Top Chef is going to look a bit different this season.
Head judge Tom Colicchio recently gave PEOPLE an update on the Bravo cooking competition show, which will air its 18th season set in Portland, Ore. on April 1. The series was shot in September and October 2020 amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, before any vaccines were available, so the cast and crew formed an isolation zone similar to the NBA bubble.
"We had about 160 people on our crew. I was staying in an Airbnb, but I didn't go out. I left my house to walk my dog, that was it," he explains. "Everyone else was all in one hotel. They were only allowed to leave the hotel to go to the set and that's it. Everyone abided by it. And when we were not on set, we were shooting in a convention center, so we had a ton of space."
"We were there for, I think, eight weeks," says the chef, who recently partnered up with French's Yellow Mustard on the new MustSwitch sandwich. "Nobody got sick. We were testing every other day."
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On the 18th season, you'll notice many people wearing masks, and fewer events where the contestants cater for a large number of people. "But there's some cool things that we did because of COVID that turned out to be pretty neat," he adds.
Instead of having a rotation of guest judges appearing on each episode like in a normal season, the network brought back a "core of ex-contestants as judges and diners" who stayed inside their "bubble," says Colicchio. Some of those familiar faces include Kristen Kish, Edward Lee, and Nina Compton.
"Like most seasons, the chefs have their ups and downs – someone will have a great few episodes and then completely screw up," says Colicchio. "And the nerves get the best of people sometimes and people tend to overthink things and they try too hard and they overreach and they end up going out of their sort of zone and they mess up. But all in all, we had some really great food and this season had its emotions without a doubt."
As a chef with restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Colicchio has been dealing with the difficult task of safely reopening his restaurants.
His latest eatery is a New York City pop-up partnership with French's and Craft NYC, open on March 6 and 7, where customers can grab a free mustard-braised flank steak sandwich if they bring in a jar of mayo. The campaign aims to encourage consumers to make the healthy switch from mayo to mustard. (You can also order the sandwich online for delivery outside New York.)
As for his other restaurants now offering indoor and outdoor dining, Colicchio and his team are doing everything they can to keep the staff and patrons safe — but he says they can't do it alone.
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"We need help from the customers and that is just wear your mask at all times indoors except when you're eating. If someone comes over, if you call someone to your table to come to take your order, wear a mask," he says.
"We're all trying to open safely, we're trying to keep our employees safe, we're trying to keep customers safe, but it has to be cooperation on all sides."
Top Chef season 18 premieres Thursday, April 1 at 8 p.m. EST on Bravo.
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