Chef" can. She also emphasized how challenging it is to compete on the show, saying, "You have to be insane to do it." Lakshmi added that she would never compete on "Top Chef" because it's "so much harder than it looks on TV." 

Speaking to Daily Meal in 2016, Lakshmi said that "Top Chef" has achieved long-range success "not only because we are the gold standard for food TV shows, we have earned the respect of every major chef in the country and indeed the world." She's right about that; "Top Chef" currently has series franchises in 29 different countries, including India, Poland, Sweden, and Vietnam, just to name a few. Some of the international "Top Chef" winners and finalists are competing in the current season of "Top Chef All Stars," which was filmed in London.

And the barometer of talent keeps heating up. While early seasons of the show featured home cooks, personal chefs, and caterers, contestants these days are often James Beard award nominees who have served as sous chefs at some of the world's best Michelin Starred restaurants, as well as restaurant owners and executive chefs.

Top Chef is a family affair

Consistency may also be the key to earning the respect of both colleagues and viewers. Since the show's premiere in 2006, renowned chef and restauranteur Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, a cookbook author and editor at Food & Wine, have reigned supreme at the judges table each consecutive season. Padma Lakshmi told Daily Meal in 2016 that "Top Chef" is "a tight-knit family," describing the three judges' rapport as a "shorthand" that makes filming and judging go smoother. And it's not just the judges and crew who keep returning. 

Competitors on the show also tend to reappear; even those who don't win are often brought back as mentors and judges. Chef Richard Blais, for example, first competed on the show in 2010, returned to win "Top Chef All Stars" in 2011, and went on to become a judge in Season 12 of the series in 2015. Several other chef-testants like Brooke Williamson, Tiffany Derry, and Edward Lee have returned to judge individual challenges. 

It seems that once you're part of the "Top Chef" family, you're always welcomed back with open arms. That camaraderie, along with fierce, fast-paced competition and drool-worthy dishes, just might be the perfect combination of ingredients.