Top Chef To Cost Texas Taxpayers $400,000, Give Or Take the Bacon Budget

padmachocolate.jpg
"Mmm. Taxpayer-funded chocolate is delicious."
For several weeks now, as Top Chef crews have bounced around the state shooting next season's Texas-centric version of the popular Bravo reality show, journalists and food bloggers have wondered: How much, if anything, did the state pay for the show to spotlight our state's culinary scene?

The answer, according to the state, is nothing. But how much will the state pay? That's a different question, and the answer to that one is a tad higher: $400,000, according to a written estimate agreed to by the governor's office.

It all started in late June, when a San Antonio blogger stumbled on the Top Chef crew at a restaurant -- and was asked, not-so-politely, to stop Tweeting about their location. It was a stunning display of arrogance, even for a show that treats veal stock like it's the tears of the Virgin Mary.

A week later, Eater.com figured out why Padma and Co. were chomping around these parts: The next season of the show would be shot in and focus on Texas. And muzzling their fans wasn't the only thing Top Chef and its production company, Magical Elves, were doing to wear out their Texas welcome, Eater reported. They were also trying to shake down local convention and visitors bureaus for cash and other incentives in exchange for shooting in Texas cities.

It was never clear which cities, if any, shelled out cash in exchange for airtime. Houston officials told Eater that the city turned the show down. An official with Dallas' convention and visitors bureau told me that they, too, resisted Top Chef's pay-to-play ovations. Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission, told me that the city had been approached by the show in years past and found the price too high. They were helping the show shoot around Dallas, she said, but the city hadn't paid for the honor.

Enter the state tourism office. The show had been dubbed Top Chef: Texas, so it made sense that the governor's office would be the one to meet the producers' demands, in hopes of driving foodies from far and wide to spend their money at Texas restaurants and on Texas-made products.

So on July 12, I called Governor Rick Perry's office and asked. Pretty straightforward inquiry, and one you'd think that Perry, proud and loud defender of small government, would want answered quickly and efficiently, to avoid wasting even more precious taxpayer dollars at a time when we can't afford proper text books.

But the answer I got -- in the form of an obviously cut-and-pasted email from Lucy Nashed, the governor's very cordial deputy press secretary -- made it clear that this wasn't something the governor wanted discussed:

Texas is a great state to live, work and visit, and we welcome anyone who wants to experience all that the Lone Star State has to offer. Texas Tourism uses a variety of strategies to promote the state to foreign and domestic travelers, including an integrated advertising ("Texas. It's Like a Whole Other Country" campaign, brand integration, Traveltex.com, Howdy Neighbor and Texas on Tour) and public relations campaign (Americas, European and Asian regions, trade and consumer shows, travel trade and media relations) to attract leisure visitors, meetings and conventions to the state.

It's no surprise the answer was canned. I wasn't the only one asking. On the very same day, writers from the Austin American-Statesman and Eater.com sent emails asking for the same information. According to those email exchanges, provided to the Observer under the state's public records laws, Nashed gave Eater.com the exact same answer, and referred further questions to someone at Bravo's parent company, NBC Universal.

The response didn't sit well with Eater's deputy editor, Paula Forbes, who wrote back:

I will be sure to get in touch with her. We're specifically interested in getting a response from the State of Texas, though. Is there someone ... who can tell me whether or not the show was paid to film in Texas, and if so, what the dollar amount was? As these are taxpayer dollars, I'm sure the specific amount would be of interest to both my readers and to the Texas population at large.

That's restrained-journalist-to-evasive-flak-speak for GIMME THOSE NUMBERS OR I'LL CUT YOU. But Nashed wasn't moved.

"Here is what I will say," she responded, with quintessentially enraging PR coyness. "No state funds have been awarded."

Which, technically, was true. But if reality food TV has taught us anything, it's never, ever cook any dish that doesn't involve lots of pork. Oh, and also: The truth is easily fudged.

Because while state money may not have been spent bringing Top Chef to Texas, the governor's office did agree to pay an estimated $400,000 "for the integration of [the state's] brand in Bravo's production of Top Chef cycle 9." It says so in an estimate drawn up by TM Advertising, a Dallas-based firm that helps the governor's tourism and economic development office promote the state. The agreement was "accepted" by the "client" -- that would be the great state of Texas -- on June 29, one day after the Top Chef crew was first spotted in San Antonio. (The governor's office sent me the estimate late yesterday.)

It's unclear what that $400,000 will pay for, when it will get paid, or whether the money will go directly to the show's producers or to TM. The document doesn't elaborate, and neither will Nashed. According to emails the state provided, Chelsi Runyan is the TM account manager who handles Texas' tourism account, but she declined to comment, and her boss hasn't called me back. Same goes for Bravo's folks. A Bravo spokeswoman called back but declined to comment, other than to say that the ninth season of the show will air sometime this fall.

Brian Alexander, a legal affairs rep from Magical Elves, also declined to comment. And if correspondence between Magical Elves and the state would shed any light on the arrangement, we may never know. The state's lawyers referred my request for that correspondence to the Texas Attorney General, claiming that the information "may implicate the privacy or proprietary interests of a third party, Magical Elves."

To which we say: Get our your Sharpie, do your redacting and send it along. We're only interested in Colicchio's head-shaving budget, anyway. We swear.

Of course, $400,000 is only an estimate. If Padma decides our state flag clashes with her wardrobe, the final bill could turn out to be less. But it's more likely taxpayers are on the hook for even more, since the state has to pay TM for the work it does involving the show, not to mention the resources it's already wasted dodging Top Chef-related press inquiries. Emails show that TM's Runyan and tourism office staffers have already met to discuss how to promote the show on the state's tourism website, TravelTex.com.

Maybe it will all be worth it. Maybe the state has some elaborate formula for deciding just how many people will travel to Texas simply because they watched Gail Simmons drool over some naked brisket. But as long as the governor's office isn't saying anything -- and as long as lots of lawyers are involved in making sure we get as little info as possible -- we'll have to assume Perry is just angling for a role as a quick-fire judge.

Remember, Governor: Vote for bacon. It's the presidential thing to do.


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24 comments
Dallas Diner
Dallas Diner

Do people actually remember where each season is set?  Me, all I remember is the food, the bitching, the backbiting and the strange haircuts.

observant
observant

Let's spend $400,000 on programming  that will entice Texas residents to eat and maybe we'll soon tie Mississippi and Alabama for the most obese state. Meanwhile, teachers can go hungry.

Watching South Detroit
Watching South Detroit

Press secretaries are just like lawyers.  Just lying, BS artists who try to evade and obstruct as much as possible.  They wouldn't know the truth if it ran over them, backed up over them, and ran over them again.

Table for Two
Table for Two

Let me see if I get this straight.  The State of Texas committed $400,000 forwhat amounts to a season’s worth of one-hour commercials on a very popularshow?  If I’m counting right, that’ssomething like 14 episodes before you consider the repeats.  As far as advertising goes, that was a smart move.   Ithink a lot of places would’ve paid double to do that.   Sure government wastes money sometimes; thisjust doesn’t seem to be one of those cases.

Diane Birdwell
Diane Birdwell

Shouldn't they be paying Texas--or the cities for transacting business, using facilities, etc...?

Joe
Joe

 Well at least we did not send Michelle Obama to Spain with 22 friends and rent out a whole floor to a four star hotel on the American taxpayers dime.  Or better yet send Obummer on another golfing trip while our solider bleed and die for you and me.

samplerayt
samplerayt

If this is all about attracting tourists, why are taxpayers footing the bill.  I would think the Chamber of Commerce would foot the bill, and those dollars would be from businesses.  After all, who ultimately benefits from this?  Citizens, or businesses?  Of course, it's the latter.

Emm
Emm

How many teachers could be paid with that $400,000?

guest
guest

The show filming here also brings revenue to the state by way of hotel, catering, purchase of supplies; rental of vehicles, locations, equipment and any hiring of "locals"

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones

Yes it is an amazing deal on advertising. But does the state of Texas, the fastest growing state in the last decade actually need to be advertising  itself? Yahoo reports once a week about "best place to live" "best place to start a business" "safest cities" and on every list of positive possibilities Texas always makes the cut. And at the end of the day Texas is not paying Yahoo a dime for that kind of press. Texas does not need any help from Bravo to look good. We do it on our own every day of the week.

Ed D.
Ed D.

So what's the big message: "Texas: our citizens eat food, sometimes in restaurants"? "Real Texans prefer solid food to photosynthesis"? "Texas: come for the food, stay for the collapsing infrastructure and shredded public schools"?

Ozonedude
Ozonedude

Umm, maybe Texas shouldn't be spending money on TV commercials right now? When teachers are getting laid off. Just a thought. In any event, $400K to show product place the Texas flag seems a bit steep.

Kyle Nielsen
Kyle Nielsen

Texas doesn't need any ads, at any price.

Nunya
Nunya

There's always a troll looking for some reason to talk about the president when the subject has nothing to do with him.

You, my friend, are that.

Beda
Beda

You're right, Joe, we didn't send Mrs. Obama to Spain with her friends.  It was a speculation made by a foreign journalist that had no basis in fact.  Our current economy is partially in the condition it is in because Bush got us into two unfunded wars and because of his tax cuts, giving a tax rate to the wealthy lower even than under Reagan (which the Repubs insisted on continuing last  year).  Obama is pulling our troops out slower than I would like, but he's trying to make the best out of the mess he was given.

Diane Birdwell
Diane Birdwell

You have evidence that the trip was paid for by Americans? Have you seen the bill? And does that little side-step besmirchingof the First Lady have ANYTHING to do with this? Uh, the answer to all above is NO.

Amy S
Amy S

I would argue it doesn't benefit anybody, including business, except Bravo/Top Chef.

Joshua Jerod
Joshua Jerod

What, to add more incompetent, or at best, mediocre bureaucrats to the public dole? The only correlation we have between money and education is the more money given to public education, the worst they do in educating our kids. Which is why kids use calculators on the SAT now. . . 

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones

ya, thats a bad argument, thats like nothing when it comes to salaries. Thats like 1 School offical in Dallas ISD

DJDave
DJDave

10 teachers at $40,000 per year = $400,000

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones

Actually lets start off one by one, "Hotels catering purchases of supplies" if they spend the $400,000 to do any of those its a wash, that money would have been spent here anyway by a state organization. Among other things productions get tax breaks in this state for such things as hotels catrering and supplies due to the way the law is setup for filmmakers. So now its negative growth. As for the latter about equipment and hiring locals, Bravo only hires PA's locally. A PA makes all of 70-$100 a day. Everyone else in their team is flown in from california along with most there gear. Don't get me wrong, I am all for them highlighting Texas, but half a million is enough to finance half a season of a reality food show. I'd rather a show be successive because it has a fan base that brings in Ad Dollars, not government dollars.

Ozonedude
Ozonedude

Texas is so Awesome for business they don't need to get paid to film here. Or bring Tech jobs here. Or any other job. Otherwise there ain't much miracle in Texas Miracle.

Adrianmcdonald
Adrianmcdonald

Yeah, but not enough to offset $400,000.  Those benefits you mention are only benefits when the state isn't subsidizing it.  

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