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Here's what it took to bring 'Top Chef: Houston' to Tucson

As hard as it is to imagine, 30 tractor trailers filled with kitchen and TV production equipment quietly filled the dirt parking lot and tiny stretch of Court Avenue last November.

No one alerted the media or local food writers that Tucson was going to serve as the backdrop of Bravo’s hugely popular cooking competition show “Top Chef: Houston.”

The people who did know — El Charro Café’s owners and some employees and officials with Visit Tucson, who were instrumental in getting the show here — were sworn to secrecy after signing nondisclosure agreements saying they wouldn’t utter a word until the show revealed the location on its episode Thursday, May 19.

Chef Carlotta Flores during production of “Top Chef: Houston” in Tucson.

Now that the cat is out of the bag — the TV-film aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes let is slip late last week and the show hinted at it at the end of the May 12 episode — those involved offered a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to get Bravo here and what it was like once they arrived.

Visit Tucson was instrumental, offering $750,000 to cover production and relocation costs to film the final two episodes of the season. Visit Tucson President Felipe Garcia said the investment was well worth the payoff — “Top Chef” averages 3 million viewers a week.

Don Guerra, of Tucson's Barrio Bread, Barrio Charro and The Monica, pictured with Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi during a competition judging on "Top Chef."

“It was telling the story. When we talked to the network, it was not only about the financial support but it was about how Tucson fits in in the persona of this television show,” said Garcia, adding that Tucson already has a tie to “Top Chef” with Boca Taco y Tequila chef-owner Maria Mazon, who made it to the top 5 in last year’s “Top Chef: Portland.”

The show also wanted to highlight Tucson’s UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation. Tucson was the first American city to get the nod, followed by San Antonio.

“The most important value for us is the exposure,” Garcia said. “This is an amazing ‘commercial’ but more than a commercial, it is a way to tell the culinary story of our community. We want to make sure that they are talking about Tucson and sharing that experience. People who will travel for food, I think this is definitely a destination driver.”

Bravo filmed the final two episodes of season 19 in Tucson in November. “Cactus Makes Perfect,” which airs Thursday, May 26, was filmed at JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, where the show took over the resort’s Primo restaurant. The finale with the final three chefs competing for the grand prize of $250,000 was filmed at Tanque Verde Resort.

The rack used to dry meat for carne seca at El Charro in Tucson.

“Cactus Makes Perfect” is the final Quickfire Challenge in which the four remaining contestants worked with El Charro Café matriarch Carlotta Flores to create a dish centered on the restaurant’s famous roof-dried carne seca. Filming started early in the morning and stretched late into the night, said Flores’ son, Ray.

After being on the set for nearly 16 hours, Carlotta Flores suffered heatstroke but still participated in the segment from off-camera while being treated by paramedics, Ray Flores said.

At the end of that show, one of the contestants was sent home, leaving three finalists to compete at Tanque Verde Resort.

Flores and Garcia said the opportunity to showcase Tucson to Bravo viewers could pay big dividends. The “Top Chef” franchise is one of the network’s most watched shows.

"Top Chef" finalists learn about their upcoming challenge at El Charro Cafe on North Court Avenue in Downtown Tucson.

“To have them be in Tucson is pretty cool. To get them here after COVID, I don’t know if there is a better time for our city,” said Flores, whose family’s El Charro Café is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

“Top Chef” airs at 8 p.m. Thursdays on Bravo. If you have satellite TV, you can catch it at 5 p.m. Tucson time.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at On Twitter @Starburch

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