Quick! Name your top culinary destinations in the U.S.! New York? San Francisco? Chicago? If you didn’t mention somewhere in Colorado in your top three, you’re probably wondering how, or more importantly WHY, season 15 of Top Chef is set in the magnificent state of Colorado? Did the producers run out of delectable cities and now they’ve moved onto entire states?
Colorado is, in fact, the third state to host the series, after Texas in season 9 and California in season 13. Not surprisingly, the primary reason the producers select any given city or state is largely economics.
When Top Chef first hit the air waves in 2006, its San Francisco setting made perfect sense. It’s undoubtedly one of the top culinary cities in North America. And the show awakened not only critical acclaim and a burgeoning interest in the culinary arts, but also elicited a sense of competitiveness from chefs and cities alike. The season finale of Top Chef San Francisco hadn’t even aired yet when cities started clamoring to be the next in line to host this show, which has since been nominated for 27 Emmys (and won twice). The red-hot show literally had destinations competing to be the host of an upcoming season. The show developed a formula of shooting most of the episodes in one domestic location and then filming the finale episodes in an international location, so the producers were fortunate enough to wield a lot of offers from US cities and international destinations alike.
Back in 2006, I was working for a couple of destination clients, including one in particular that ticked all the boxes of the show’s must-haves – a rich culinary landscape, renowned chefs and restaurants and access to great agriculture. But meeting those elements weren’t all that was needed. The destination also needed to provide production support – and the show’s requirements were steep.
While money didn’t typically change hands between the destinations and Top Chef, the destinations were required to provide hotel rooms for the cast and crew (27 hosts and judges, plus 80 crew), airfare for all of those folks, 25 vehicles for the duration of filming, shipping costs to cover equipment being sent to/from the location, per diem for the cast/crew and a massive warehouse location where the Top Chef kitchen could be built onsite. So, it makes sense that major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, NYC and Chicago could put together compelling offers that met production’s requirements. They have plenty of hotels, warehouse space, ground transportation options and healthy tourism budgets to put a healthy proposal together. But after many seasons passed and the shiny red object of Top Chef lost its gleam thanks to the proliferation of other culinary focused shows, like Chopped, MasterChef or Chef’s Table, the producers now have to work pretty hard to get destinations to pony up. The competition for culinary shows to secure destination partners is fierce. Not only that, but audience sizes have deteriorated on broadcast and cable because so many channels and streaming platforms have created more programming options. The beauty of this new landscape is that some of these newer shows have smaller production requirements and more buzz.
In my case with my former destination client who wanted to host Top Chef Season 6, we created an insane location scout, taking up to 20 producers on location for four days of fine dining, ingredient shopping, sight-seeing and local chef introductions that would have knocked the socks off of any foodie. Sadly, the producers ultimately decided to go to Las Vegas. Without missing a beat, we secured a partnership with another culinary show, at a fraction of the investment. After the next few seasons, the Top Chef’s producers called me more frequently, hoping to secure the same deal as our previous offer, but at that point, my client had moved on.
And that brings us back to how and why Colorado. While an individual city like Denver might struggle to package 6,500 room nights, airfare and per diem for 100+ people and ground transportation for such a big endeavor, across the state of Colorado it becomes easier to pool resources; they have more pockets to pick! In season 15 of Top Chef, the cities of Telluride, Boulder, Aspen and Denver will all get some love and know you know why! They have shared the costs (and other burdens) of supporting the show. Don’t be surprised to see more states sign on as the host destination, if Top Chef gets renewed for season 16 and beyond.