Certain questions have haunted the human spirit since time immemorial; for Martin Heidegger, during his philosophy lecture course at the University of Freiburg in 1935, it was the classic, “Warum ist überhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts?” For me, a blogger who gets assignments, it is: Who does the dishes on Top Chef?
A crucial feature of dishes is that after you use them, they are dirty. If you want to eat off or cook with them again, you have to wash them. I learned this as a kid, when I did dishes at home, and at various jobs, where I did dishes at work. I still do dishes now, almost every day. But on Bravo’s Top Chef – a show that has broadcast for 18 seasons, inspired franchises in at least 23 other countries, and spawned eight spin-offs including Top Chef Junior, Top Chef Family Style, or Top Chef Just Desserts – dishes appear from nowhere, shining like stone slabs on Mount Sinai, and then vanish into a 42-minute void of chopping and cloth napkin chin-dabbing. Plates check in, but they never check out.
This vanishing act is especially curious, because the contestants of Top Chef do not, like most people, dine off a small collection of plastic plates and mugs that might say “Topeka, KS.” Pots and pans abound. For investigative purposes, I took some screenshots of a Top Chef challenge on YouTube where contestants had to make food from family care packages:
The final destination of these dishes is a secret known only to the documentarians at Magical Elves, the production company behind Top Chef, named presumably for the series’ apparently invisible dishwashers. One might think that Magical Elves – which claims, in the first sentence of its About page, to rank among “the few unscripted production companies with women in the majority of our leadership” – would want to help other women succeed, and would do so by participating in this article.
But they declined to comment on this dish investigation; so did approximately three dozen other culinary producers, field producers, and associate producers; nearly every contestant in Top Chef All Stars: Los Angeles (Karen Akunowicz, Jennifer Carroll, Stephanie Cmar, Lisa Fernandes, Gregory Gourdet, Melissa King, Jamie Lynch, Brian Malarkey, Nini Nguyen, Joe Sasto, Angelo Sosa, Bryan Voltaggio, and Lee Anne Wong); and Padma Lakshmi.
Four mensches, however, agreed to give a rough and largely memory-based rundown. Two of them spent years working with equipment on competitive cooking shows and notched two seasons of Top Chef between them; the other two, Chef Kevin Gillespie and People Magazine’s “Sexiest Chef Alive! (2018)” Chef Eric Adjepong were both finalists on the show and returned for the All Star season in Los Angeles.
Culinary Associate Producer Jeremy Pearce, who’s also worked on MasterChef USA, MasterChef Junior, The Final Table, and Hell’s Kitchen, dispelled some of the dish mystery. Namely, dirty dishes do not disappear: “If you ever got to see the amount of dishes that come out of these cooking shows, it would give some people nightmares.”
There seems to be some consensus on that. “It was really your worst nightmare if you were washing dishes,” Gillespie said. Adjepong described a similar scene: “You have pots and pans and utensils flying everywhere, all these chefs running around the kitchen.” The dishwashers “are swooping in like ninjas and getting all the stuff that’s on the floor or randomly left in the ovens.” The post-shoot dish station, Gillespie added, looked “like an explosion had gone off.”
The conditions were so dire that culinary departments used to call the dish pit “Dish Wars,” mostly because the days were so long and the dish piles so high – “we would go to war with these dishes, it was a battle” – but also because one guy picked an actual fight after production told him not to bring his chihuahua named Chico on set anymore.
In the early seasons, the dishwashers were a mystery even to the contestants. In Season 6, when Gillespie first competed, every chef had a black bus bin under their station for supplies they wanted to wash themselves. The rest disappeared offstage to an area they were barred from entering. “When time is called, you're not really allowed to do anything in that area for the most part,” Gillespie said. “We would literally be escorted out of there, and when we returned, magically, [the dishes] just had been done. None of us had any idea who did it or how it was taken care of.”
But in the All-Star season, Gillespie saw how the sausage was made. Both he and Pearce had a straight-forward answer to the central mystery of this piece, which neither Magical Elves nor the union, the Industrial Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 44, would confirm: production assistants, of which there are about three or four per episode. “When I was there, we had some production assistants do it,” Pearce said. Here’s Gillespie:
There was basically this army of production assistants and they were being asked to – not only wash dishes – but drive us around. They would go get food for us. They would do anything and everything. My understanding is that most of the time they worked dishwashing shifts in the middle of the night. So if you had someone who was picking you up to take you to an interview at seven o’clock in the morning, chances are they had just finished washing dishes. They probably started washing dishes at midnight, then were going to take you to your meeting and wrap up for the day.
The PA’s hours got out so late because they couldn’t start cleaning until the shoot had wrapped. “They leave the kitchen dirty for the tasting for aesthetic and continuity,” Pearce said, “so that when the cameras are rolling, it's not like they cut to the kitchen and it’s amazingly clean.” Asking the lowest-paid people to do the most labor-intensive work late into the night after the high-paid judges head home? That’s TV magic, baby.
It’s unclear why exactly Top Chef has, at various times, elected to hire PAs in lieu of dishwashers, since Magical Elves declined to comment on anything in this piece. But one possible answer came from another culinary producer, who worked on Top Chef Mexico and asked not to be named, due to the gravity of the subject matter.
This man, whom I’ll call Wolfgang Puck, pointed out that the terms of who Top Chef could hire changed a few years ago. Until 2017, none of the culinary teams he worked on were unionized. Culinary departments could hire anyone – often anyone who would take the gig – and pay them non-union rates. At the time, Wolfgang was working as a production assistant himself.
I’m a firm believer in [the expression], “A closed mouth don’t get fed.” My goal was to get into the union. I was a P.A. and I talked to everybody at work about how every department was a union department except for culinary production.
In 2017, Wolfgang said, his production culinary team became one of the first to join IATSE, which represents most of the backstage workers in all aspects of the entertainment industry (movies, TV, theatre, concerts, trade shows, big conventions where teens dress in costumes, etc). Culinary workers qualified, Wolfgang said, because they were essentially doing set dressing and props. When equipment sat on the shelf in the background, it qualified as set dressing; once contestants started cooking with it, it became a prop.
One advantage of not hiring designated dishwashers is that it allows productions to sidestep union wage requirements. “A lot of these places just use P.A.s to do the dishes because they don't want to hire union people,” Pearce confirmed. “That's the new way of doing these cooking shows, from what I've experienced.” This may not have been the show’s intent, but it seems to have been the outcome. Here’s Chef Kevin:
My understanding is that none of the people who were doing that stuff were union labor at all. My understanding is that 100 percent of the people who are washing those dishes were young people trying to get into television production. It was like, “What job are you going to do today? Today you're going to wash dishes.” I don't think they were professionals in any capacity whatsoever.
Still, some were more professional than others. Though most dishwashers changed season to season; a select few became repeat takers, like this guy Pearce knew, also named Kevin:
I used to – what’s the word – incestuously steal dishwashers from different shows I worked on and bring them to my other shows. One of the best people I've ever, ever had, this guy's name was Kevin, and I met him on Hell's Kitchen. The man would show up to work in a three-piece suit. He was one of the hardest workers I ever met. I went up to him once and was like, “Kevin, man, you ever want to do anything other than dishwashing? He handed me a card – this dude actually had a card – I got him on MasterChef. He worked his way up and he's now doing great.