The Top Chef finale was filmed in Tucson with beef jerky as the centerpiece | People

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

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

Tucson culinary icons Carlotta Flores of El Charro Café, Don Guerra of Barrio Bread and Maria Mazón of Boca Tacos y Tequila share a table with “Top Chef” hosts Padma Lakshmi, Tom Collichio and others.

Top Chef

The people who did know (the owners of El Charro Café and some Visit Tucson employees and officials who were instrumental in getting the show here) were sworn to secrecy after signing confidentiality agreements that said they would not say a word until that the show reveal the location on its Thursday, May 19 episode.

Now that the news has broken, those involved have offered a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to get Bravo here and what it was like once they arrived.

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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 paid off: “Top Chef” averages 3 million viewers a week.

“I was telling the story. When we talked to the network, it wasn’t just about financial support, but how Tucson fits into the personality of this TV show,” Garcia said, adding that Tucson already had a tie to “Top Chef” through Boca restaurant. Tacos y Tequila and chef-owner María Mazón, who made it to the top 5 in last year’s “Top Chef: Portland.”

The show also wanted to highlight Tucson’s 2015 City of Gastronomy designation. Tucson was the first American city to receive the nod, followed by San Antonio.

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

The “Top Chef” finalists as they learn about their next challenge at El Charro Café on North Court Avenue in downtown Tucson.

Top Chef

Bravo filmed the last two episodes of season 19 in Tucson in November. “Cactus Makes Perfect,” which airs Thursday, May 26, was filmed at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, where the show took over the resort’s Primo restaurant. The finale with the last three chefs competing for the $250,000 grand prize was filmed at the Tanque Verde Resort and airs June 2.

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

Courtesy of Ray Flores

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

After being on set for nearly 16 hours, Carlotta Flores suffered from heat stroke but still participated in the off-camera segment as paramedics treated her, 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 show Bravo viewers Tucson could pay big dividends. The “Top Chef” franchise is one of the network’s most-watched shows.

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

“Top Chef” airs Thursday at 8 pm on Bravo.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at On Twitter @Starburch

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