Thursday, December 11, 2014

That Time I Was on Top Chef

When I first heard that Top Chef was coming to film in Boston, I had an instant flash forward vision of Tom Colicchio and I becoming the very best of friends. In my dreams, we hold hands and skip down the aisles of the local Whole Foods and comment on the contestants' dishes using terms like: 'needs more acid' and 'not well balanced'. We'd roll our eyes at each other every time a contestant failed to season their dish properly and then laugh maliciously when we heard that someone was attempting to make risotto. Oh the fun Tom Colicchio and I would have!

Naturally, my dreams were downsized a bit when I realized that any and ALL clues about the show, where it was being filmed, where the chefs were living etc., were held under the strictest of secrets. 'OK' I thought. "So we probably won't find the Whole Foods... BUT there must be a way to get to go to one of the tastings." My dreams were further dashed after a quick Google search for "How do you get to go to a Top Chef tasting" resulted in people admonishing the show and its events as being strictly for friends of friends, VIP restaurant types and the like. The chances of so called 'randos' getting a chance to appear on the show were slim to none.

My daydreams of a possible Tom Colicchio friendship slowly drifted away......


One magical morning in early June, the Top Chef judges Tom, Gail and Padma all simultaneously tweeted out the words every Top Chef fan from Boston wanted to hear: 'Top Chef Boston Fans now is your chance!' They instructed us 'super fans' to send an email to some address yadda yadda...I lost consciousness at this moment and only vaguely recall what happened next.

Deep down I knew I didn't have a chance. My current track record of things I'd hope to win and didn't was holding strong at 1 to 1,005. Yes, that's right. When I was 12 I won a t-shirt at the Jump Rope Jamboree. Who can top that? Throwing the past to the wind, I thought---who cares about odds when you have a chance to be Tom Colicchio's friend!? I immediately typed up my entry form and emailed it feeling vague echoes of all those jobs I applied to after I graduated college. Yet, something felt different this time. I said a small prayer to the reality show Gods and attached a Meme I had once made of Tom that I used in a post on my horror blog.

At approximately 4PM, I received an email back from the Top Chef email asking for my phone number. I texted my sister and friend who had also applied to see if they had received a similar email. They did not. Could this be? ME?! I rapidly typed back my phone number and hit send. Immediately an auto-response came back: "Thank you for your interest in being a diner for Top Chef! We love all our Super Fans but unfortunately due to an overwhelming response; we are at capacity for this event." aka DREAM ON SUCKER. I was crushed. Why would they ask for my phone number and then slam the door in my face? I kept my phone close by all day waiting for it to ring but it didn't.

Later that night while watching TV and eating dinner I felt sad and mopey. My sister asked if I was upset that I didn't get on Top Chef. The answer was obvious. Sad? No. I was DISTRAUGHT. Yes, I knew there was a slim chance but I just FELT like this was it. I left in a huff to go retrieve my phone from my room where it was charging. Reluctantly I checked my email and then cried out in shock when I saw another email from Top Chef with the words: 'Top Chef Invitation' as the subject. I stared wide-eyed at my sister not willing to believe it just yet. I opened the attachment and got an invitation requesting my presence and instructing me to uphold the dress code of: "Upscale Casual Chic". I was also to fill out a confidentiality agreement and let them know if my sister would be attending as well. Say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? This was really happening? This wasn't my brain making an alternate reality while my real self continue to mope and cry on the couch?

My sister and I promptly jumped up and down with merriment. I filled out the contract as quickly as I could and sent it back (I think it said something about being murdered if you told anyone ANYTHING EVER, so I might be dead by the time you read this). We were then given the address where we were to appear tomorrow morning and what time. Don't worry---my other life long dream was to dress in an upscale casual chic style and then drive somewhere random at 8:45 in the morning. So naturally, I was down. My sister and I then spent an hour figuring out what the hell 'upscale casual chic' meant and also crying tears of joy. We made arrangements to borrow our friends car and then tucked ourselves in, willing the hours to go by quickly.


I woke up that morning with a nervous ball of energy lodged deep in the pit of my stomach. I dressed and put on my makeup--silently praying that whole 'the camera adds 10 pounds' thing was a vicious lie. My sister and I went to pick up our friend's car and pretended like it was totally normal to be out and about looking well groomed, wearing fancy dresses and being overtly happy. After stopping for some snacks at Stop & Shop and having the stupid iPhone lady lead us in a completely wrong direction we arrived at the secret location. An office park.

Odd, I thought to myself. What could the challenge possibly be? We gathered with a group of some other 'super fans' and then were shuttled in a mini-van to the actual location. Thank god I thought. Of course an office park isn't the stupid could I be? My sister and climbed in the back with some other super fans and politely talked about our excitement and who we thought might be the guest judge. I let out a sigh of relief as we took off in our mini-van of dreams. Not five seconds later, the mini van turned into another office parking lot and the driver said we had arrived.
Seriously? They just 'shuttled' us all of 30 feet to a different parking lot? What was going on?

Here we were met by a larger crowd of super fans, lining up to have their pictures taken and their hands marked with X's denoting their successful bid as a 21+ adult. We signed confidentiality agreements again, held them up next to our faces and had someone take what is probably the worst picture of me on the planet. Then we got in a giant line and walked one by one into the mysterious next room. An empty office building. Here we had all of our belongings checked and then were told to sit down in a large room with tables and various snacks. There were about 75 of us in all but we figured that if each person got to bring a guest that meant that only a total of 30 something people actually got chosen. I still can't believe this. The Boston Globe reported that over 15,000 people had sent emails how HOW did I get picked? My entry wasn't even that good. I wrote it under a spell of delirium and sandwiches. My sister and I proceeded to wonder in awe about this for the entire hour and a half that we waited.

Finally around 11 AM, a producer came out to give us the spiel. We were under no circumstances to tell anyone that we were here. As far as everyone else in the world knew---this was NOT happening. You should know at this moment that it was very difficult (and still is) to resist the urge to use cliche Fight Club references.

We were also then given safety instructions. We were told NOT to get in the blind spot of the camera men. That there would be LOTS of cameras. That we weren't to approach the judges and overwhelm them. That boom mics might suddenly come out of nowhere and listen in on all of our conversations. All of this was very exciting. The producers then let us know they'd be making two groups and leading the first group over to the site in a few minutes. We took some last minute bathroom breaks and finally got to line up. My sister and I lucked out and got on the tail end of the first group. They lined us up in a weird office hallway complete with vending machine and then we marched single file across the parking lot to our final destination...........ANOTHER parking lot!

At this point I gave up any hope of figuring out where the hell we were and why the challenge was taking place in a random office park. As we got closer to our final destination we passed several tents and trucks which made me think the challenge could be outside. But upon promptly seeing that those tents housed only bottled water and old chairs---my mind went back to the drawing board. Finally they had us line up again outside of what looked like a big warehouse. We waited patiently while a nice man with a walkie talkie waited for the signal to start letting us trickle in. We were reminded to walk in completely naturally and to most importantly---have fun.

Closer and closer we got till finally we were in the strange warehouse. We stood outside a blocked off room of some sort and continued to inch slowly to the entry point. Still confused, I wondered why we were being led past weird exposed wooden beams and slats. Finally they gave us the cue to walk on set. My sister and I looked at each other with excitement, took a deep breath and walked out..................directly into the Top Chef kitchen.

My face must have read a simultaneous expression of confusion and sheer and utter amazement. I also may have peed my pants slightly. There were 7 chefs cooking frantically. The COUNTDOWN CLOCK had 5:00 minutes to go. Cameras were everywhere. And oddly........ no one was speaking. I admit I was expecting some witty back and forth banter as time wound down but perhaps everyone was just insanely focused? Also that's what editing is for. We all kind of looked at each other with clueless expressions of  "they expect us to act naturally?" Wordlessly we drifted to the bar area where we were given tiny cups of wine. I threw mine back in one gulp you know.......take the edge off.....

Then suddenly time was up. The chefs were ready to serve us and we were ready to taste. I was about to eat the actual food served on Top Chef. The other super fans dispersed to various chefs' stations. My sister and I sidled up to the only Chef still cooking's station and stood there awkwardly. She didn't say anything to us and we glanced around at all the super fans already getting to eat the deliciousness. Finally she was finished and again silently served us our portions. I imagined the cameras were capturing the fact that she wasn't done, and that later the editors would play that weird knife slice sound of anxiety to match it. Hopefully my face has an equally anxious expression on it.

After breaking the ice with our first dish we then wandered quickly around to taste the others. By now, the 2nd group of super fans had joined us and the space was starting to feel crowded. We all kept looking around in anticipation of the judges entrance. 

I was just finishing the last bite on the final dish I needed to try, when I turned around and found Padma Lakshmi standing right in front of me. Here's what you need to know about Padma. She is so beautiful that it hurts your eyes. I'm not kidding. I really thought I had been blinded. She's also tall obviously so the whole thing is very overwhelming. Anyways, I picked my jaw up from off the ground and tried to play it cool. Tom, Gail and guest judge Richard were also there and walked past us to get to the bar. No big deal you guys.

From here on out, the judges split up into two groups and then went around to all the stations. Here the producers would ask a few of us to stand in back of them looking like we were next in line. Ohhh the magic of TV. Now you know HA I had already tried that dish.....fooled you guys!
After tasting the food and commenting on it, the judges would then turn around and be suddenly cornered by all the super fans pretending to wait in line behind them. Here was where awkward/awesome conversations began. 

My first time in a 'talking circle' involved me, my sister and some overly chatty girls AND Padma and TOM. Yes. Tom and I's moment had come at last. He smiled and shook all of our hands and we introduced ourselves to them both. I had a really hard time trying not to drool and look good on camera at the same time. Except----NO cameras were around! OK so maybe some hidden ones caught this magic moment but what gives? How could I brag about my friendship with Tom if there was no video proof? Sham. Overall I got 1 or 2 words in. I slyly told Tom that my lamb chop was insanely underdone and he nodded in agreement like, "You ain't kidding that shit was raw" and then I died a little on the inside. Soon our pow-wow was over and I melted into the floor. 

Throughout the rest of the taping, my sister and I realized that we were probably not outgoing enough to get on camera. The closest we got to victory was when my sister forgot the safety instructions relayed to us by the producers and she got in the blindspot of a camera man. She was briefly knocked out by the camera and Gail touched her arm and made sure she was OK. No, my sister has not washed that arm since (gross). Other than that, we were constantly overshadowed by all the people who DID have the balls to go up to the judges and talk to them about nothing. It was like being the quiet/shy girl on the Bachelor. We had one awkward full on interview with the camera but it got interrupted when the judges decided they were ready to start tasting things. I believe the entire interview went like this:

Producer off camera: So what do you think of the TC kitchen?
Me: It's.........*stares dreamily off into space*
Producer: What food have you tasted so far?
My sister: We had the Shrimp Dish
Me: Yeah.
Sister: It was..... weird.
Me: *Drools*

Boy, I can't wait to see that. Please god let it be burned.

So since, we were A. Not outgoing enough and B. too embarrassed to walk up to the judges and start up conversations about nothing, we decided to take matters into our own hands and make sure we were behind Gail and Richard at every tasting station. Keep a close eye for me sometimes looking at the camera by accident a la Pee Wee at the end of Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

Obviously this was our moment to shine.

We also had a special moment where we crowded around Gregory while he cut open one of the jack fruits and taught us how to get the 'flesh' out. All in all we figured we might get in maybe 2 shots. Success!!!!

The day overall was long. The judges tasting and commenting lasted for maybe 2 hours. Then they all went into the bar area to shoot the 'after tasting' scene where they all recount what they thought. During this, most of the other super fans left, but the producers had ask some of us to stay and mill around a bit. We got to explore the pantry and where they keep all the pots and pans. I put my hands on the immaculate barrel of lemons and limes they always have in the pantry. Stood in front of the towering array of spices. Cried a little when I saw the 20 spotless Kitchen-Aid mixers lined up on a shelf. One of the other super fans got a little rowdy and stole a bottle of cooking wine out of one of the fridges. We planted ourselves strategically in the background during the entire 'after tasting' shoot and maybe just maybe they'll catch a glimpse of me leering through the little windows. No one seemed to be paying any attention to us. It was exhilarating but also a little bit sad. 

Finally, they wrapped up filming and said we could go. We walked back to the original office space but were stopped midway so the judges could exit out a side door and walk ahead of us. We took off again walking some feet away from the judges. Finally as we crossed over to the mini-vans waiting to cart us back the 30 feet to where our cars were parked, we took one last look at the judges. Padma's daughter was wrapped around her and then they both turned back around and waved to us all. Magic. 

The day was over more or less. The last few remaining super fans were interviewed by the 'Digital Web' person, where I once again stood awkwardly and silently next to the more talkative superfans (including the lady who stole the bottle of wine and was now probably drunk). We then headed in to grab our checked belongings and took one last bathroom trip. A girl in there with me was venting with her friend, "How can they expect us to keep such a GOOD secret for SO long?" I thought the same. How would we ever make it to December, without telling a single soul that the best day of our life just happened? 

How indeed.


At December 11, 2014 at 3:10 PM , Blogger Carol Mom said...

Hilarious and a great read. You have to send to Tom and Top Chef!!


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