Published on 05/09/2018 1:28pm
By: Bailey Loosemore, Louisville Courier Journal
At least once a week, fans enter Decca Restaurant in search of owner Annie Pettry.
They saw her on the 14th season of Bravo's "Top Chef." And though her time in the culinary competition ended quickly, they're still thrilled to meet the innovative redhead who made it farther than many could.
That type of devotion isn't surprising to people who've heard of the "Top Chef effect" — a term that describes the rush of tourists to cities and restaurants that are featured on the show.
And as a film crew gears up to shoot "Top Chef" season 16 in Kentucky, state tourism officials are banking on the effect to draw even more new visitors to the Bluegrass State.
In February, Bravo announced that it would film its upcoming season in Louisville, Lexington and Lake Cumberland, with the premiere slated for the end of the year.
That same month, a Kentucky tourism board awarded the show up to $3.5 million in production cost rebates — giving it one of the highest tax breaks its received in years.
The increased incentives have made some criticize the show, saying it only chooses locations that can pay. But "Top Chef" producers adamantly say the incentives do not solely dictate where it will go.
Instead, as production costs rise and as more tourism cabinets look to promote their sites as culinary destinations, the incentives have become a way for both parties to get what they want: A good story and good press.
WHY DOES EVERYONE WANT 'TOP CHEF'?
"Top Chef" first aired in 2006 with 12 contestants, two judges and one large leading character: San Francisco.
From the outset, it looked like the show could be akin to many other reality cooking competitions, filmed on the same set in the same city season after season.
But then "Top Chef" moved. In season 2 it took on Los Angeles, then Miami, Chicago, New York and Las Vegas. By season 14 it reached its smallest market, Charleston, South Carolina — making each stop along the way an important character in its respective season's overall arc.
"We realized we're more creative when we go and experience different culinary cultures," show producer Diana A. Schmedeman said. "... (The location) does become one of the primary characters. It definitely is about the competition for our cheftestants, but it's also about how they experience the city. The experiences are incorporated into their food."
The show's goal is to introduce viewers to new cultures and cooking styles, but its travels have also made it something of an hours-long commercial for the cities and states it chooses to visit.
And with an average 2 million viewers, each episode's airing can get a destination's culinary prowess in front of many new eyes.
That's one of the big reasons tourism employees in Charleston wanted the show to film there, said Perrin Lawson, deputy director of Explore Charleston, the city's convention and visitors bureau.
Charleston officials have been promoting the city as a culinary destination for years, and the city's time on "Top Chef" validated their work while spreading their message to a much wider audience, Lawson said.
Ahead of the season, Lawson's office worked with the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to help producers select sites, talent and storylines for the show.
"It's an opportunity for you to highlight things you want a large audience to know to compel them to come visit," Lawson said. "... The really special part was they went around the entire area. They were in historic downtown, at beaches, plantations and in obscure places, as well."
Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons on 'Top Chef' (Photo: Paul Trantow/Bravo)
Cathy Ritter, director of the Colorado Tourism Office, echoed Lawson's sentiments, saying "Top Chef" allowed her state to show off features that many tourists might not already know about, like its multi-faceted sustainability movement.
Ritter doesn't have any physical proof that the show, which filmed in Colorado last year, has increased tourism to the state since it aired, but she said one of the season's Colorado contestants, Brother Luck, has already been recognized by fans while traveling through Europe — a sure sign of the "Top Chef effect" at work.
Ritter said her office will attempt to measure awareness raised by the show by asking visitors if "Top Chef" motivated them to visit Colorado or if it changed their perceptions of the state. But until it asks those questions, the most tangible effect Ritter said she perceives is a statewide groundswell of pride.
"First of all, it's fun even to be on the periphery of a production like this," Ritter said. "But you should prepare yourselves for a boost in the pride and recognition around your food scene."
HOW DID KENTUCKY LAND THE SHOW?
The February announcement that "Top Chef" would be heading to Kentucky came as a bit of a shock to people who regularly follow the show — with some asking why the show would come here and not go elswhere.
A March article on Philly.com gave one commonly cited answer: "Hosting the show means cities pick up part of the tab."
According to the article and other news reports, past locations have awarded the show anywhere from $200,000 to $1 million as a sponsorship or incentive.
In 2013, New Orleans paid $375,000 to sponsor the show, drawing some of the money from a recovery fund established by BP following the 2010 oil spill. And in 2017, Colorado's Office of Film awarded the show up to $1 million in rebates on production expenditures made in its state.
In Kentucky, the state's film office has offered "Top Chef" up to $3.5 million in production rebates, though the show is not guaranteed to receive that full amount.
Jay Hall, executive director of the Office of Film and Tourism Development, said the show will have to make enough eligible expenses to earn the full incentive — estimated to be about 33 percent of the show's total expected production costs.
The show will not receive any rebates until after it has submitted a full cost report, which outlines what producers spent money on and where they spent it.
"That's the genius of this film incentive is we don't pay anything until after they already spent the money and can prove they made eligible expenditures in the state of Kentucky," Hall said.
Eligible expenditures include hotel rooms for crew members, location rental fees, local labor wages and even ingredients purchased for the competing chefs to cook with.
Production companies have 180 days to turn in a cost completion report, Hall said. And after his office conducts an audit, a rebate will be issued. The incentive "Top Chef" truly receives is not expected to be known until early next year.
Schmedeman and other "Top Chef" producers say the tax incentives are an added bonus, but the show's ability to tell creative stories is their first priority.
And Kentucky has plenty of stories to tell.
"I don't think people realize the diversity of Kentucky, as far as what you can see and do here," said Kristen Branscum, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Tourism. "I don't think they realize that you've got the urban experience in Louisville, the idyllic horse farms, the Appalachian mountains and lakes. I don't think people realize Kentucky truly does have it all."
Branscum is credited as playing a large role in bringing "Top Chef" to Kentucky. She took on the job as commissioner in 2016 and immediately made it her mission to bring the show to the state.
She met Schmedeman at a panel and eventually convinced her to visit for the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
During the visit, Branscum and other tourism employees took Schmedeman on a whirlwind tour that traveled from Churchill Downs to the hills of Eastern Kentucky. Together, they tried country ham and a Seelbach Old Fashioned. They had striped bass straight from the lake and meals paired with Kentucky-made bourbon.
The tourism employees asked: Why not Kentucky?
Schmedeman didn't have a good reason to say no.
"I was exploring other cities that I have in my head, places we'd really like to go," Schmedeman said. "But Kristen helped get this together. This sort of made sense."
"Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio, in town recently for the Kentucky Derby, told Courier Journal he looks forward to returning and to putting a spotlight on the Bluegrass State.
"I think Kentucky as a whole really symbolizes what is going on in America right now, food, drink and the culture as a whole," he said.
WHAT CAN KENTUCKY EXPECT FROM HERE?
Decca owner Pettry hopes "Top Chef" does for Kentucky what it did for Charleston.
She hopes the show explores all facets of the state and its cultures, shining the spotlight on a community of food producers and chefs that truly deserve the national spotlight.
"It'll draw more attention to us and share what we're all about," Pettry said. "Maybe it will break down some people's stereotypes that they have about Kentucky. That's the greatest impact it will have."
Branscum said the tourism department has discussed ways to capture the show's impact on the state but hasn't settled on a method yet.
Most immediately, she hopes "Top Chef" paints Kentucky as a top tier culinary destination in a way that reminds both tourists and residents of all the great restaurants and chefs its got.
"What I really want is to expose Kentucky to an audience that we may never be able to get to," Branscum said. "To get to a national and international audience, there's no way we could ever buy that exposure."
Bailey Loosemore: 502-582-4646; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @bloosemore. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/baileyl.
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