In the past year alone, Charleston has been named to lists including Travel & Leisure’s Best American Cities for Food; Zagat’s Top 17 Food Cities; The Washington Post’s 10 Best Food Cities in America; Travel Channel’s Best Food Cities; and Conde Nast Traveler’s Best Food Cities in the U.S.
Clearly, the word is out that people eat well here. So what could Charleston possibly stand to gain from a starring role in the new season of "Top Chef," premiering Thursday at 10 p.m.?
Quite a bit, according to tourism officials in cities featured over the competitive cooking show’s previous five seasons. There’s no surefire way to measure the "Top Chef" effect, since scenes of contestants exalting indigenous ingredients and pretty scenery amount to just a sliver of host locations’ promotional campaigns. But representatives of cities already renowned for their dining scenes, such as Seattle and New Orleans, cite more culinary tourists, more restaurants and more name recognition on the opposite coast as evidence of the show’s powerful influence.
"Top Chef" also tends to leave its mark in smaller ways. In Washington, D.C., for instance, a Cherry Blossom Festival event created expressly for the show as a challenge backdrop has become a mainstay of the social calendar.
“We believe 'Top Chef' put us on the culinary map,” says Ali Daniels, marketing vice president for Visit Seattle. Thanks to reruns, she adds, “We’re getting hour-long commercials for our destination on a consistent basis.”
And on average, each of those commercials is reaching close to 2 million people. That kind of exposure helps explain why host city residents, even after tallying up all the ways in which the show somehow bungled their local traditions, are generally appreciative of being in the "Top Chef" spotlight.
Steve Clark, director of government affairs for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, suspects the good press that could have come from "Top Chef Boston" was overshadowed by Teamsters allegedly threatening cast and crew members for using non-union labor, an incident that resulted in five indictments. Still, Clark says, “I think Bostonians cherished having the show filmed here.”
The road to Charleston
Tom Colicchio, the show's head judge, earlier this year told The Post and Courier that he’s long lobbied producers to bring the show to Charleston. Colicchio, who has ties to Kiawah Island, was familiar with the area’s advantages as a shooting locale, including sunny weather and a wealth of potential guest stars.
“They view us as a really ideal platform, so I don’t believe it’s been a huge long chase,” says Linn Lesesne, a co-owner of Charming Inns and chair of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau board. “I think Charleston was front and center for producers.”
But according to Lesesne, another location was at the very front of the line when producers were mapping out the 14th season. "Top Chef" was set to film in that unnamed place when undisclosed reasons upset the plan; spokespeople for the show declined to elaborate on the situation. Yet in the end, “Charleston was able to come in last-minute and meet all of their needs,” Lesesne says.
"First and foremost, the city must have a strong culinary identity," says Matt Reichman, Bravo's vice president for current production. "We weigh many factors as well, including access, weather and creative inspiration."
Reichman declined to comment on what role financial incentives play in the selection process.
In the spring weeks before filming started, it was rumored that the show’s requests for chefs’ time and venue takeovers ran up against already-crowded schedules and the belief that Charleston didn’t need another reality show to help fill its restaurant seats.
Ultimately, though, Lesesne says the local food-and-beverage community cooperated enthusiastically with producers. “Absolutely, our chefs are busy,” she says. “But a lot of the shooting was done during the day, and at that incredible warehouse in Jedburg, and the stuff they did didn’t affect chefs in their own restaurants.”
Helping smooth negotiations was real estate investor Terri Henning, an ardent supporter of local chefs who acted as a go-between. Lesesne describes her role as “more of that neutral ground,” meaning rather than take suggestions directly from tourism officials, producers leaned on Henning for the local point of view.
Daniels of Visit Seattle says cities participating in "Top Chef" have to give up total image control. “We didn’t want people talking about the rain,” she says. “That was the biggest thing. When you put your baby in someone else’s arms, you keep your fingers crossed.”
The real winners
For Seattle, the gamble paid off.
“We couldn’t have been happier with how the season turned out,” Daniels says. Not only did "Top Chef" film during the summer, Seattle’s least rainy season, but it called upon local chefs who Daniels characterizes as “up-and-coming.”
Beyond the host cities themselves, the clearest beneficiaries of the show's popularity are chefs who are locally respected but not yet nationally known: In New Orleans, both Justin Devellier and Isaac Toups were able to open second restaurants after taking turns as contestants. New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau vice president Kristian Sonnier thinks that development can’t be chalked up to coincidence.
Since "Top Chef New Orleans" aired, the city also has gained the critically acclaimed Compere Lapin, created by Nina Compton, one of the season’s contestants. According to Sonnier, she fell in love with the city during her stay.
New Orleans realized the potential of "Top Chef" after appearing in a pair of finale episodes. The shows were the highest-rated in the show's history to that point, Sonnier says. Producers were properly tantalized, and agreed to return for a full season.
“Not only were ratings high, but a renewed interest in the food industry in New Orleans occurred with about 10 percent higher media queries,” Sonnier says. “When we do surveys, we do learn that people come here for dining: We know that’s a factor. Is there a straight line from 'Top Chef' to visiting New Orleans? I don’t know. But my gut tells me yes.”
In Seattle, gut checks aren’t trusted as much as Google Alerts, which was Daniels’ preferred way of monitoring the show’s reach. “We also paid close attention to social sentiment, and it’s definitely picked up around food since 'Top Chef' aired,” she says. Daniels was especially satisfied with the East Coast’s reaction.
“They thought we were right next to Alaska, so it was a brand awareness campaign,” she says.
Of all the metrics, Daniels’ favorite involves just one person, albeit a very important one in "Top Chef World": Judge Padma Lakshmi.
“Padma gained like 20 pounds while she was here,” Daniels says. “It’s like, that’s perfect.”