'Top Chef' at Keeneland: How It Happened

Pop Culture
Historic Keeneland racetrack hosted "Top Chef" during the show's Kentucky season.
Historic Keeneland racetrack hosted "Top Chef" during the show's Kentucky season. (Keeneland photo)

In a season dedicated to highlighting the best of Kentucky, on Thursday night Bravo’s “Top Chef” showcased one of Lexington’s most hallowed grounds: Keeneland. In episode 12 of “Top Chef” season 16, the contestants visited the sales ring at Keeneland where — just like a traditional auction — they bid on the ingredients they would use to prepare a meal later in the show at The Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville.

Celebrity "Top Chef" judge Graham Elliot
Celebrity "Top Chef" judge Graham Elliot (Keeneland photo)

America’s Best Racing got an inside look at how the shoot was done (including some photos showing the sales ring and the paddock where a portion of the show’s opening scenes were shot) from Christa Marrillia, Keeneland’s chief marketing officer.

America’s Best Racing: Describe the scene. “Top Chef,” arguably the most popular reality cooking show in history, shows up at Keeneland. How large was the crew, what was the scope of the shoot, and how long did it take?

Christa Marrillia: In November of 2017 we received a call from our partners from the Kentucky Commission of Tourism and VisitLEX asking us to host one of the initial scouting crews. There were some significant non-disclosure agreements in place so we were not able to tell our team anything about the group … only that it was a group from a “major culinary show.” After a tour of the Keeneland sale and just about every square inch of our property, we concluded with a fabulous lunch at Keene Place prepared by our chef, Marc Therrien. I like to think the bread pudding sealed the deal.

After months of back and forth, numerous site visits, and what seemed like hundreds of calls, Bravo settled on the use of the Keenleand paddock for show’s iconic opening and the sales pavilion for the final Kentucky elimination challenge.  

ABR: How did Tom, Padma, and the contestants react to being in a sales ring? What kind of questions did they ask? 

CM: The chefs and Padma were in awe of the sale. Prior to auctioning off the ingredients, we staged a surprise mock auction with a live horse. Our lead auctioneer Ryan Mahan provided a fabulous backgrounder on the sale and then suggested that we “warm things up” with a little bidding. The look on their faces when a live horse walked through the ring was priceless.

ABR: The contestants were asked to bid on items, just like buyers would bid on horses during an actual sale. What steps did Keeneland take to simulate this auction experience? 

CM: As you can imagine, the Keeneland team took on the “Top Chef” challenge with passion. Our marketing, broadcast, groundskeepers, maintenance, and operations team did everything possible to ensure that we were as true to the Keeneland auction experience as possible (understanding that we were auctioning off vegetables and meats!). Using our auction team, creating mini sales catalogs for the ingredients, use of the bid boards, and more were key to production.

A horse surprises the "Top Chef" crew in the Keeneland sales ring.
A horse surprises the "Top Chef" crew in the Keeneland sales ring. (Keeneland photo)

ABR: Were any of the contestants familiar with horses and horse ownership? Had they been to Keeneland before the show shoot?

CM: While Sara, the Kentucky chef, was familiar with Keeneland, we did our best to educate all “cheftestants” on the significance of the Keeneland sales and our industry in general.  Ryan was also talking Padma’s ear off – so I would like to think he got in a good plug or two on horse ownership!

ABR: What did you learn about the production of a reality show of this scale?

CM: The production was so much bigger than what I had anticipated. In a matter of hours our Limestone Cafe and Pavilion Bar was transformed into a massive control room buzzing with what seemed like 100 people and countless monitors and equipment, hair and make-up and more. The arena itself had light rigs, grips, and camera operators hanging from the rafters. It was a little overwhelming when they descended on the property but they honestly could not have been more gracious and respectful of our grounds. 

ABR: Can you share a funny story or two that didn’t make the final edit of the show?

CM: The back show ring of the sales pavilion would have been the perfect location to shoot Bravo’s next reality TV show as it was organized chaos. The Bravo and Keeneland teams frantically worked hand in hand to stage each ingredient and send it to the chefs for bidding in a matter of seconds. Attempting to stay out of the camera’s view (we did get yelled at a few times) while not dropping fish heads and other meats proved to be a challenge. We also recruited a member of our Special Events team, Morgan Whitney, to serve as the ingredient “Vanna White.” Last minute decision, but she was great! Quite a bit was done on the fly but it all came together on TV!

ABR: Based on what you saw, who do you think will win this season of “Top Chef”?

CM: I’ve got to go for our Kentucky girl Sara!!

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