When it comes to casting “Top Chef,” talent is the most important element a contestant (or, in the series’ vernacular, a “cheftestant”) must possess in order to compete. “Everything else comes second,” said Ron Mare, the Emmy-nominated Senior Vice President of Casting at Magical Elves, which produces Bravo’s long-running culinary competition. But it’s no longer necessarily a skill with knives that the casting team is looking for.
“You have to have that talent level in order to go on a show like this,” he continues, explaining that casting “Top Chef” is far different from the many reality series he’s handled in the past, like, “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway.” As the series has evolved, so have the people cast on the show. While talent remains paramount, there’s more of an emphasis on compelling food stories, with host Padma Lakshmi telling “Entertainment Tonight” that “Top Chef” “shows audiences a very particular side of these chefs. Not only their professionalism and creativity, but also where they’re coming from, what their philosophies are, and how they handle pressure.”
Echoing that sentiment, Mare says now, “It’s great to be able to show different types of cuisines that you don’t typically see. It’s not just tweezer food.” He also emphasizes that Magical Elves — and the franchise as a whole — has done a “very job at being inclusive as much as possible,” adding that “getting to include people now that you wouldn’t typically see on TV years ago is unbelievable.”
First premiering in 2006, the series hosted by Lakshmi and judged by Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons has become the most revered cooking competition on TV. Over the course of 20 seasons, it has provided hundreds of chefs with a national platform while only a select few — Brooke Williamson, Buddha Lo, Kristen Kish, Richard Blais and others — have earned the show’s coveted title.
But there would be no Lo — who became the only person to win back-to-back seasons, first during season 19 set in Houston and then again during season 20’s World All-Stars set in London — without Mare and his casting team, which also includes Erinlee Skilton and Sena Rich, all of whom share the 2023 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Casting for a Reality Program.
“I can remember first meeting with Buddha and thinking, ‘Wow this guy is so talented.’ He clearly proved me right,” Mare says, adding that when it came to bringing him back, “It was a no-brainer. Everyone was on board with him from the beginning because of the level of talent he brings to everything he does.”
On a typical season, like Seasons 18 and 19 (both of which earned Mare nominations in the same category), the casting producers do a nationwide search, which involves going through the latest recipients of prestige culinary honors, like the James Beard Foundation Awards and Michelin Stars, reviewing recommendations received from franchise alumni and exploring various cities across the country to find those undiscovered stars.
In addition to culling through social media and rounds of interviews, previous seasons found casting sampling food, with season 15’s third-place finisher Joe Sasto serving one of Mare’s most memorable meals ever. “I still remember going to Lazy Bear when Joe Sasto was there and remember being like, ‘Oh, he’s going to go very far,’” he recalled.
But now, Mare says they have done a great job of incorporating a new system for reviewing each potential cast member’s culinary capabilities during the vetting process, which typically starts with roughly a hundred or so names.
Of course, the situation surrounding Season 20’s World All-Stars was much different, especially given that all the contestants have been through the system before, winning or finishing near the top of their respective international spinoffs. For Mare, Rich, and Skilton, it was a matter of finding the best of the best to potentially be named the franchise’s first-ever global champion.
“It was really an exciting season for us,” Mare said, explaining that the process was a mix of old and new, with the team doing research into past seasons from different countries while also getting recommendations of people to check out. “So, we went about it both ways and kind of worked in tandem,” he said, adding that “it was so difficult to get to, but so easy because the talent from everywhere was so high.”
While a few people weren’t able to participate in World All-Stars, it was largely due to time constraints or conflicting commitments. “They still would have loved to have been a part of it,” Mare said.
One thing is for sure, it didn’t take anyone any convincing to come aboard. “Once you brought up to a chef that this would give you the bragging rights to say you’re the best in the world, any chef was just like, ‘Yep, I’ll go do this,’” he said, adding that “every chef was like, ‘If you’re giving me the opportunity to say that I can be the best, then I’m gonna take that opportunity.’”
Although the cheftestants — Ali Ghzawi, Begoña Rodrigo, Gabri Rodriguez and Victoire Gouloubi — who filled out the roster for Season 20 proved to be breakout stars, it still could have been a big risk, with all these names new to many U.S. viewers.
With the series renewed for Season 21, which will see the competition bringing a new crop of cheftestants to battle it out across Wisconsin, Mare thinks the upcoming installment will be just as successful.
“We saw what the viewers loved about Season 20, and whatever those things were, we’re going to obviously try to incorporate them into Season 21. Not just in the casting, but in the production and all of that,” Mare said. “We’re keeping it fresh, we’re keeping it interesting and I think the cast for next season is gonna be outstanding and everyone is going to love them. It’s definitely going to be one to watch, for sure.”