Updated: Monday, March 5, 2018, 5:39 AM
Aspiring contestants gathered in an Old City bistro last month to audition for Top Chef, the televised competition known for producing culinary stars and bringing hometown glory to cities and states nationwide.
Royal Boucherie, the latest restaurant by the Bravo show’s 2014 winner, Nicholas Elmi, was a natural place for producers to meet Philadelphia’s up-and-comers. But there will be no home-field advantage for any locals who may be chosen to start filming this spring: The 16th season will be set in Kentucky.
After 12 years of a show that has been filmed everywhere from Boston to Texas, when will it be Philly’s turn?
“I think everyone is kind of asking the question of why they haven’t done it here,” said Philadelphia chef and restaurateur Michael Solomonov, a guest judge on a 2017 episode. “It should be here.”
But increasingly, Top Chef locations pay to show off their culinary scenes on a national stage. The Season 16 announcement from NBCUniversal, Bravo’s parent company, touted Kentucky’s strong food identity and “agricultural bounty.” It didn’t mention that the network could walk away with $3.5 million in state incentives.
“What you’re essentially doing is purchasing airtime,” said Meryl Levitz, president of Visit Philadelphia. “It’s a wonderful thing to be recognized by a show like Top Chef. But that recognition does come at a cost.”
Representatives of the show have expressed interest in Philadelphia in recent years. And city officials acknowledged that in order to host it, Philly would have to look at how it could sweeten the deal, as other places have done.
Kentucky approved up to $3.5 million through a performance-based incentive program for film and television. The amount the network receives won’t be determined until after production is completed, said Jay T. Hall, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Film and Tourism Development.
For the most recent season, in Colorado, the state’s film office offered up to $1 million in incentives from a rebate for production costs. State and tourism officials in New Orleans paid $375,000 to sponsor the show’s 2013 season, some of which came from a recovery fund established by BP following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Texas state officials paid $400,000 to host the 2011 season. San Antonio, featured in more than half of that season’s episodes, paid $200,000 more, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Austin and Dallas did not pay, but were featured. Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission, told the Dallas Observer that the show’s request for payment was deemed too costly.
“That’s pretty much how Top Chef works,” she said. “They still wanted a lot on top of everything free.”
With breweries and distilleries, access to fresh seafood, and a booming restaurant scene populated by several Top Chef veterans, Philadelphia would seem ideal. Levitz said that, given Philadelphia’s rising profile — chefs Solomonov and Greg Vernick and restaurateur Stephen Starr won James Beard Awards in 2017, and this year’s Beard winners will be announced here — the time is right.
Since the show’s San Francisco-based 2006 premiere, Top Chef locales have also included Chicago; New York; Miami; Las Vegas; Washington; Charleston, S.C.; and Seattle. Its 2008 fifth-season debut drew a peak 2.7 million total viewers. The most recent season’s live premiere drew 880,000, a figure that grew to 2.03 million with delayed viewing.
Dan Cutforth, a Top Chef executive producer and cofounder of its production company, Magical Elves, sees Philadelphia as one of the last remaining big food towns that hasn’t been spotlighted.
“It’s definitely a place we’d love to come to,” he said.
Sylvie Gallier Howard, chief of staff for Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce, said the city had met with Top Chef representatives in the past. Specific payment was not discussed, she said, nor was it determined where any such money might come from. Howard said that the show went elsewhere due to scheduling issues, but that the city would welcome future opportunities.
Cutforth said the selection process isn’t driven by money, and noted that the show has declined to shoot in locations that have put offers on the table.
“It’s not like there’s a number we put out, like, ‘You write a check and we’ll do the show,’ ” he said. “First, we have to really want to film there.”
The Greater Philadelphia Film Office has incentives available, such as a tax exemption for long-term hotel stays. State film incentives have failed to stay competitive, however, and in recent years the area’s once-booming film industry has stalled due to budget gridlock and a New York takeover of local film unions.
Top Chef itself has faced union challenges; producers and stars said they were harassed during 2014 filming in Boston, and four Teamsters were accused — though later acquitted — of trying to extort jobs from the company. In Philadelphia, veterans of the film and television industry have at times complained of difficult behavior from union members.
Still, Philly has been well-represented on Top Chef. Season 6 breakout and Northeast native Jennifer Carroll worked under Eric Ripert at 10 Arts and is now about to open the Finch in Center City. Following his appearance on Season 14, contestant Sylva Senat opened Center City’s Maison 208. Chris Scott, a Brooklyn-based finalist in the season that concluded last week, grew up in Coatesville and previously worked in Philadelphia with Starr, Solomonov, and Kevin Sbraga, another local Top Chef winner.
“It’s a great food city with a different point of view than New York,” said Samantha Hanks, senior vice president of casting for Magical Elves.
Cutforth said the incentives started coming as more cities began marketing themselves as travel destinations, and as the show’s expansion dovetailed with a growing national interest in the culinary arts. Top Chef got more ambitious, and while it attracted more sponsors, production costs also increased.
Filming locations can offset expenses in ways that include tax breaks, finding a place to build the kitchen, or assisting with lodging. If a desirable area has nothing to offer financially, Cutforth said, people in the private sector have stepped in. In return, he said, the crew spends and hires locally when possible.
It can be hard for cities to judge how much an investment in Top Chef is worth. There’s no reliable way of measuring any economic boost, particularly in places that are already established food destinations. In Philadelphia, few believe that the restaurant scene needs publicity as much as it once did.
But chefs featured on the show often see an immediate impact. Elmi, who opened Laurel in South Philadelphia a few months before he was announced winner of his season, said that when the episode in which he won coincided with a glowing review from Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan, the 26-seat restaurant’s bookings skyrocketed so quickly that he had to cap the advance time allowed for OpenTable reservations.
One of several local chefs nominated for 2017 James Beard Awards, Elmi said Top Chef would offer a chance to showcase the flavors that have blossomed in Philly’s immigrant communities: Vietnamese in South Philadelphia, West African in West Philly, Eastern European influences in Port Richmond.
“They would get the best out of this city,” he said. “It would be tremendous to see what they would pull out of here.”
And unlike some Top Chef destinations, Levitz said, Philadelphia is well-positioned for out-of-state weekend visitors. It boasts such nonfood draws as museums and historical attractions. Top Chef viewers plan trips around food, and many have disposable income.
“They’re millennials; they’re baby boomers. There’s diversity in this group,” she said. “And for people who might only know one thing about Philadelphia, what the show is so good at doing is showing what else you’ve got.”