For years, Tom Colicchio has lobbied to get Top Chef to Charleston, South Carolina. The New York–based chef and TV star has been visiting the Holy City since he took a consulting gig on nearby Kiawah Island in 2000. This year, he got his wish. Top Chef: Charleston premieres on Bravo tonight—with eight new contestants, including five Southerners: Emily Hahn (SC), Jamie Lynch (NC), Annie Pettry (KY), Jim Smith (AL), and Gerald Sombright (FL). Plus, local guests galore. Colicchio shared some scoop.
You’ve been coming to Charleston for a long time. Where do you eat when you’re in town?
Hominy Grill has always been one of my favorites—especially for breakfast and lunch. For dinner, McCrady’s. I’ve been going there since before Sean Brock was the chef. Xiao Bao Biscuit. Then, either of Mike Lata’s restaurants: FIG or the Ordinary.
Any favorite judge hangouts this time around?
We finish filming late, so we’re not hanging out a lot, but we went to the Belmont a few times.
You spent five weeks in town filming Top Chef this past summer. What did you learn about the city that you didn’t already know?
Really, just how much the city is growing in all directions. There was so much construction going on.
How did Charleston influence the tone of the show?
More than any other location, this one dictated the food. Sure, there’s great produce in San Francisco—but there isn’t the same regionality. We embraced Charleston culture, focusing a lot on Gullah-Geechee cuisine—and we didn’t shy away from the history. BJ Dennis is in the first episode, and I think he set the tone for the entire season.
BJ loves okra. You don’t. Did that come up?
He and I had a discussion. You know, I just don’t like the slime. Every season, a chef says, “I’m going to make you like it.” I’ll always eat it. Maybe one day I’ll grow into it.
I’ve heard that Rodney Scott makes a cameo, too.
Our producers do a great job of finding the people that locals love. We did a barbecue challenge, which was an important one to get right. Glenn Roberts is in an episode, from Anson Mills. Mike Lata set up a trash fish challenge—which is a topical thing, cooking what’s out there instead of cherrypicking. One fish that I think is very hard to cook is false albacore, or little tunny. I can’t make it taste right. They had to work with that.
Some of your chefs this season are Southern, but others hail from Oregon, New York, and Pennsylvania. How’d they handle all the Southern cooking?
It was shocking how well they adapted to their surroundings. Some of them didn’t have any experience at all with the culture or cuisine, but they nailed it. If you’re a good cook, you might have to get used to some ingredients but you can adapt.