" returns (Wed. Nov. 2 at 10 p.m.), and this season promises to be bigger than ever -- literally. Boasting a record 29 chefs (though all but 16 will be eliminated in the first episode), the show will travel across the entire state of Texas, touching down in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio for challenges. To further spice things up, this supersized "Top Chef" will be tossing in a new webisode feature, which will allow eliminated chefs to seek redemption. In a phone conference call, host Padma Lakshmi
and head judge Tom Colicchio
discussed the changes to the show and revealed the answer to a truly mystifying secret -- how they stay in (reasonably good) shape.
Though the mass elimination kicking off the show may be unsettling to fans, Lakshmi and Colicchio think this change is an improvement on past seasons. "The idea is that you have to cook yourself into the competition," says Colicchip. "Which is great, because in the past you'd get these great resumes but you'd sometimes get a clunker. And there were people we were led to believe would be great cooks on paper, and they really weren't. This makes a lot of sense."
"You'll see exactly what Tom's talking about, especially with one chef in particular," Lakshmi added. "He was very experienced, very articulate... I don't want to give anything away, but it's very interesting. And this elimination adds a layer of excitement to the show."
Adding another layer are the new webisodes, a feature that came as a surprise to the contestants. "They were kept completely in the dark. They didn't know a thing," says Colicchio. "I thought it was a great idea. What it really does is it addresses those people who the viewer thinks got a raw deal, that were great chefs but made one mistake and were bumped. We judge on the dish in front of us. You can win five challenges in a row, but if you have a bad dish, you're gone. This gives that one person an opportunity to get back in [to the game]."
As to what we might expect from the contestants, Lakshmi said, "I think each season has a different collection of characters that make up a collective personality. These guys are very passionate like seasons past, but they also have something personal to prove to themselves and to the viewers at home."
Whatever they have to prove, Colicchio said we can still expect good food. "On a straight cooking level, the talent's as good as any season. I think it's going to match up really well with past seasons."
Fans of the show have been hoping to see a match up similar to the Voltaggio brothers from season six, which seemed possible once word leaked that two chefs from Chicago's Moto restaurant had made the cut for the show. But Colicchio plays down the comparison. "They were both very different, very different skill levels," says Colicchio. "So nothing really happened. I think [casting] decided to cast two people from one restaurant to see if something would happen. But it came up when we first met them, and that was it."
Colicchio and Lakshmi had nothing but praise for the non-pro judges who appear this season (Colicchio calls Charlize Theron is a "serious foodie who knows how to cook"), though they didn't give much away about PeeWee Herman's visit to the show. Colicchio would neither confirm or deny that tequila was involved, saying only, "We had everything there was to offer."
As for gaining weight during the season, Lakshmi noted that both she and Colicchio box, while she always carries a jump rope in her luggage. "You can always find an emergency stairwell in any hotel to climb stairs," she added. "This season I was exceptionally thin and didn't gain as much weight for other reasons, but I usually go up dress sizes. Tom is used to tasting, but I'm kind of like the puppy at the table. It's taken me a few seasons to learn how to take smaller bites. I work out and eat really healthfully after work. But what takes me six weeks to gain unfortunately takes me 10 to 12 weeks to lose."
One thing doesn't tempt either star is the catering on the set. "It's the same as every other set I've ever been on," Colicchio sniffed.
"Though that doesn't mean we don't graze with great relish on M&Ms and candy and chips," Lakshmi said, laughing.