After 10 seasons of culinary champions and tasty triumphs, Top Chef is -- for the first time -- headed to one of America's biggest foodie cities: New Orleans!
To help ensure this crop of cheftestants truly represented the city's unique flavor, host Padma Lakshmi set out to find one local culinary wizard to compete on season 11. Hence Padma's Picks was born -- a six episode webseries that pits two chefs against one another, with the ultimate winner earning a spot in the competition.
I caught up with Padma to talk about her maiden voyage with this series, how it impacted her role on Top Chef and what you can expect from the upcoming season!
ETonline: I can't believe it took 10 seasons to actually make Padma's Picks! It's such a fantastic companion piece for Top Chef.
Padma Lakshmi: Right? I agree -- it's wonderful, and I must say, I really enjoyed making the show. It's so nice to be able to have a little more time on-camera to show people the city. It's much more of a travelogue. It reminds me of Planet Food, this little docuseries I did a couple of years ago. This is exactly the kind of programming I personally love to watch, and film. I just had the best time.
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ETonline: What was the genesis of the show?
Lakshmi: We were looking to do something else with me outside of the show because, on the show, you don't have a lot of time to see my personality because of how formatted the show is. We also wanted a vehicle for the city, and what better city to start with than New Orleans? I fell in love with the city through Padma's Picks, I was there to do the finale a few weeks ago and there is just so much wonderful talent there.
ETonline: Logistically, how long did it take to make the show?
Lakshmi: We would go to one location, I would pick up the local expert and we really shot it almost the way you see it. Then we'd meet the two combatants [laughs] at one of two locations, let them cook and pretty much tell them who won on the spot. We'd film two episodes a day, and then on the third day, we did the big battle in the kitchen.
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ETonline: You've always had a hand in eliminations, but how cool was it to now play a part in casting the show?
Lakshmi: It was so great. But I was also very nervous, there was a lot of pressure not to pick a dud [laughs]. I didn't have Tom [Colicchio] or Gail [Simmons ] to compare notes with. I felt a great responsibility to cast the right person. Not only from a culinary standpoint, but also to balance out the cast. I wanted someone great who could represent the city, but I didn't want to handicap us just to have that person. We had so much talent to choose from.
ETonline: Obviously you come to care for all the contestants, but did you find yourself particularly invested in what the Padma's Picks winner would cook?
Lakshmi: Not really. Once the show starts, everything else kind of fades away. If anything, I was like, "Please don't make me look like a dummy for picking you!" [laughs] I felt the responsibility, and wanted them to do well, but it would never handicap my objectivity in any way.
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ETonline: Looking at season 11, how does it stack up to the previous 10?
Lakshmi: It's delicious. It's absolutely delicious. I don't know if it's because the show is so popular that it attracts a certain caliber of chef, or because we got lucky in this great food town, but everyone was so inspired this year.
ETonline: It seems like chefs now equate winning Top Chef with any other industry award. How exciting is it to be considered a culinary brass ring?
Lakshmi: It makes me incredibly proud to have the respect and admiration of people in our industry. The captains of our industry love our show, and think it's a serious show. Of that I'm incredibly proud. If we weren't a good show or if we didn't produce Stephanie Izard or Dale Talde or Michael Voltaggio or Carla Hall or all these people who have made amazing careers for themselves, we wouldn't be the show. The proof is in our work and the endeavors of our winners. I'm incredibly happy about that and proud of the show.
All six episodes of Padma's Picks are now available on BravoTV.com, and Top Chef premieres October 2 at 10 p.m. on Bravo.