Top Chef Maui: What Does It Take to Bring Top Chef to Hawaii?




Sam Choy, Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi at the pule welcoming contestants to Maui. Photos courtesy of Bravo Photo

The Top Chef finale, filmed on Maui, airs this Wednesday. It’s the second time the show has come to Hawaii; season two’s final showdown took place on the Big Island in 2006, where one of the challenges was cooking for Alan Wong's birthday luau. 

But 10 years ago, it took a lot of convincing to get Top Chef producers to even consider filming here.

“They didn’t think we had a food scene here worth being involved with,” says Nathan Kam, who works with the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB), and whose task it was to convince Top Chef otherwise. He persuaded the producers to give Hawaii a chance; on a scouting trip, he took them around Oahu, to tour the fish auction and meet with Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms and other chefs and farmers. On the Big Island, he introduced them to Peter Merriman and Kurt Hirabara’s baby lettuce in Waimea. “So it was between us and Tahiti (for the season two finale) and by the time they left, they said, ‘Yeah, the show’s gotta come here. This is incredible.’”

Top Chef isn’t the only production taken with Hawaii lately. If you’ve noticed Hawaii starring in more TV shows, national magazines, and other media, it’s because of HVCB’s efforts.

“Ten years ago, we decided we weren’t going to wait for people to come to us [for] stories any longer,” says John Monahan, HVCB president. “We were going to craft the message. We had so many great things to talk about here, not only in cuisine … What were the stories we wanted to tell? And then we started hitting production companies.”

HVCB is selective about the shows with which they work, though. “We actually turn a lot of them down because [the program] just doesn’t quite fit with what we’re trying to do,” Monahan says. HVCB recently declined partnering with a fishing show—not having HVCB on its side is sometimes enough to dissuade a company from filming in Hawaii, but in some cases, like the History Channel’s American Jungle, the production went ahead on the Big Island anyway.

But HVCB likes Top Chef. “It’s something we can see the Hawaii brand associating with,” says Kam. Plus, food shows, the Cooking Channel, Food Network and the like tend to attract HVCB’s target market—avid travelers.


Guest judge Sam Choy, Padma Lakshmi, and Tom Colicchio on the lawn at Andaz Maui.

Once a show such as Top Chef starts considering Hawaii as a potential location, HVCB then needs to line up partners—primarily, the hotel to house the crew and cast. For this season, it was Andaz Maui, a new resort in Wailea that had opened just a month before the Top Chef finale filming, in October of last year. Ultimately, deciding which island would get to host Top Chef came “down to the hotel who was willing to shut down the hotel for the crew, shut down kitchen space, shut down a restaurant,” says Darlene Morikawa, PR director for HVCB.

Ironically, as long as Hawaii’s tourism industry does well, which HVCB has a hand in, chances are slim that Hawaii will be able to host an entire season of Top Chef; it means asking a hotel to give up rooms for a full crew and contestants for two months, plus suites for the VIP guest chefs.

When Top Chef commits to the Islands, HVCB is “the ally here on the ground,” Kam says. “We’re an advisor to them so that they get it right. If they want to use a product like taro or kalo, we help them understand the significance of that. We’re here to make sure that Hawaii is represented in a positive way, in a correct way, in an accurate kind of a way, as much as possible."

HVCB also helps line up local chef judges, such as Sam Choy and Peter Merriman, and develop the cooking challenges, like one using Hawaii’s canoe crops (plants brought over by the Polynesian explorers), though it’s not too keen about a Quickfire using Spam. It's trying to move Hawaii's image beyond Spam, but I'm guessing that's a battle they're not going to win.

So how accurately will Top Chef’s season 11 finale portray Hawaii? While Kam and others from HVCB were onsite for the filming in October, ultimately, they’re going to have to tune in on Wednesday to see how Hawaii and its products are shaped in the hands of Top Chef’s editors and contestants.

Season 11 of Top Chef's two part finale airs Wednesday, January 29 and Wednesday, February 5 at 8 p.m. HST, bravotv.com/top-chef

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