'Top Chef Estrellas': Why is the Spanish-language spinoff so different?

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Image Credit: Telemundo

Bravo’s Top Chef may have just wrapped up its eleventh season, but the popular reality cooking competition is about to get a Latino-themed makeover when Top Chef Estrellas premieres on Telemundo Feb. 16. And there’s more to the show than the lilt of Spanish to distinguish it from its English-language counterpart. The trailer for this incarnation of Top Chef promises “spicy new ingredients,” like a a blonde who seductively tears off her chef coat, a hunky guy who appears shirtless, and a handful of fully-made up Spanish TV stars who prance around in the kitchen in high heels.

If all this sounds more like what you’d see on a telenovela than an episode of Top Chef, that’s not by accident. In fact, several surprising — and potentially polarizing — changes have been made to the show’s format so as to appeal to Latin audiences.

For starters, Top Chef Estrellas won’t feature chefs hungry to make their mark on the culinary world — an element that’s been essential to the Top Chef formula since its premiere on Bravo in 2006. Instead, Top Chef Estrellas (translation: Top Chef Stars) will feature eight Spanish celebrities cooking against one another in competition to raise money for charity. The stars — including a teen heart throb (pop star Christian Chávez), a former beauty queen (Cynthia Olavarría) and a sexologist/television personality (62-year-old Dr. Nancy Álvarez) — will be judged by former Top Chef Masters contestant Lorena Garcia and L.A.-based Mexican chefs Jaime Martin Del Campo and Ramiro. And no one will be sent home as per the usual Top Chef formula; instead, eliminated celebrities will stick around as sous chefs to the remaining contestants. The are a few similarities to the original Top Chef, including Quickfire and elimination challenges, filmed on the same set used for Top Chef New Orleans.

It’s no accident that several of the show’s contestants are telenovela stars. Telemundo is hoping to draw their fans as well as original Top Chef junkies, according to Daniel Cubillo, who oversees the network’s non-scripted programming. “We wanted to offer something attractive for our demo — and that means celebrities,” explains Cubillo, who says he worked closely with Top Chef production company Magical Elves and Bravo executives to adapt the hit series. “Until now, Top Chef was a cable product and very specialized for a niche audience. What we are trying to do with our show is open it to all demographics. Even if you are not interested in cooking, once you see the novela stars and celebrities on the show, you will keep watching. We [think] celebrities are a must to keep the audience engaged.”

But some Latino Top Chef fans argue that the use of novela stars detracts from the appeal of the original show; that is, a food-driven competition among serious professional chefs. Even Spanish-American chef José Andrés — who has appeared on Top Chef as a guest judge — chimed in, suggesting that fans of the Bravo show may not find much in common with its Spanish language version.

And he’s not alone. “I think using celebrities that no one outside the typical novela viewer recognizes really defeats the purpose of calling a show like this Top Chef,” says Marnely Rodriguez-Murray, a professional pastry chef and Culinary Institute of America graduate. “Seeing the bimbo Latina and hot guy act crazy in the kitchen really reinforces everything that’s stereotypical about Latin entertainment. It’s embarrassing and it dumbs down everything that made me such a fan of Top Chef in the first place.”

At 29, Rodriguez-Murray — who emigrated from the Dominican Republic four years ago and speaks both English and Spanish fluently — falls squarely within the growing numbers of bilingual and bicultural U.S. Hispanics whom Spanish television executives like Cubillo hope to reach. Telemundo is second only to Univision as the largest Spanish-language network nationwide, and Top Chef Estrellas is part of its strategy to vy for a larger share of a market comprising 52 million U.S. Hispanics, whose annual buying power amounts to $1.2 trillion.

Cubillo insists that “celebrities are the perfect entry point to draw in Hispanic audiences regardless of language,” explaining he believes the new format delivers “purely general market entertainment.” Judge Lorena Garcia, who was born in Venezuela but now resides in Miami, agrees that celebrities are a natural point of interest for Latino viewers. “If you want to see Hispanic chefs in competition, watch the original Top Chef,” says Garcia, who adds that she alternates between watching English-language network television and Spanish programming with her mother, an avid novela fan. “What we’re doing now is a bridge between the Bravo show and what Latinos want to watch on TV.”

That’s not to say that Telemundo is ditching the idea of a future spinoff that might appeal more directly to Latino foodies. “I’d say that maybe in a second stage, we could think about real chefs mixed in with the celebrities as contestants,” shares Cubillo. And everyone loves cute kids, says Cubillo, which could make a show featuring junior foodies “a really good idea.”

Even so, Telemundo might be smart to consider a return — sooner rather than later — to the formula that made Top Chef such a successful franchise in the first place, says Carmen Gonzalez, a prominent chef and Spanish language cooking show host. “I think the Latin market is extremely thirsty for a show that showcases other Latino chefs,” says Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico who competed on season 2 of Top Chef Masters. “I know without a doubt that a significant amount of Hispanic viewers would love to see real chefs competing with real food for a real title.”

Check out the trailer for Top Chef Estrellas below.

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