Why has ‘Top Chef’ shunned Atlanta and Georgia?

No clear answers from a ‘Top Chef’ executive producer

Originally posted Monday, June 18, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Bravo’s “Top Chef” contestants have cooked wild boar in the snow in Telluride, Col. They fed judges in the outfield of Boston’s historic Fenway Park right in front of the Green Monster. They created “sexy” dishes at a San Francisco fetish shop with cheeky names like Naughty Nuts and Edible Underwear Drawer. 

But no “Top Chef” camera has ever graced award-winning Atlanta restaurant Bacchanalia, perused the aisles of Your Dekalb Farmers Market or popped inside Paula Deen’The Lady and Sons restaurant in Savannah.  

Why has the sturdy reality competition show, shooting its 16th season now in Kentucky, ignored Georgia so far? 

A “Top Chef” producer, unfortunately, couldn’t provide a clear answer. 

Kevin Gillespie serves a dish for the dinner crowd May 8, 2018 at Gunshow in Atlanta. Gillespie was recently diagnosed with renal cancer and will have to undergo treatment. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Reann Huber

“For as much progress Atlanta has made as a so-called food city the past five or ten years, you’d think we’d be a very attractive destination for a show like ‘Top Chef,’ “ said Ron Eyester, who competed on “Top Chef” season 12 in Boston and now works at Food 101 in Atlanta. “Atlanta has evolved into the ultimate melting pot. I feel like that lends itself to being like a New York of the South.” 

Kevin Gillespie, a finalist and fan favorite from season six of “Top Chef” who is now fighting renal cancer, is equally confused. (His local restaurants include Gunshow in Glenwood ParkRevival in Decatur and Gamechanger at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.) "It doesn’t make any sense," he said. “We’re a city of magnitude and relevance.” 

Gillespie recently had a conversation with “Top Chef” judge Padma Lakshmi and she noted to him how hot it was in Kentucky. “I was like, ‘This is as close you have ever gotten to Atlanta!’”

Over the past 12 years, "Top Chef" producers have regularly considered but ultimately rejected Georgia as a show site.

Dan Cutforth, an executive producer for "Top Chef," said in an interview that Atlanta and the state itself has been a finalist at least a couple of times. For season 14, for instance, producers almost chose Atlanta but opted instead for the more historically scenic, significantly smaller Charleston, S.C.

“I don’t think there’s a city we’ve not been to that has had so many ‘Top Chef’ alumni,” Cutforth admitted. “It’s a great food destination. I know it’s a place we’ll come to at some point.”

Indeed, the show has featured at least 10 Georgia-based chefs, including “Top Chef All Stars” winner Richard Blais (who now resides in San Diego), Eli Kirshtein (season six), Hector Santiago (season six) and Wesley True (season 13).

If “Top Chef” does eventually make it to the state, it’s doubtful it will be in 2019 since it has been in the South twice in the past three seasons. 

I created a special Google map below marking the various locations where "Top Chef" has resided over 16 seasons. (The show also typically jumps to other locations for the final two or three episodes, ranging from Singapore to Hawaii, from Mexico to Alaska.)

California has been repped three times: San Francisco, Los Angeles and a multi-city tour of the state. New York City is the only metro area to be represented twice. More recently, three full states have gotten love besides California: Texas, Colorado this past season and Kentucky for the upcoming 16th round.

Among major U.S. cities, other notable omissions to date include Detroit, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Houston, which was skipped over the year “Top Chef” went to Texas. 

Cutforth said finances are not the deciding factor. How could it be? Georgia has generous tax credits that has turned the state into the third most popular for TV and film production nationwide behind only New York and California. 

During the interview, he proceeded to rave about the state.

“I have a very soft spot for Georgia,” Cutforth said. “I actually have a good friend I met when I was 18-19 who is from rural Georgia. I have spent quite a bit of time in the state over the years. I’m very fond of Georgia. It would be an awesome place to explore. It’s so diverse. Atlanta has a really interesting mix of being very Southern but very kind of sophisticated. Atlanta offers a great range of different types of restaurant and food.” He also offered kind words to Athens and Savannah. 

He was impressed by the state when watching Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” which shot two seasons last year in metro Atlanta.

Kentucky was chosen, though, for season 16 because it’s an area that has never been explored by the show. “It hasn’t been kind of culled over by TV already,” Cutforth said. “It felt like new territory in every sense.” 

Gillespie said he has personally pushed for Georgia with Cutforth but to no avail. He understood why the show chose Charleston two years ago.

“I’ve lived on the West Coast,” he said. “Charleston fits more into what people there think of the South. It’s very genteel. It has a tremendous amount of history.” 

He was more befuddled by Kentucky. “No offense to Louisville but it’s an in-land city like Atlanta built on industry. We have much more to offer in so many ways,” he said. 

Tom Collicchio with Hugh Acheson during an episode of "Top Chef."

Hugh Acheson, who runs restaurants in Atlanta and Athens and has appeared regularly as a guest judge on “Top Chef,” said he has privately questioned the state’s absence to date. But in an email, he said he possesses the “lobbying power of a small shrew. And I’m way too busy to make it a passion project.” 

TOP CHEF -- Season:12 -- Pictured: Ron Eyester -- (Photo by: Tommy Garcia/Bravo)
Photo: Bravo/Tommy Garcia/Bravo

Eyester said “Top Chef” could create challenges focused around local breweries and if they pursue the obvious cliche, peaches, perhaps in non-dessert form. In Savannah, he said, the show could have the chefs do something around shrimp. They could commemorate civil rights and go to Paschal’s. He said they could invite Killer Mike as a guest judge and do something with hip hop. And with soccer so hot in town, they could certainly do a challenge at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, he said. And he can’t imagine a season without Kevin Rathbun showing up. 

Gillespie said given the huge Korean population in Atlanta, the show would have to highlight that cuisine, which he’d consider a great curveball in terms of expectations. 

Mara Davis, a regular contributor for the “Atlanta Eats” TV show on Peachtree TV who does a weekly segment with Q100’s Bert Show on local restaurants, said the show could have contestants create dishes made with Coca Cola and visit Gillespie’s Gunshow and create a Southern dim sum type challenge. 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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