Now entering its 20th season, reality cooking competition Top Chef premiered on Bravo in March of 2006. Following the first season shot in San Francisco, the show returned in October of 2006 with a second season taped in Los Angeles—and with the addition of Padma Lakshmi as a host. Lakshmi's first season was also one of her most memorable.
"From my first season, I remember that we were in Malibu, and we did this breakfast challenge," she says, "which doesn't seem that hard, except that you have to make it on the beach. Open fire." For the elimination challenge in season 2, episode 7 ("The Raw and the Cooked"), the chefs were instructed by Lakshmi to prepare breakfast for athletes—but the cooking environment and tools weren't announced until they arrived at the site. There, the chefs were informed they had to cook for surfers at dawn on the beach, using only a fire pit and basic kitchen tools.
That season introduced viewers to major culinary talent, including Marcel Vigneron (who just opened Lemon Grove at The Aster in Los Angeles), Sam Talbot (the founding chef of Montauk hot spot The Surf Lodge) and season 2 winner Ilan D. Hall (owner-chef of L.A.'s Ramen Hood). But on the day of the breakfast challenge, Lakshmi was equally impressed by the show's behind-the-scenes talent. "I'll never forget, the unsung heroes of our show are also the crew that you never get to see, the culinary department," she says. "And all of the technical crew, who had to lay gas lines and dig ditches and then cover them up with sand—all before sunrise so that we could get it all fired up in a safe way that looks telegenic."
The cooking environment certainly posed a challenge—"It made it harder for the contestants just to make breakfast, which may not be very hard at all if you even just had one burner," says Lakshmi, who judged the dishes with Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio and guest judge Raphael Lunetta (a surfer and chef behind Santa Monica's Lunetta). Some chefs rose to the occasion better than others: Elia Aboumrad won with her dish "Organic Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner," a waffle with ham, cheese and fried eggs; but Frank Terzoli's zucchini and salmon scramble and cannoli cream with strawberries and Holland waffle got him sent home. However, all left with some sun and newfound appreciation for stovetops.