Chat with Top Chef Executive Producer Doneen Arquines
In a vast sea of food, the competition shows a disparate variety of vessels. There are sturdy but understated pontoons, utility catamarans, barely afloat dinghies and even a handful of noble yachts, but they all pale in comparison to the majestic ocean liner that is Top Chef. After 18 seasons, the sparkling beauty continues to navigate the crowded waters effortlessly, thanks in large part to a crew that masterfully navigates a competitive landscape. Doneen Arquines, Executive Producer of Top Chef, who has been on board since the show’s maiden voyage in 2006, stands out among this group of talented professionals.
As Season 19 sets sail in the form of Top Chef Houston, what better way to learn more about the show’s journey than to chat with Doneen? From her roots on the show as a production assistant to her current role at the helm of the ship, Arquines continues to enjoy a vantage point that offers a treasure trove of insight into the series’ continued excellence.
Having been in Top Chef Kitchen from the start and having earned 13 Emmy nominations along the way, I had to ask Doneen Arquines about her journey from PA to EP.
“I started the first season as a PA. It was my first job after college. I had jobs before that, but not in production. I graduated from State University from Washington, and when I moved to Los Angeles, I had a pretty good alumni network, and people were kind enough to share my resume with friends or people they knew who were looking for a PA for shows.
I had the chance to interview at Top Chef with the production company of the show Magical Elves. I knew who they were because my summer job in college was working at Joanne Fabrics, and Project Runway was everything to me when I was in school. So I was like, oh my God, this is the company that produces Project Runway. I want to go; I’m so excited about this. I was so excited about the interview, and luckily they chose me to join the team. So that was my first deep dive into television production, and I fell in love with it.
For the uninitiated, shows like Top Chef don’t crank out episodes year-round. Knowing that I wondered how Doneen could continue to work elsewhere while continuing to return to the series.
“I’m the kind of person who really likes to work. It’s my life. I love that excitement when we’re in production and all the things leading up to it. After I finished the first season, I went to PA on a few more shows, then the second season came back. The timing didn’t work out for me to start as PA this season because I was working as PA on a new show, but we were only filming five days a week. So I was messaging my friends at Top Chef and asking them if they needed help on the weekend. I’m available. So they called on a Saturday and asked if I could go in an hour. I walked in and washed the dishes when they were out making Quickfire ice cream at the beach.
Then my other job ended and Top Chef was still filming, so they asked me if I could start as AP. I did it from the middle of the second season and just progressed from there. Every couple of seasons I moved up and then I joined the challenge team, and we were responsible for coming up with all the challenges and finding locations for them. Finally, I was also in charge of booking the guest judges. I was lucky in terms of timing because Top Chef then created a spin-off, Top Chef Masters and because I had all the guest judges booked, I had all my contacts and I was able to launch Top Chef Masters and roll straight into this show. So the Top Chef and Top Chef Masters schedule kept me busy all year, and I didn’t have to look for other work.
Top Chef fans are both passionate and opinionated, with nearly everyone at the fingertips of a social media platform weighing in on their desired locations for each season. In light of this almost obsessive speculation, I asked Doneen about the show’s location selection process.
“We start the process up to six months before we start filming, and there are a number of factors that come into play. We’re looking for regional diversity because I don’t think you want to see two seasons that are alike. too back to back. And regional cuisines are so diverse in America, so you don’t necessarily want to go to Seattle and San Francisco in successive seasons because their cuisines are very similar.
So it’s really about trying to identify those things first and then the big cities we haven’t been to yet. It helps if tourism wants us to come because it’s helpful in making things happen for us, like being able to go to iconic places. And when we go to any city to try to shoot and get permits, to be able to have people who want you there who want to help you get the things that you think are cool to show viewers, that enthusiasm for the places we go also plays into our decision.
Thanks to the miracle of editing, the Judges’ Table segment of each episode is presented in the same relative length. But deciding the winner and figuring out which head tester will ultimately hear Padma’s dreaded ‘take your knives and go’ edict sure must take longer than we think, right?
“At the time, we had judges’ tables that lasted six hours. We also structured the judges table differently at the time, as we brought out the best first, then sent them back to the stew room when we took out the lesser favorites, which we then also sent back to the stew room. so that the judges can make their decisions. This back and forth took a long time, so we started combining it with everyone listening to the judges’ comments at the same time, and that made it shorter. So we went from six hours to, I would say, an average of two and a half and three hours.
Another topic often discussed by loyal Top Chef viewers stems from the little type of disclaimer that is played when the show’s credits air every week. Vaguely stating that Bravo and the producers can be consulted on elimination decisions, some fans of the show remain convinced that judges are sometimes overruled in favor of keeping a vital antagonist or popular leader in the competition at times. creative purposes. Seeking to dispel this burgeoning urban myth, I asked Doneen Arquines about it.
“I can guarantee you that is not the truth. Every competition show has a legal disclaimer. It’s a legal thing. All of these chefs who have been on the show have come back and been guest judges and All-Stars, so you can ask any of them if the judges’ decisions are influenced from above. They are not.”
As someone who writes weekly Top Chef recaps, I often find myself singled out chefs, Brian Malarkey in particular, who seem more interested in cultivating a personal brand than simply competing with the best. So, as Season 19 and Top Chef Houston approached, I wondered if Doneen considered potential test chefs as people looking to do the former or the latter.
“I think it’s a combination. You can’t ignore that today. It’s all about marketing, so even if you get eliminated first on Top Chef, just getting on the show increases your visibility. There will always be a bit of that. Some chefs are more outspoken about it than others, but I think for the most part people really want to compete. They want to see where they stand compared to other leaders in the country. The answer we get from a lot of people is I’ve been doing this for a long time, I know I’m fine. I see my friends doing the show and I want to know where I stand.
So how did Top Chef Houston ultimately select this season’s 15 test chefs, Doneen?
“It’s a little different these days with Zoom. We basically have a casting team that starts very early in the process, and they cater to chefs and contacts in the food world. Back then , we used to hold open casting calls, but now it’s sharper. We’re really looking for people, through referrals almost like a job. We’re asking who do you think is good enough to compete? According to you guys, who’s ready for that kind of competition? And now that we’ve had so many chefs competing on the show as well, they kind of know who’s ready. They can say, ‘I met that person at ‘a culinary festival and she’s fantastic’. You should talk to them. So the casting team does all that background work and narrows it down to about 30-40 people. We then watch and narrow down from there.
For me and many others, Top Chef Portland had a kumbaya feel, with far less conflict than I remembered from previous seasons. I asked Doneen Arquines if this vibe was a byproduct of filming in a pandemic bubble that required chefs to be isolated together or if it was just luck of the draw.
“I think it’s a bit of both. Filming in a bubble was definitely a very unique experience since it was our first time out of our own bubbles at home. Until then, I hadn’t been in a room with so many people in the past year. I think Sasha said it better in the second episode when she said she didn’t know how to be with people. I have been home all year. What do I do? How do I act? And I think people were so excited to be around other people that that played a part as well.
With the premiere of Top Chef Houston, I wanted to know how the Season 19 group of chefs collectively compares to the Top Chef Portland group.
“As you mentioned, season 18 was kumbaya season. I think there are a lot of friendships and very beautiful friendships that were made this season. But I also think there was a stronger sense of competitiveness within our cast. He has a very strong competitive spirit which I personally enjoyed because these are challenges, and you want people to want to win them. It’s not like, oh, good for you. Like I want to win. So there’s a little bit more, more than last year. Not that nobody wanted to win last year, but I just think there’s more I think people will be surprised by Houston.
Having had the pleasure of watching the season premiere of Top Chef Houston before it aired, it’s obvious Doneen Arquines and the Top Chef team didn’t miss a thing. Like a fine wine, the show continues to improve with age.
Top Chef Houston airs Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. on Bravo.