‘Top Chef: Portland’: The Extreme Lengths Bravo Had to Go Through to Film Season 18

Despite a year of unusual challenges plaguing production, season 18 of Top Chef will be premiering soon on Bravo. Officially titled Top Chef: Portland, the show had to go to extreme lengths to film amid everything from the pandemic to wildfires to protests.

"Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio and judge Gail Simmons attends Bravo's "Top Chef" event "Taste of the Five Boroughs" at Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal on October 27, 2008
‘Top Chef’ host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio, and judge Gail Simmons | Amy Sussman/Getty Images

‘Top Chef: Portland’ producers were committed to filming in Oregon

When the coronavirus first hit the United States in the spring of 2020, filming a show like Top Chef seemed nearly impossible. Dealing with food was difficult enough in the pandemic. But complex elements like a huge crew and fast-paced action in each episode made season 18 even more of a challenge.

However, the obstacles didn’t end there. The civil unrest in the city in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s death was massive.  But the executive producers and the production company Magical Elves were determined to showcase Portland as “a world-class culinary destination.” What they didn’t expect were the wildfires, but they still made it work.

“Once we were committed, we all felt very strongly that Portland was such a perfect backdrop,” Bravo executive Matt Reichman told Variety. “We want to try and reframe the conversation about Portland, and bring it back to the amazing, special place it is, while also honoring what’s happening there.”

Bravo tailored COVID safety rules for each network show

Figuring out the logistics of filming Top Chef in a pandemic was the first challenge for producers. Host Padma Lakshmi explained that everyone was anxious to get back to work. But, they also wanted to make sure they could keep everyone safe while not “diminishing the quality of the show” that their audience is used to.

Just like the entire TV industry, Bravo developed COVID protocols for PPE and testing. They also tailored safety rules for specific shows. Since Top Chef was an unscripted show with a large crew of about 150 people, Bravo and show producers broke up the departments into separate zones that would work at different times.

RELATED: ‘Top Chef: Portland’: Meet the Season 18 Cheftestants

Lakshmi and judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons did not share plates at all this season like they did in the past. And during the Quickfires, Lakshmi no longer walks around the room to visit the stations of each Cheftestant.

Other changes this season include the Top Chef judges table being changed to a massive U-shape to keep them six feet apart. Sanitary protocols also went to the next level with tasting spoons discarded after each use. The Cheftestants also have their own spice containers instead of sharing.

“They’re definitely working cleaner and washing hands a lot more,” showrunner Doneen Arquines said. “We just have to make the time to do those things.”

‘Top Chef: Portland’ changed the ‘Restaurant Wars’ elimination challenge

During production, everyone was subjected to COVID testing every other day, no matter if they were filming or not. The contestants and crew lived in a production bubble at a Portland hotel with no other guests. The judges stayed at local Airbnb’s. The show also brought in famous alumni to help the judges out and give feedback.

As for the Top Chef challenges, fans will still see the Cheftestants feeding a lot of people. There will be a drive-in movie theater challenge, as well as one where they feed hundreds of frontline workers by making multiple deliveries to local hospitals.

The Top Chef fan-favorite elimination challenge “Restaurant Wars” to mark the midway point of the season also got a COVID makeover. Instead of two teams creating a pop-up restaurant from scratch, there will be a chef’s table war. This will feature the two teams serving the judges a tasting menu in the kitchen itself.

“They’re watching them the entire service, seven-course meal — very high end,” Arquines said.

Reichman added that they liked this idea because it felt “very chef-y” and “very high stakes.” He explained that they wanted to honor what restaurants around the world are doing right now, and that’s where they found their inspiration.

Top Chef: Portland premieres Thursday, April 1 on Bravo.