By Spencer Ackerman
You want to be on Top Chef, don’t you? Or perhaps its pastry-related spinoff? Maybe you don’t particularly cook — it’s a lifestyle choice that some are drawn to, it’s true — but you’re an ambitious politico, and you know that your days of trying to win the Wonkette comment threads to distract from your job moving paper around the Rayburn building will make you the next pre-meltdown Jon Gosselin. If so, you should come to the Occidental Hotel tomorrow, where from 10 to 2, the Magical Elves production team — they who bring you Top Chef, Project Runway, and more — will be scouting talent. Bring an Ed Hardy shirt and a sick belt buckle, bro!
But before the casting begins, leading Elf Dan Cutforth spoke with me by phone from Los Angeles to discuss Top Chef, his other upcoming projects, and why he wants to turn D.C. into the next reality-show capitol. We may have just launched Ezra Klein’s inevitable transition into reality TV while we were at it. And to honor Ezra, I present this interview in his edited-transcript style. It all happens after the jump.
IFA: I’ve noticed that you’ve got a number of casting opportunities for both Top Chef and some of its spinoffs coming up in D.C. There’s been a lot of speculation that because of that and the general hotness of D.C. right now that Top Chef 7 is going to take place in D.C. Can you talk about that at all?
Dan: I can’t reveal where Top Chef 7 is going to be shot. But I can tell you that we definitely have been eyeing D.C. for a while and we’d love to do the show there if we could figure it out. I don’t know what season it’ll be, but we’d love to come. It’s such a great food town, and, like you said, in the public eye. We’d love to try and do D.C.
IFA: I don’t know if you’ve been here over the last couple months–
Dan: No, I haven’t, not for awhile actually. Not for a couple years.
IFA: Have you been scouting out what’s been happening with the D.C. restaurant scene?
Dan: We’ve had a bunch of discussions with Jose Andreas about a bunch of things. He’s definitely one of the people putting D.C. on the map, foodwise, at the moment. We don’t really go and scout out cities to decide whether to do Top Chef there until it gets a lot further down the road. It’s really more on reputation and press.
IFA: About the spinoff. What’s this thing, a dessert show?
Dan: In the early days of Top Chef, we had some pastry chefs who took part in the show. It wasn’t really possible for them to compete on a level paying field with chefs who make savory food. Over the years there’s been a lot of indignant cries from the pastry chef community saying, hey, when are you going to do a show for us. It’s an increasingly adventurous and creative world, I think, pastry. And it’s also very visual and will be quite a different show from Top Chef, but essentially the format will be more or less the same. I’m excited for the possibilities for the show. There are a bunch of shows out there, like Ace of Cakes, but there’s really nothing like this for pastry chefs.
IFA: One question about how Top Chef has developed over the last couple of years. It seems during the first year in particular, some of the challenges were geared to test not just someone’s cooking ability but their leadership qualities. Harold Dieterle is the classic example. That seems to have fallen away in recent seasons. Is that accurate? Has the show moved away from finding chefs who are leaders in the kitchen?
Dan: No. Shows evolve as people get to see them. In season one, no one knew what the show would look like and they were experiencing it all for the first time. I think people were maybe not as savvy at playing the game. People have learned now that if you’re in a team challenge, you have to produce something of your own that you can stand behind. As a result, even if we really push a leadership role on people, they tend to ensure that everyone in the group does their own thing. But I’ll point to a couple of things from this season. The Air Force base challenge, for instance. The chefs decided to make Jennifer, who had immunity, the chef for the day, and they all cooked dishes and she organized them. That was an amazing display of leadership. Restaurant Wars is always an episode where that comes out and people have to take a leadership role. They’re smart now about how willing they are to be identified as the leader, because they know if it goes wrong, they’re going to be in trouble. So I think people are a bit more savvy about how they play the game. But the word ‘chef’ means ‘chief,’ and part of it is about leadership. If you watch an entire [season] you get a sense of who the real leaders are.
IFA: The show’s taken some criticism for the product placement. You’ve started to see a lot of sponsored challenges. Has there ever been one — I’m thinking of the Quaker Oats one — where you thought it didn’t actually work or it was a mistake? Or is it a necessary evil?
Dan: We do work really hard to make the integrations — they are what they are. They’re just part of life for us. If you look at any other show that has integration, like The Biggest Loser, I think our integrations stand a comparison with just about any show on air with feeling organic and feeling as seamless as possible. There have definitely been challenges over the years that I was not that excited about, creatively.
IFA: Can you say which ones?
Dan: You know, I don’t know that it serves any purpose for me to do that. The way I look at it, is this a challenge that we would have done anyway, regardless of whether it was an integration. I’ll give you an example, the first one that pops into my head. From season one, I always wanted to do a challenge about frozen food, because so many people eat frozen food. I think it’s relatable but also an interesting challenge of a chef’s skill. In season three, Bertoli came to us and wanted to do a frozen food challenge. Rocco DiSpirito had a deal with Bertoli, and he came in as a guest judge. I thought it was a great challenge. That’s what we aim for on the show. But as much as people may dislike integration challenges, they are always a real test of a chef’s skill. I think people respond to the product shots and I can understand that. But at the same time, it’s those integrations that make the show possible. Among other things, that’s what makes it possible for us to go to a different city every season and to go to locations that we’re able to go to and light them and make them look great. That’s maybe a spoonful of medicine you take in every episode, but I feel like the healthful effects of that are felt in every episode.
IFA: Speaking of moving from city to city, let’s wrap up on a D.C. question. You’re seeking out a show about life in D.C.? What’s that about?
Dan: Obviously, D.C. is very much in the spotlight in the Obama era. And it feels like an exciting time, even now after the honeymoon is over, that it’s an exciting place to be, where history is being made. A lot of young people are very attracted by that. D.C. is such an interesting town in the sense that it’s an industry town and its industry is politics. I’m really interested in the people that are drawn to that world, and how they get their footholds on the lower reaches of that kind of mountain of politics, in whatever field they choose to be in. The idea of the show itself is to follow around a group of people of all backgrounds, across the political spectrum, who are in Washington D.C. and are building lives for themselves.
IFA: Are you familiar with a young journalist named Ezra Klein?
Dan: Um, I don’t know that I am.
IFA: He’s at the Washington Post. I think he’d be perfect for this.
Dan: Really? That’s a great tip. Thank you. Ezra Klein?
IFA: Ezra Klein. You can find him at the Washington Post.
Dan: How old is Ezra?
IFA: He’s 25, if I’m not mistaken. Stratospheric ascent.
Dan: Really? Thank you.
IFA: Very photogenic. He’s a big Top Chef fan, as well.
Dan: Oh, really? Well, we’ll reach out to him. Thanks for the tip.