Stories / Interviews, Impact

Top Chef in the Time of Coronavirus

How Top Chef contestants are handling the COVID-19 crisis

JBF Editors

April 16, 2020

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In the midst of sweeping shelter-in place orders, quarantines, and restaurant/bar closures due to COVID-19, a familiar cooking competition made its return to television: Top Chef. For its second all-stars season, the series brought together 15 returning “cheftestants” to battle for the coveted title. On television, these chefs spend week after week tackling multiple challenges, but at home they are facing the harsh impact of the pandemic on their restaurants, staff, and livelihoods. In part one of this series, we checked in with some of this season’s contestants on how they are juggling the limelight while dealing with the realities of an industry in crisis.

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JBF: What is it like to be featured on Top Chef during this time?

New Genn Photography
Photo: New Genn Photography

Eric Adjepong, Pinch & Plate, Washington, D.C.: It's bittersweet. It feels great to see us run around and cook every week but in the back of my mind I know a lot of us are struggling right now.

Jennifer Carroll Photo courtesy of Bravo NBC
Photo: Bravo NBC

Jennifer Carroll, Carroll Couture Cuisine, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.: I really was conflicted about how to promote Top Chef and be positive without sounding tone deaf as to what is happening in our hospitality community. Now that we are a couple episodes in, I am trying to connect with fans over social media and help them use the show as a break from all of the news. The power of positivity and the #NeverGiveUp attitude goes a long way.

Gregory Gourdet Photo credit Nicolle Clemetson
Photo: Nicolle Clemetson

Gregory Gourdet, Departure, Portland, OR: It’s a mix of emotions, as we worked so hard on the show and we want it to be a fun distraction, but (obviously) we have some serious issues facing us today. The good part, however, is that the show has been such a great distraction from the news and the uncertainty. I hope people watch and see just how great our culinary scene is. That is all the show is about—cooking and pushing yourself in the kitchen, something we as chefs all love and miss.

Lisa Fernandes Courtesy of NBC Universal
Photo: NBC Universal

Lisa Fernandes, Sweet Chili, Brooklyn, NY: On one hand, I want to promote the show and my restaurant, but it doesn't feel like the appropriate thing to do. I do think having a platform to help the hospitality industry survive this pandemic is essential.

Brian Malarkey Courtesy of Puffer Malarkey Collective
Photo: Puffer Malarkey Collective

Brian Malarkey, Herb & Wood and Animae, San Diego: I was excited to watch this season with my staff, my friends, and my diners. So, I’d say I’m disappointed, but looking at the silver lining. I like that I’m able to at least provide some entertainment to people, allowing them to take their mind off the stress and anxiety we’re all facing right now. Plus, now we’ve got some pretty awesome text chains going, so that’s something.

Nini Nguyen Credit Ben Franke
Photo: Ben Franke

Nini Nguyen, NYC: Though it is an honor to compete alongside so many amazing, well-established chefs in a rich culinary city, I can't help but think that this season looks like a time capsule of what restaurants "used to" look like. We filmed last fall and now it feels like it was years ago.

Joe Sasto Photo credit Lilly Dong
Photo: Lilly Dong

Joe Sasto, Los Angeles: While I am happy to have had the opportunity to compete on a television cooking competition, we as an audience should be more focused and aware of what is happening in actual reality. This beautiful, diverse industry of chefs and hospitality individuals needs help now. Immediate action from the government is needed in order to save this industry and community. This is not a game—this is real.

JBF: Top Chef gives chefs a lot of social media exposure and opportunity to build your audience. How is it different from what you anticipated when you were filming?

Stephanie Cmar Photo by: Smallz & Raskind/Bravo
Photo: Smallz & Raskind/Bravo

Stephanie Cmar, Boston: I feel like social media can be used to help or hinder, and it’s really what you decide to do with it. I am trying to use my social media to show support and also be a place where people can look to me for some lighthearted content.

Kevin Gillespie Photo credit Angie Mosier
Photo: Angie Mosier

Kevin Gillespie, Gunshow, Revival, Cold Beer, Gamechanger, and Ole Reliable, Atlanta: The major difference is that if you were a chef that had a restaurant (or several like I do), a big piece of going on the show is the expectation and motivation that customers will be coming to see you. We spent around a quarter of a million dollars to make more seats and make our spaces bigger. We made a lot of hires that had to be laid off. After this is over, maybe guests will be supercharged to come back…or they will be too terrified to visit.

Lisa Fernandes: I am trying to use the exposure from the show to raise awareness for the hospitality industry as well as let people know that I am here for support. I encourage people to send me cooking questions online and send me pictures of what they have in their fridges so we can come up with a meal together!

Jamie Lynch Photo credit Justin Driscoll
Photo: Justin Driscoll

Jamie Lynch, 5 Church Restaurants and Sophia’s Lounge, Charlottesville, NC: While we were filming, I expected that I would be promoting the opening of [my] new restaurant. The reality is that I have been using my exposure to activate people to push for legislation to help small business[es] and to try and raise funds to help care for my staff because of our closure.

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The James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund provides critical financial assistance to small, independent restaurants that have been impacted by COVID-19. Click here to learn more and to donate.

Top Chef airs Thursdays at 10pm EST/9pm central on Bravo.