I loved watching Harold on Top Chef. But he was a far cry from the egomaniacal terror he made himself out to be during auditions. He was diplomatic and good-looking, had that great local-boy accent (with just a soupçon of Long Island). His grace must have surprised the producers. “Yeah,” he says. “During our confessional interviews, they were getting pissed off at me because I wasn’t, you know … ”
Bernstein says that talent was still his primary consideration when he and his partner first set out to cast Top Chef, and that casting, no matter how programmatic people are about it, is an inexact science. (He and his colleagues had no idea that Marcel would be such a worm, for instance, because he was so quiet and nervous on his audition tape.) But as an objective matter, it was impossible for the two of them to sample the food of the hundreds of prospective chefs. Only during final auditions, when the pool had been whittled down to 35, did they have such a luxury. And by that time, they’d relied just as heavily on traditional reality-programming casting formulas as they had on people’s résumés, with an eye toward diversity, aesthetics, and dispositions. (Before Top Chef, Bernstein had worked on Treasure Hunters and I Want to Be a Hilton.) When I ask Bernstein how he found the strong-and-silent almost-winner, Sam Talbot (or “Sexy Sam,” as scores of bloggers now think of him), he tells me that another reality-show producer tipped him off that Sam had been in the running for The Bachelor.
“For the first two seasons, you could tell the producers were like, This isn’t a cooking show, it’s a reality show,” says Colicchio. “The top chefs could always hold their own, but you walked into the kitchen and knew: These other six people, there’s no way they’re going to be able to compete.”
Like Michael Midgley, for example. “Mikey,” says Colicchio. “In the beginning, I was complaining, ‘What is this guy doing here?’ And the producers were saying, ‘Yeah, but wouldn’t it be great if he really could cook?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, it would be great. But he can’t.’ ” (Of course, then he made a great fish dish, though he was hopped up on Vicodin at the time.)
Colicchio emphasizes that the producers didn’t try to influence his judging. Sam would never have been eliminated if it were up to the producers. (Colicchio was ultimately responsible for that call, prevailing over a disappointed Padma Lakshmi at 4 a.m.) And this season, the producers of Top Chef deliberately set out to find stronger contestants. “I think they’re realizing now that the core of the people who tune in are hard-core foodies,” says Colicchio. “Most of my friends who are chefs called me after the first season and said, ‘How can I come on as a judge?’ ”
Yet back at Perilla, I discover that Harold has gotten plenty of invitations from non-foodies for his services, like the e-mail he recently got from a woman in her mid-forties from the Midwest. “She basically asked straight up if she could purchase some of my … DNA, I guess. Some seedlings,” he says. “That was awkward. I mentioned it to the fellow who helps me with specific events and stuff, and he was like, Oh my God, that’s the greatest idea ever! We’re gonna put it right on eBay!” He gives the snapper a baleful look. “Former reality-show contestants. I’m sure there’s a huge untapped market there.” He portions his last fish and, without looking, tosses it into a tray, as effortlessly as a point guard passing a basketball behind his back.
As it turns out, the former contestants of Bravo’s competition reality shows aren’t the only ones trying to make the most of their moment. So, too, is Bravo itself. As recently as five years ago, the station was still part of the flyover country of the cable dial, a backwater that mainly featured cheesy knife commercials and Inside the Actors Studio and bad ballet. But last month, Bravo was nominated for nine Emmys—Top Chef and Project Runway among them—and these last two quarters were the network’s best ever. This transformation happened mostly under the reign of Lauren Zalaznick, now beginning her fourth year at Bravo. At this moment, she’s sitting with ten executives in the conference room, doing a postmortem on Shear Genius and Top Design. She notices that the ratings for Shear Genius sharply dropped on a particular week. Was it a rerun?
“That was the finale of Lost,” explains the presenter.
“Yeah, I hear that show’s really gonna catch on,” she says, giving her eyes a slight roll. “They should really stick with it.”