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Top Chef à la Juneau

Posted: February 7, 2013 - 1:00am
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Sean Brock and Padma Lakshmi of "Top Chef" stand in front of Tracy's Crab Shack in Juneau during the filming of Episodie 1014 this summer.  Photo by David Moir / Bravo
Photo by David Moir / Bravo
Sean Brock and Padma Lakshmi of "Top Chef" stand in front of Tracy's Crab Shack in Juneau during the filming of Episodie 1014 this summer.

Editor’s note: Clint J. Farr spent 9 days working as a production assistant during the filming of Bravo’s “Top Chef” season 10 finale. Until Juneau was mentioned in the show Jan. 30, Farr was contractually obliged not to speak about the project. Now that’s he’s “unleashed,” he’s shared some of his thoughts on the experience here.

This is part one of a two part column. Part two will run in next week’s Arts & Culture.

•••

It begins with a fantasy.

“Hello, Padma.”

“Hello, Clint.”

I ask, “May I tell you about Alaska; about how much I love Alaska?”

Padma leans in and levels her gaze, “Yes. Tell me about Alaska. Tell me how much you love Alaska.”

And then, as it is a fantasy after all, I would sip a Baltic Porter and take a bite of perfectly cooked lamb, draw upon my obsession with Alaska, and I would tell Padma … everything.

In early August 2012, Padma Lakshmi and the rest of Bravo’s Emmy award-winning “Top Chef” cast and crew sailed and flew into Juneau to shoot the final two episodes of the show’s 10th season. Somehow I was offered a job as a production assistant, or PA. I took leave from my state job as an obesity epidemiologist and spent a week on the set of a show dedicated to eating.

“Top Chef,” as the name implies, is a cooking show, and it’s a good one. In fact, there are two shows in this world I try to watch. One is “Breaking Bad.” The other is “Top Chef.” In fact, I am a big geeky fan of “Top Chef.” Because of this show, I’ve dined on pig’s feet at Craft, the Manhattan restaurant of head judge and producer Tom Colicchio. I’ve enjoyed the chef tasting menu at The Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, a restaurant run by season six runner up and bacon jam expert Kevin Gillespie. Because of this show, the world knows who Padma is. So I was thrilled to find out this show would film in Juneau, and even more so that I would get a chance to work on it.

My brother lives in Los Angeles and knows Hollywood. I asked him what a production assistant does. “Anything you’re told.”

Okay then, here goes.

The first day I lugged lots of loaded luggage. A little fatigued, I checked my watch and saw I was only two hours into my 10-hour shift. Clearly, this spreadsheet manipulating epidemiologist has little experience with physical labor. The magic of Hollywood is not magic; it’s hard work.

I kept looking for Padma. Would I get to see her?

The first day quickly blended into the second and on through the week. Each day was a whirlwind. The day might start with picking up two dozen bagels and lox from the Silverbow. From there, it all kind of mushed together: a stop at Fred Meyer for duct tape, a wrestling match with a vacuum around the catering room, tracking down more coats for the competing chefs, delivering a safe to a hotel because where’s Padma’s jewelry supposed to go (come on Juneau hotels! Get some safes!), helping the camera guys unspool extension cords off a generator, another trip back to Fred Meyer for umbrellas (four identical black ones, as big as you can find), picking up some Heritage or Rookery coffee for the production staff, and parking a U-Haul truck with the gimpy struts in the dirt lot.

Soon I was exhausted. It’s a young person’s game. I don’t think of myself as old. I’m 40 and relatively ambulatory. Yet working on “Top Chef” meant working with a bunch of folks on the short side of 30. Those youngsters, and the fact my ears keep getting bigger, make me feel old.

People sometimes liken the Hollywood production system to the military. The producers and talent are the generals issuing orders, the personal assistants and production managers are the field officers who tell the grunts, or the PAs, what to do. There’s a rush on set, like the feeling of a campaign. It was a feeling especially acute when plans changed and activity became chaotic. A shoot at Tracy’s Crab Shack only occurred because weather that day grounded the crew from shooting on the Mendenhall Ice Field. Within a few hours, crews scrambled, set up the new location, controlled the gathering crowd, shot what was needed, and got out. Victory!

Being a grunt requires flexibility. I regularly received contradictory instructions from the production managers. On the crab shack day I rushed microphone batteries and their charger to the set. I was told to get them out there, they’re absolutely needed, it’s urgent, and do it now. When I get out there, nobody knew what I was talking about. I was then told that what was really important was to set up the pop tents, and to do it now. If you are easily flustered when you think you’re supposed to be doing one thing and your third or fourth boss hands you contradictory instructions, then being a PA is not for you. Any one set of instructions - no matter how dire or urgent in their conveyance - may be meaningless within 15 minutes. Once I understood that, I was freed of the anxiety of trying to rush everything and just did the best I could.

I learned I am the world’s worst chauffer. When I drive people, it’s my 4- and 7-year-old. I’m really good at buckling children into car seats. Neither Padma nor any of the other talent needed to be buckled in. Thus, my one single driving skill was irrelevant. As such, driving people was far more difficult than anticipated. The Toyota auto-lock doors were the death of me. Every time I started a car, the doors would lock. I wouldn’t notice until someone important or famous would try to get in. Usually it was raining. Then I’d scramble and fumble, kachunking the locks, while the important/famous person looked on wondering if they wanted to get in the car with this spasmodic lunatic.

Paradoxically, one highlight of the entire PA experience was leading a caravan of judges, all famous chefs, to the Governor’s House. I drove a well-known chef. He was wonderful and gracious, and very curious about the relationship between Inuit and Yupik peoples. This allowed me one half mile to go into tour guide mode – which I’ve got to say, as a guy who once won an Alaska trivia contest, was awesome. However, as the world’s worst chauffer, something had to go wrong. I had earlier opened the trunk thinking, for some reason, somebody might want to put an item in the trunk for the half-mile drive to the governor’s house. I drove off from the hotel - with the world famous chef - with the car’s trunk open. I didn’t realize it until the irritated squawk of a producer in my earpiece broke my tour-guiding revelry, “your trunk is open.” Unsaid was, “you idiot yokel!”

Those squawking earpieces itch like mad by the way. But I did enjoy walking around with it, like some secret agent with the obvious earpiece. “What are you up to, Clint?”

I wanted to answer, “Hoping to see Padma!” but would say instead, “I’m contractually obliged not to tell you. Rest assured, it will be awesome.”

A few days after my stint as a “Top Chef” PA, I was at my normal job in a teleconference while five adults tried to determine storage for items residing in two cubicles slated for removal. The conversation was detailed and long and had nothing to do with spreadsheets or obesity.

If there’s one skill I’ve mastered as a long time state worker, it is yawning with my mouth closed; something I never did as a “Top Chef” PA.

Through it all, I marveled at how a group of dedicated professionals from L.A. managed to film two episodes of an award-winning show, on the fly, in the rain, ignorant of the environment, able to roll with, and adapt to, the changes thrown at them constantly. There were set changes, location changes, a bear here, a broken out cargo van window there, poor lighting, busses full of gawking tourists, rain, and all the while leaving no footprint. Yes, there were egos and attitudes, but ultimately these people knew their job. They were impressive to witness.

And of course, there was Padma - more on her next week.

•••

Top Chef airs Wednesday nights on Bravo or you can purchase episodes on iTunes or VUDU. Episode 15, filmed in Juneau, airs Feb. 13.

• Clint J. Farr can be reached at cjfarr@hotmail.com.

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