Editor’s Note: Clint Farr spent nine days working as a production assistant during the filming of Bravo’s “Top Chef” season finale. Until Juneau, Alaska, 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.
It begins with a fantasy.
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.
Heaven for a food geek
“Top Chef,” as the name implies, is a cooking show, and it’s a good one. In fact, there are two such shows 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.”
OK 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!), another trip back to Fred Meyer for umbrellas (four identical black ones, as big as you can find), 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 got 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 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.
World's worst chauffeur
I learned I am the world’s worst chauffeur. 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 about 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 Yup'ik peoples. This allowed me 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 car’s trunk open. I didn’t realize it until the irritated squawk of a producer in my earpiece broke my tour-guiding revelry.
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.
Time to pitch my show
Hollywood was in town. This was my chance to pitch my dream Alaska tourism show to anyone who would listen. It’s a show I plan to write, narrate and host. “You know, not like that Palin show which was like, ‘What Rich People Followed By Cameras Do in Alaska’, but something that’s like 50 percent Rick Steves, 30 percent Anthony Bourdain, and the rest Marty Stouffer.” Then I’d do my best Marty Stouffer impersonation, “Hi, I’m Clint Farr, and enjoy your wiiiiiiilld Alaska!” The under-30 crew would then ask, “Who’s Marty Stouffer?”
Oddly, I haven’t received any calls for this show.
I bet Padma knows who Marty Stouffer is.
I did the production assistant, or PA, gig because I was curious. I love the show. I love movies. I figured this would give me insight into how that world works. Maybe I’d meet Padma.
The motivations and backgrounds of the other Juneau PAs were varied as well.
There was the local yoga instructor who regaled the visitors with her life’s many stories. There was the burgeoning filmmaker trying to learn the trade. A few may have actually needed the work. Then there was the young man ablaze in the latest skateboard fashions who outhustled everybody, including the folks imported from down south. I don’t know when he slept. He is down south now working as a PA on other productions. I’m not surprised.
Regardless, we all had to learn how to deal with the culture of, for lack of a better description, Hollywood.
Man in tailored suit and flip flops
Shooting days could be stressful and demands were curt. A few locals, having better things to do than being barked at, left the production. But most of us took a distant view of the experience, rolled with the shifting priorities, ducked under the occasional attitude, and otherwise tried to learn something.
Like I always say -- you’ve never truly been reprimanded until likened to a munchkin in the Wizard of Oz by a man in a tailored suit and flip flops.
For the most part, the culture clash between Hollywood and Juneau was mild. I’m sure our folksiness drove them crazy. A fellow local put it to me this way: We Juneauites like to know the people we’re working with, where they’re from, where they’re going, and who they are. Hollywood has a job to do and does not care about you, Juneau, or anything other than the task at hand. You are whatever they need at the moment: a forklift, personal shopper, or dishwasher. This isn’t a judgment. It makes sense. Of course Juneauites take a personal approach. In all likelihood you’re going to run into co-workers outside of the office. The L.A. people will never see you again. There is no pressure to maintain future relations when the most urgent thing is to get the show “in the can” … now.
Then there was my confusion with a text one morning that said “show blacks.” That’s it. I thought to myself, “Hmmm. ‘Show blacks.’ Well, maybe Top Chef does need to be more diverse. They seem to have a white, Asian thing going on most of the time.” Then I thought a little more, “That’s an oddly political sentiment to send in a text.” I thought about it even more. “That’s probably not what they meant.” Google quickly enlightened me. It means black work clothes. If you are accidentally on camera, you don’t draw the eye. So you see, the wheel grinds, but grinds slowly.
Perhaps another example of the culture clash and miscommunication was the casual outing of the production by a Juneau radio station. That irked a number of people. First, for fairness, all of the contestants need to be equally in the dark about what’s going on, whether or not they are still competing. Second, they need to capture the true emotion and reactions of the chefs. After all, they’re not actors. Third, for the sake of ratings, viewers and fans shouldn’t know the “big reveal.” With every Top Chef season the “big reveal” is when the chefs find out the finale location. If the audience already knows, fewer watch the show, ratings drop, and so does revenue. I hope Juneau doesn’t get a reputation for being uncooperative. The show that was fun to work on, provided production experience for our burgeoning filmmakers, and by my unofficial accounting, pumped a ton of money into the economy (or at least Fred Meyer).
And above all, what would Padma think?
Padma: professional, poised, pretty
Beyond our different cultural contexts, most people from the production were great. I even got to know a few beyond the production office and had a few over for a homecooked meal. Sadly, I served these production managers for Top Chef, the nation’s preeminent cooking show, dry roast beef.
I never met any of the competing chefs, or “cheftestants” as they’re coined. I did meet a number of the judges at the crew party. I thanked them for coming to Juneau. They all graciously claimed to have had a great time, which is what I’m sure they say to all overly eager star-struck locals. I had a wonderful conversation with the head grip. Grips not only have the coolest name for a profession ever, but are rather cool people too. I still have no idea what a grip does.
Alas, I never did get to explain my love for Alaska to Padma. I never spoke to Padma.
I got to see her though.
You see, I’m a door opener. Before you tsk this trait as hopelessly archaic and sexist, I think it’s genetic. I reflexively open doors for everybody; women, men, and all nationalities. I’d open a door for a pink polka-dotted hermaphroditic Martian, if such a thing existed.
And I held the door for Padma. Padma, Padma, Padma. Professional. Poised. Pretty. Possessor of a perfect palate. Padma remained elusive, but as she left her hotel on the last day of shooting, I happened to be in the right place. All I had to do was keep the door open. Don’t do anything dumb. Don’t slam the door in her face. Don’t say anything stupid to her as you’re apt to do. Better yet, don’t say anything. Just hold the door. Holy God, she’s beautiful ... raven tresses slightly curled, gaze intent on some faraway goal, floating by on a dreamy jet stream of food ferries and magic. Wait! Just hold the door! JUST HOLD THE FREAKIN’ DOOR!
And I held that door. I held that door like the wind.
Clint J. Farr is a Juneau free-lance writer; reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Used with permission. "Top Chef" airs Wednesday nights on Bravo or you can purchase episodes on iTunes.