Who does the dishes on Top Chef?
Certain questions haunt the human mind from time immemorial; for Martin Heidegger, during his philosophy course at the University of Friborg in 1935, it was the classic “Warum ist überhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts? For me, blogger who gets assignments, it’s: Who does the dishes on Excellent chef?
A crucial characteristic of dishes is that after using them, they get dirty. If you want to eat or cook with them again, you have to wash them. I learned this when I was a kid, when I did the dishes at home, and at various jobs, where I did the dishes at work. I still do the dishes now, almost every day. But on Bravo Excellent chef – a show that aired for 18 seasons, inspired franchises in at least 23 other countries and spawned eight spin-offs including Top Junior Chef, Family Style Top Chef, Where Top Chef Just Desserts – dishes appear out of nowhere, shining like stone slabs on Mount Sinai, then disappear into a 42-minute void of chopping and dabbing cloth napkins. The plates arrive, but they never leave.
This act of disappearance is particularly curious, because the competitors of Excellent chef don’t dine, like most people, in a small collection of plastic plates and cups that might say “Topeka, KS”. Pots and pans abound. For investigative purposes, I took some screenshots of a Excellent chef challenge on YouTube where applicants had to prepare food from family care packages:
The final destination of these dishes is a secret known only to documentary filmmakers from Magical Elves, the production company behind Excellent chef, presumably named for the seemingly invisible dishwashers in the series. You would think that the Magic Elves – who claims, in the first sentence of his On page, to rank among “the few unscripted production companies with women in the majority of our management” – would like to help other women succeed, and would do so by contributing to this article.
But they declined to comment on this survey on the dish; as well as about three dozen other culinary producers, field producers and associate producers; almost all of the competitors of Top Chef All Stars: Los Angeles (Karen Akunowicz, Jennifer Carroll, Stephanie Cmar, Lisa Fernandes, Gregory Gourdet, Melissa King, Jamie Lynch, Brian Malarkey, Nini Nguyen, Joe Sasto, Angelo Sosa, Bryan Voltaggio and Lee Anne Wong); and Padma Lakshmi.
Four mensches, however, agreed to give a rough and largely memory-based overview. Two of them spent years working with equipment on competitive cooking shows and landed two seasons of Excellent chef between them; the other two, chef Kevin Gillespie and People magazine‘s “The Sexiest Chef Ever! (2018)” Chef Eric Adjepong were both finalists on the show and returned for the All Star season in Los Angeles.
Culinary associate producer Jeremy Pearce, who also worked on MasterChef USA, MasterChef Junior, La Table Finale, and Hell’s Kitchen, dispelled part of the mystery of the dish. Namely, dirty dishes don’t go away: “If you ever were to see the amount of dishes that come out on these cooking shows, it would give some people nightmares. “
There seems to be some consensus on this. “It really was your worst nightmare if you were doing the dishes,” Gillespie said. Adjepong described a similar scene: “You have pots and pans and utensils flying all over the place, all these chefs running around the kitchen. The dishwashers “rush like ninjas and collect whatever is on the floor or left to chance in the ovens.” The satellite dish after the shooting, Gillespie added, looked “like an explosion that had gone off.”
The conditions were so dire that the culinary departments called the dish “Dish Wars”, mainly because the days were so long and the stacks of dishes so high – “we were going to go to war with these dishes, it was a battle. – but also because a guy chose a real fight after the production told him not to bring his chihuahua named Chico on set anymore.
In the early seasons, dishwashers were a mystery even to competitors. In Season 6, when Gillespie first competed, each chef had a black bus bin under his station for supplies he wanted to wash. The others disappeared from the scene into an area they were not allowed to enter. “When time is of the essence, you’re not really allowed to do anything in this area for the most part,” Gillespie said. “We would literally be escorted out of there, and when we came back, as if by magic, [the dishes] had just been done. Neither of us had a clue who did it or how it was taken care of.
But during Star Season, Gillespie saw how the sausage was made. He and Pearce had a direct response to this play’s central mystery, which neither Magical Elves nor the union, Industrial Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 44, would confirm: production assistants, of whom there are about three or four per episode. “When I was there we had production assistants do it,” Pearce said. Here is Gillespie:
There was basically this army of production assistants and we asked them – not only to do the dishes – but also to drive us. They were going to get us something to eat. They would do anything and everything. From what I understand, most of the time they were doing the dishes in the middle of the night. So if someone came to pick you up to take you for an interview at seven in the morning, chances are they had just finished doing the dishes. They probably started doing the dishes at midnight and then were going to take you to your meeting and end the day.
The AP hours passed so late because they couldn’t start cleaning up until filming was finished. “They leave the kitchen dirty for tasting for aesthetics and continuity,” Pearce said, “so when the cameras are rolling it’s not like they’re cutting out the kitchen and it’s amazingly clean. . ” Asking the lowest-paid people to do the most labor-intensive work late at night after the highest-paid judges have returned home? That’s the magic of TV, baby.
We don’t know why exactly Excellent chef has, on several occasions, chosen to hire personal assistants instead of dishwashers, as the Magic Elves declined to comment on anything in this article. But a possible answer came from another culinary producer, who worked on Top Chef Mexico and asked not to be named, due to the seriousness of the matter.
This man, whom I will call Wolfgang Puck, pointed out that the terms of which Excellent chef could hire changed a few years ago. Until 2017, none of the culinary teams he worked on was unionized. Culinary departments could hire anyone – often anyone who would take the job – and pay them non-union rates. At the time, Wolfgang himself worked as a production assistant.
I firmly believe in [the expression], “A closed mouth does not feed.” My goal was to join the union. I was a kindergarten assistant and talked to everyone at work about how every department was a union department except for food production.
In 2017, said Wolfgang, his culinary production team became one of the first to join IATSE, which represents most of the behind-the-scenes workers in all aspects of the entertainment industry (movies, television, theater, concerts, trade shows, major conventions where teenagers dress in costumes, etc.). Culinary workers were skilled, Wolfgang said, because they mainly did dressing and accessories. When the equipment sat on the shelf in the background, it was decor wrapping; once the contestants started cooking with it, it became an accessory.
One of the advantages of not hiring designated dishwashers is that it allows productions to bypass union wage demands. “A lot of these places only use personal assistants to do the dishes because they don’t want to hire union members,” Pearce confirmed. “It’s the new way of doing these cooking shows, from what I’ve been through.” That might not have been the show’s intention, but it seems to have been the result. This is Chef Kevin:
From what I understood, none of the people who did this sort of thing were unionists at all. From what I understood, 100% of the people doing the dishes were young people trying to get into TV production. It was like, “What job are you going to do today? Today you are going to do the dishes. I don’t think they were professionals in any capacity.
Yet some were more professional than others. Although most dishwashers have changed from season to season; a select few became regular takers, like this guy Pearce knew, also named Kevin:
I used to – what’s the word – incestuously steal dishwashers from different shows I worked on and bring them to my other shows. One of the best people I ever had, this guy was called Kevin, and I met him on Hell’s Kitchen. The man would report to work in a three-piece suit. He was one of the hardest workers I have ever met. I went up to him once and I was like, “Kevin, man, have you ever wanted to do anything other than wash the dishes?” He handed me a card – this guy actually had a card – I put it Chef. He rose through the ranks and is now doing very well.