By Stacey Plaisance Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans’ po-boy shops, gourmet restaurants and suburban bayou-side eateries are the backdrop for the country’s search for its next “Top Chef,’” which debuts on the cable network channel tonight.
Bravo’s 11th season of the hit reality TV food competition show was filmed in and around the city. Chef Emeril Lagasse, who returns this season as a judge, said the season is sure to be different from any other.
“It’s going to be a very interesting season because I think a lot of this new talent maybe haven’t worked with alligator, maybe haven’t worked with turtle,” he said.
“The culture and cuisine here is over 200 years old. You can’t say that about a lot of cities. It’s really amazing.”
Chef John Besh, who also served as a guest judge on two of this season’s episodes, praised his home state and the show’s coming season.
“What we have here is really special,” said Besh, who owns several New Orleans restaurants, including Restaurant August and Domenica. “We have the only indigenous urban cuisine in the country, and to share it with an audience of millions is really special.”
The show pits contestants competing in various food preparation scenarios, and they have to survive weekly eliminations for the honor of being named the nation’s “Top Chef.”
It will include glimpses inside Lagasse’s restaurant kitchens, Besh’s bayou-side home and kitchen, and modest places such as Cafe Reconcile, which grew in popularity after Hurricane Katrina when its kitchen was spared flooding.
Cafe Reconcile was among the first restaurants to reopen after the 2005 storm. It’s also been celebrated for its mission to train high school students in at-risk neighborhoods for work in the restaurant industry.
It serves up New Orleans specialties such as red beans and rice and gumbo.
Several contestants walked the red carpet among the veteran chefs at a prescreening, but it remained unclear who would survive the first cut.
The show’s executive producer, Matt Reichman, said that one episode was shot with a focus on the city’s ongoing recovery from Katrina.
But the city has provided many other storytelling opportunities, such as its rich culinary traditions, its history and music.
Among those included in the series is Kermit Ruffins, the jazz trumpeter known to cook up eats on a giant, curbside grill outside his New Orleans night club between sets.
“The competition is nuts,” Reichman said. “The chefs are talented and fierce, but there’s a layer this season that captures the atmosphere of being in New Orleans that was a lot of fun. It really is an embarrassment the riches we had access to.”
Besh said he appreciates that the show ventured beyond New Orleans, to bayou-side communities such as Lafitte, Chalmette and north of Lake Pontchartrain.
“Our food ways don’t end at the city limits,” he said. “You have to go out to the bayou, out to the country, to understand where our food comes from.”
Other New Orleans chefs making appearances in the series include Leah Chase, John Folse and Susan Spicer.
The show is an Emmy and James Beard award-winning series. Previous host cities include New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas.
Mark Romig, chief executive of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., said it was only a matter of time before the show landed in New Orleans.
“Food is one of the top reasons people visit New Orleans,” he said.
The 11th season of “Top Chef” begins at 10 tonight on Bravo.