When “Top Chef” Kentucky came to Rupp Arena to tape an episode in June, the cooking show did not know what to expect. They needed lots of people, more than any other episode, to fill the cavernous stands around the University of Kentucky Wildcat home court. Would they get enough people to make it look good?
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Oh yes, and then some. The producers needed 2,000-3,000 people in their gameday blue and white and they were somewhat surprised when 4,200 turned up and stayed for hours as the chefs cooked on the sides of the court for a lineup of judges that included host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio, Graham Elliot, Louisville chef and restaurant owner Ed Lee, and of course, UK men’s basketball Coach John Calipari. The Rupp Arena episode airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on Bravo.
What did Coach Cal think of the experience? He tweeted afterward that he had a lot of fun “and learned there’s more to food than just eating!”
Tom, no stranger to college basketball (he’s a solid North Carolina fan), said afterward the fans made the show. “I can’t imagine how loud it is in there with 24,000 people in it,” he said. “I think having the fans there, cheering ... and they’re so enthusiastic ... kind of helps the production. It really made the day.”
Graham, who is a baseball fan, almost committed the ultimate Kentucky faux pas. “I was going to wear red shoes, but everyone was like, ‘you’ll get killed! You can’t wear red!’ I didn’t know,” he said.
Graham’s been to the Kentucky Derby and loves Kentucky cuisine and bourbon and was happy with how well the competition turned out, too.
“So fun. We’ve never done something like that. We’ve done a lot of different kinds of challenges with teams but it was so fun to do it here, in a spot like this where basketball is so important,” he said.
The chefs also were clearly inspired by the setting and the challenge, which pitted them in what Padma called “a little three on three.”
But “Top Chef” swore everyone to secrecy on who cooked what, even asking fans to leave their cell phones at home (not everybody complied but many did) and it turns out that 4,000 or so people can keep a secret. Because little has leaked out about what happened during the challenge.
But we can tell you some of what we down behind the scenes:
What did the judges talk about? While they were sitting at their table in the middle of the basketball court they chatting about cooking, obviously, and basketball and how they are alike in terms of teamwork and leadership.
According to Coach Cal, he got pointers from chef Ed Lee on how to judge the dishes, which Cal found surprisingly hard.
“This is serious business, too,” Calipari said. “People’s lives are going to change from this and I’m having to sit here and say you’re good or you’re not. Ed said there are times when it’s easy to pick. ... Everything they’ve brought up is good.”
He was caught flat-footed when Padma turned to him first for reaction. The first time was the hardest, he said, zeroing in on a particular sauce (“Can you imagine me saying that?”).
Both teams brought a lot of spirit to the contest, he said. “Where you’re looking for talent, they’ve gotta have the skill but you’re also looking for a passion,” said the master recruiter.
When it came down to picking a winning side, Cal said he was glad it was unanimous. When the judges put up either a blue or a white paddle to vote for a team, “I looked to see and thought, ‘please let me be in the majority.’”
Where did they hang out when not on court? In a place that Coach Cal knows well: The UK locker room, uh, den.
In fact, that’s where they brought the media for interviews with Tom, Graham and Ed. While the judges’ families and assistants lounged on leather sofas in a kind of living room, the judges sat down to chat with us in a kitchen area.
It’s just behind one attraction that Rupp visitors don’t usually get to see: the case holding the 2012 NCAA basketball championship trophy.
How was the food? Good, but hardly a meal. After the episode wrapped, Padma made one stop in Lexington. She went to see local chef Samantha Fore, who cooks Sri Lankan/Southern fusion food for her Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites pop-up. Fore fixed the glamorous host a feast in her home.