WOBURN — If it’s not the last place on Earth where you’d expect to find a top-rated reality-TV cooking show setting up shop, it has to be one of the last. For almost six weeks last spring, the entire “Top Chef” cast and crew holed up in a Woburn industrial park just off Route 128.
There, in a tan and green egg carton of a building on Cabot Road, where a sign out front still advertises a biopharmaceutical company that appears to have long since moved on (Excelimmune: Harnessing the power of natural immunity), most of the season that begins airing Wednesday was shaped and shot inside a carefully controlled 4,800-square-foot kitchen built from scratch.
The long-running Bravo show, a pioneer of the now seemingly unquenchable category of culinary competition fare, is well known for keeping its comings and goings top secret. In past years it has invaded places like Miami, Chicago, and Las Vegas with little to no fanfare, hoping to keep eliminated contestants and other surprise elements of the program under wraps.
While filming Season 12 in the Boston area, episodes were staged at locations both well worn (Fenway Park, Plimoth Plantation, Cheers) and off the beaten path (a cranberry bog in Rochester, a family-run herb farm in Groton).
The show’s “cheftestants” scrambled to fill their shopping carts at a Whole Foods in Lynnfield, and they retired to a luxurious apartment at 1330 Boylston St. in the Fenway when each day’s unkindest cutswere done. (The lone Bay State native in the cast, Regal Beagle chef Stacy Cogswell, let it slip that she could see the iconic ballpark from her high-rise digs; adding, “It’s a lot of pressure.”)
There were the occasional press reports, fan bloggings, and judges’ tweets — Padma Lakshmi isn’t one to live underexposed — but even when bits and pieces trickled out, they didn’t illuminate much. An ugly incident involving Teamsters allegedly harassing the show’s nonunion workers during filming at Milton’s Steel & Rye was kept quiet enough to go unreported until months after the cameras had stopped rolling there.
Secrecy and security concerns aside, though, this season’s revolutionary New England setting offered an opportunity for those in charge to rethink key parts of the show-making process.
“Boston is the American city of firsts: the first park, the first public school, the first library, the first subway,” said producer Chaz Gray, a veteran of several “Top Chef” seasons and “The Amazing Race.” “It’s so fun to relate the food stories of the history of our country and have our chefs add a spin to it.”
Among the new twists concocted for this season are sudden-death quickfire challenges in which chefs face elimination on the spot.
Episode 1, which takes place at the Museum of Science, introduces a first-of-its-kind, invitation-only food festival with more bold-faced local chef names than their customers ever want to see out on the town all at once. And that makeshift kitchen in Woburn is the scene of the only “fan appreciation challenge” in “Top Chef” history, featuring 75 lucky diners culled from more than 16,000 e-mailed expressions of total devotion. (“I get nervous when I see a fish that might overcook,” reads one.)
Kitchen access is the Holy Grail for a fan. Plenty of host cities have offered viewers a chance to be tasters in episodes involving themed contests or private parties or the colossally popular event known as (remain calm) “Restaurant Wars.” But there is nothing like getting inside the “Top Chef” kitchen, where every surface gleams, and high-end appliances stand row upon row like the terracotta warriors of Xi’an.
The pantry alone is a place to make the home cook weep: racks of pristine white china and copper pots, impossibly fresh produce, a half-dozen kinds of salt, tiny mason jars full of exotic powders with names like Swarnadwipa (curry) and Versawhip (soy protein). In the main cooking area, a giant illuminated “B” looks down from a faux brick wall that is faux spray-painted with the words “Oyster House.” So you’re in Woburn; who’s counting?
This massive kitchen is where Lakshmi will advise Summer Shack chef-owner Jasper White, right before he goes on camera to judge (what else?) a chowder challenge: “Just be yourself. But be your most enthusiastic, passionate self.”
It’s where one crew member will caution another from the sidelines as those 75 swooning superfans mix and mingle with the talent: “Look for the crazy eyes.”
‘The quality of chefs and restaurants — it’s amazing. Boston just doesn’t get the respect that Chicago or San Francisco get. It’s better here than in San Francisco, and you can quote me on that.’Tom Colicchio, ‘Top Chef’ head judge
And it’s where competition dishes will be created in a flash, whisked off to a “food porn” table to be photographed close up, then scrutinized at length by judges, while the chefs wait and wonder about their fates in an adjacent holding area nicknamed the “stew room.”
Those who follow “Top Chef” know that every season has its dramas. There was the Pea Purée Incident, also known as Pea-gate, wherein one contestant may have stolen another’s winning sauce (Season 7, Washington, D.C.). There was the much-quoted “I’m not your bitch, bitch!” exchange between Boston’s own Tiffani Faison and a fed-up “Restaurant Wars” teammate (Season 1, San Francisco). And there was the highly uncomfortable time that two inebriated chefs tried to shave a fellow contestant’s head in the middle of the night (Season 2, Los Angeles).
No one can say what will happen in the Boston season — even if they know, they’re sworn to secrecy on penalty of death, or at least a fat lawsuit.
Boston foodies campaigned hard to bring the show here this year, crafting a pitch tape that “Top Chef” executive producer Jane Lipsitz calls “really awesome.” But they had fought that same fight in the past without succeeding. What pushed their request over the top this time?
“Without saying too much, we make our decisions based on economics,” says head judge Tom Colicchio. “I know that last year Boston was in the running and was just outbid by New Orleans.”
Colicchio insists that he’s glad they finally worked out the finances, because he deems the Boston food scene underrated.
“The quality of chefs and restaurants — it’s amazing,” he says. “Boston just doesn’t get the respect that Chicago or San Francisco get. It’s better here than in San Francisco, and you can quote me on that.”
Colicchio is likely to be quoted often in the next 18 weeks, as the nation gets a good look at our culinary chops. The question is: Are we ready for our food porn close-up?
‘Top Chef’ kitchen fun facts:
• 4,800 square feet of kitchen space.
• 2,000 square feet devoted to the pantry.
• 10 double refrigerators, 2 single refrigerators, and 2 single freezers in the prep area.
• 2,000 bottles of wine on display.
• 20 lbs of butter used per episode.
• 20 cases of chicken stock and 40 gallons of canola oil used during the season.