Wednesday, October 10, 2007

At the Bottom, on Top Chef

One of my favorite shows over the last month has been Bravo's Top Chef. I've watched every season so far (this is season 3), and this one has been, in my humble opinion, the best so far. So naturally, when my friend Jeff told me that his studio would be filming the finale in Chicago, I freaked out just a little bit. My friend Ann (also Jeff's wife) said, "Why don't you let Gina come be a PA, or work craft services or something? Then she could see the taping of the show." I said yes, yes Jeff, yes I think that would be a really really splendid idea. He told me he would email me about it, and (because he's a great guy like that) he actually did. I said I worked Monday and Tuesday, but luckily it worked out that I could come work Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday at craft services. And so I did.

At first, just being in a studio was pretty exciting for me. And then, just seeing "Top Chef" written on stuff was even more exciting.

Top Chef Season Finale

Well before taping started, I was running up and down stairs, hauling crates and carts and boxes of stuff, getting dirty doing cleaning and dishes, setting up catered meals, and keeping service tables replenished all day, plus various stepping and fetching. It was pretty much some of the hardest work I've ever done, but I was thrilled to be there doing it. Right about the time they handed me a nametag that read, "Gina, Magical Elves/Top Chef," you could have knocked me over with a feather. There it was, MY NAME on the same tag as TOP CHEF. (And yes, it was magical. And I was an elf.)

Top Chef Season Finale

On Wednesday, everything was really getting into gear and things were ramping up. Several meals and snack tables were coordinated at once -- there was a fancy VIP reception, meals to set up for the crew, meals for the Bravo crew, and meals for people filming at the studio who had nothing to do with the finale at all.

It was a lot of pressure to be helping with the FOOD on this particular show... I pictured Anthony Bourdain arriving, and telling me "This coffee tastes like hot water with a brown crayon dipped in it!!" I would have wet myself on the spot. Luckily, I was more like the "lowest of the low," and there were some real chefs behind Top Chef.

Top Chef Season Finale

Top Chef Season Finale

Several VIP areas were ready, including the rooftop.

Top Chef Season Finale

I had my misgivings about working around showbiz types, but for the most part, everyone was pretty cool and funny. The resident staff was really spectacular. (But of course, they are all midwesterners.) They all had much more patience with special requests than I did, and did their jobs with a lot of aplomb and tact (the last bit being the part that I could not do full time).

Right about the time they set up for filming on Wednesday, I got my first celeb sighting: there she was, Padma Lakshmi herself. I nearly poured hot coffee all over myself peering around a set piece at her. She seemed like a lovely person, full of mirth and a friendly attitude every time I saw her. And I think she's even prettier in person. A girl who was with me said, "I thought she'd be taller." I thought she was one of the tallest women I'd ever seen. She was what I would call "willowy." Every time she walked around a corner, or past the kitchen, everyone would rush to the doorway and stare until she was out of sight.

Top Chef Season Finale

At first, she did some rehearsing with stand-ins.

Top Chef Season Finale

The next time I had a chance to look? There they were. All of the judges: Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and Ted Allen. Woo! I got chills watching from the catwalk. Even the appropriate music was playing. (If you watch the show, you know what I mean. It precedes them saying, "Please pack your knives and go.")

Top Chef Season Finale

I stood and waited for Ted Allen to look up at me, and he did. I waved, and he waved back. Here is a transcript of the conversation we had:

Me: Love you!
Ted: Thanks! What are you doing up there?
Me: We're spying on everyone. It's like a fishtank.
Ted: Are you hiding from your boss?
Me: You've got my number, Ted!

And I didn't pee in my pants. Not even a little bit.

Other run-ins to note: I stood and watched all the cheftestants coming in and speaking to one another, and I had a WHOLE ELEVATOR RIDE with Gail Simmons. The other PA and I just stood there looking at one another with shit-eating grins on our faces while she spoke with her assistant.

One thing more to note... I had heard rumors that Padma and Tom C. might be dating. Well, I won't remark on that, because honestly, I don't know anything about that. But you might want to take a look at how closely they sit to one another. Ve-e-ery long sofa. Ve-e-ery close together. (I'm just noticing.)

Top Chef Season Finale

I expect they are just very good friends. Cough.

I can also report that when I came in Thursday morning, the cast had all partied like the proverbial rock stars. I won't say who was reported to have knocked the most cocktails back, but their names both start with a "T." And I'll let you guess who cleaned it all up. Her name starts with a "G."

Top Chef Season Finale

But I must say, nothing ilicit, illegal, or even a single cigarette butt. So who can blame them? It was the finale, after all.

And for my finale, the wonderful lady that runs craft services let my giddy coworker and I run some special veggie and fruit trays up to the finalists, who looked very tired and in need of refreshment.

Top Chef Season Finale

When we went up, only Hung and Casey were in the waiting area. Here is a transcript of our conversation (the other PA was too timid to say anything, I think):

Me: Hello, chefs!
H & C: (trying to muster friendliness) Hello...
Me: How are you?
H & C: (Hung again struggling through what I imagine is jet-lag.) Gooood...
Me: You sound great!!
H & C: (Both laugh.)
Me: Do you guys need anything else? Besides a pizza? (the contestants had called up to the kitchen asking if we had any pizza, which I thought was funny)
H & C: (Both laugh again.)
Me: Okay then. Hey, do you guys mind if I get a picture with you? You're the whole reason I'm here today.
H & C: Are we really??
Me: Yeah! I'm really a dental hygienist!
H & C: Well, SURE!!

They were SO nice, both of them. I was prepared to stand there awkwardly, but they both immediately threw their arms over my shoulders like we were old friends, leaving me only to wish that I hadn't gotten myself so sweaty running up and down the stairs.

Top Chef Season Finale

I was grinning long afterwards. Later, I wished I had ordered them all a Lou Malnati's pizza, had it delivered and signed the card... But there just wasn't time. I can't believe how much manpower, money, food and time it takes just to do what I think turned out to be about four minutes of live air time. On Thursday, they filmed the reunion show, which airs this week. On both days, I worked the day shift and didn't stay until evening for the actual taping. I was too exhausted!

Thanks Jeff... It was a great experience, and totally worth it. (But I think I will most definitely keep my day job. I get to sit down more...)



  2. This is the most awesome thing I've heard all week.

  3. Hey Gina girl, the most awesome article and pictures I have read in ages. You are the best. I think you could do two professions. Luv - Gr. Shirley

  4. hi! found you through the home cook. that is AWESOME that you got to do this!! very exciting.

    just have to say though - tom and padme? *drool* I think SHE is sexy and I think HE is VERY sexy, so together... yeah. nice. even just the shot of them close on the couch was stupidly exhilarating to me. ;)

    thanks for sharing your experience!

  5. WOW! I love your transcripts. You managed to be totally cool! What I also love is that I have not watched Top Chef much, especially not this season so I have no idea who most of these people are, but I am still so excited! (It reminds me of when I have met "scrap celebs"---they just drove through McDonalds and nobody gave them a bit of attention but I am all trying not to fall over myself because they are SO AMAZING to me) Way to go getting a cool gig like that...I think it is so funny that you let them know you were really a dental hygenist...who just goes after whatever she wants!
    p.s. you still need to try to be the next food network star.

  6. OH MY FRIGGIN' LORD!!! This is so awesome, G!!!! I wish I was there with you! As always, you handle yourself with the grace.

    Love you!

  7. lucky you!!! love that show thought chef C was married with a kid?

  8. Gina
    Thanks for being a part of the Top Chef show, You were a big hit. Everyone at the studio wants you back. So get some comfy shoes...

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