Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.
Few were surprised when the Bravo network made the official announcement in June that Las Vegas would serve as backdrop for the sixth season of “Top Chef.”
After all, rumors had been swirling for months, chefs were spotted around town and guest judges were leaking info via Twitter. It quickly became known as the city’s worst-kept TV secret.
Few, however, might have guessed that “Top Chef’s” home base for the season would be a new locals casino.
Up against resort giants, M Resort snagged the role as the “Top Chef: Las Vegas” production location for the show's sixth season with hopes the Emmy-winning series would bring national attention to the Henderson property.
If M wanted exposure, it got it during “Top Chef’s” first two episodes. The series garnered 2.6 million viewers during its premiere, and 2.77 million tuned in for the second episode.
Since the “Top Chef: Las Vegas’” premiere on Aug. 19, hits to M Resort’s Web site have doubled, call volumes have increased and visitors who might not normally come in to the resort have done so, M Resort Executive Vice President and General Manager John Lipkowitz said.
And visitor curiosity about the show is endless.
“We get questions every day, all day long,” Lipkowitz said. “They’re interested in what M is, and that was part of our decision to do the show.”
M housed the “Top Chef” kitchen, where “chef’testants” compete in the majority of their Quickfire challenges, and the Judges Table, where one chef each week is told to “please pack your knives and go.”
Neither Bravo nor M Resort would comment on where the “Top Chef” kitchen or judges were located within the resort.
The resort’s more recognizable features served as a backdrop for other aspects of the show, including M’s lobby, Daydream pool, Marinelli’s Italian Restaurant and the Studio B Show Kitchen.
Lipkowitz even made an appearance in the season’s first episode to welcome the chef’s to their new home base.
While “Top Chef’s” taping took place in and around Las Vegas earlier this year, M’s decision to pursue the show dates back to the resort’s early construction days.
Magical Elves, the company that produces “Top Chef” for Bravo, took a meeting with the resort’s executives and was immediately impressed with M’s focus on food, Magical Elves Chief Operating Officer Ross Jacobson said.
Even before the resort’s March debut, owner Anthony Marnell III promised quality dining at a reasonable price in his new resort, banning $15 martinis and $90 steaks.
He promised that the restaurants would be M’s own, with no outsourcing.
Plans were announced for a 500-seat buffet, featuring live-action cooking stations, where diners could learn the tips and techniques from the resort’s chefs. The resort’s Italian restaurant would use recipes from the Marnell family cookbook, paired with wine from their private label.
“Top Chef” producers saw the potential in those offerings.
“They were really passionate about food. It was just clear from the beginning,” Jacobson said. “We wouldn’t have done the deal with the M Resort if they would have come to us from a ‘we-love-the-show perspective’ before the ‘we-love-food perspective.’”
Jacobson said partnering with a new resort was a leap of faith for M Resort and “Top Chef.”
M Resort wanted the right exposure from the show while “Top Chef” producers hoped the property would provide everything the show needed.
“It was kind of scary for us, because the resort wasn’t even built yet,” Jacobson said. “At the beginning of the talks, the economy was in good shape but as things went on, we thought, ‘Oh God, is this thing even going to get built?’”
The easier route for producers might have been to pick an established property like Caesars Palace or Bellagio with experience in hosting such productions. But they saw other benefits in M aside from the resort’s love of food.
Producers said the fact that M competes more in the locals market than with Strip properties was another reason to choose it.
“One of the constraints that we couldn’t have on the show creatively would be to be at a resort like the Bellagio where you could only be at MGM Mirage properties,” Jacobson said. “What if there would have been a great restaurant at Caesars we wanted to use? MGM Mirage would have never let that happen.”
Logistically, it wasn’t difficult to figure out how to integrate the show into the property and daily operations, Lipkowitz said.
“We might be a new resort, but we have a lot of casino veterans,” Lipkowitz said. “For all of us in the casino business, the making of commercials and other different productions is something we have to do as part of our everyday brand components.”
Just having a production team on property created a buzz with M guests. The mystery of who they might be added fuel to the fire, he said.
Hosting “Top Chef” did come with a price for M, but neither Bravo nor M Resort would comment on the price.
“The way the resort gets highlighted during the show, no one else can do that for them,” Jacobson said.
“We are absolutely pleased with the result,” Lipkowitz said.
One thing the price tag doesn’t include: Insider information on the season finale — not even for Lipkowitz, who has been a fan since the show’s first season, he said
“I do not know who wins,” Lipkowitz said. “I’ll be watching the finale just like everyone else.”