'Top Chef' spurs food interest in Kentucky

Photo courtesy of Carmo Correia/Bravo

Paducah Chef Sara Bradley cooks with Durian -- a local fruit -- in a Quickfire challenge at the A-Ma Temple in Macau, China, during Episode 14 of "Top Chef" Season 16.

LOUISVILLE -- Even before Season 16 ended, Kentucky was experiencing the "'Top Chef' effect."

For 12 weeks, between December and February, the Bravo show highlighted the state's tourism opportunities, taking viewers on a whirlwind journey through its central and southern regions as 15 chefs competed for the national title.

Episodes pointed viewers to iconic attractions like Churchill Downs in Louisville and Keeneland in Lexington. But they also introduced people to hidden gems like the Rathskeller room at the Seelbach Hotel and the houseboats of Lake Cumberland.

Tourism officials previously said they expected "Top Chef" to boost visits to and interest in the state once the season ended.

But leading up to last week's finale, in which Alabama native Kelsey Barnard Clark was crowned the "Top Chef," local places featured throughout the season reported they'd already seen an uptick in business, with customers both new and old asking about their time on the show.

In Paducah, farm-to-table restaurant Freight House, owned by runner-up contestant Sara Bradley, has been taking reservations for out-of-town visitors from as close as Nashville and as far as Chicago.

In Lexington, chef Ouita Michel's family of restaurants have stayed busy through their dead season, with customers braving the cold to ask about her turn as a guest judge.

And in Loretto, Maker's Mark distillery has seen an increase in customers at its restaurant, Star Hill Provisions. A new common question for the distillery's tour guides: "Were you there when they filmed?"

"When we talked before the season started, the goal was we want Kentucky to be top of mind for potential visitors," said Kristen Branscum, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Tourism. "We want people to know we have a great culinary scene. We want them to get a good idea of what Kentucky is.

"It went so much better than we could have hoped."

Immeasurable impact

For tourism officials, encouraging more people to visit Kentucky isn't just about showing off the state's shifting landscapes or its rich history. It's about promoting an industry that pumps billions of dollars into the economy annually through visitor spending, tax revenue and job creation.

In 2017, the tourism and travel industry generated more than $1.57 billion in tax revenue for Kentucky while contributing more than $15 billion to the state's economy, according to a report from the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.

That year, the industry employed more than 195,000 people statewide, providing more than $3.3 billion in wages to Kentucky workers, the report stated.

In recent years, food and culinary experiences have increasingly played a role in where people decide to go.

According to the World Food Travel Association, 80 percent of leisure travelers in 2016 were motivated to visit a particular destination because of a culinary activity or attraction, such as a farm, distillery or particular restaurant.

For the past two years, the state tourism department has attempted to increase its share of food and drink travel by marketing Kentucky as a culinary destination.

And while individual campaigns have brought new attention to Kentucky, state officials knew nothing could put it on the culinary map quite like a season of "Top Chef."

"Top Chef" has traveled the country highlighting a different city or state each season since 2006. The show's locations become almost an additional character alongside the competing chefs, and episodes live on forever as an extended travelogue for the regions the show visits.

In 2016, tourism commissioner Branscum invited producer Diana Schmedeman to the Kentucky Derby in hopes of wooing the show to the state.

By November that year, Schmedeman had returned with a small crew for a full state tour -- and was sold on using it for a future season.

"When we got there and saw everything it had to offer ... the culinary atmosphere was changing, and it was palpable," Schmedeman said. "It was like it's happening now, we need to be here."

To accommodate "Top Chef," a Kentucky tourism board last year approved up to $3.5 million in production incentives for the show, promising to refund the production company a portion of any eligible costs it spent in the state.

At the time, the incentive marked a drastic jump from sponsorship or rebates the show had reportedly received in other filming locations.

But state officials said the money wasn't guaranteed. Kentucky does not issue companies filming rebates until after they submit a full cost report, outlining what they spent money on and where they spent it.

State officials have since reviewed Bravo's cost report and issued the network almost $1.5 million in rebates -- about 30 percent of the $4.9 million the company paid for eligible in-state expenses, said Jay Hall, executive director of the Office of Film and Tourism Development.

The rebates can be a large expense for the state. But tourism officials say the economic impact that can come from being on "Top Chef" is immeasurable.

"It absolutely elevates the perception that people have of Kentucky," said Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing communications for Louisville Tourism. "... I think a lot of high-end foodies underestimate our part of the country. If this show shining a spotlight can elevate that and change those perceptions, then it was certainly worth the effort."

Capitalizing on the culinary craze

On March 14, a couple from Arizona and 10 people from Minnesota joined Mint Julep Tours for its first of four "Top Chef"-inspired culinary tours.

Accompanied by one of the company's guides, the group traveled among three Louisville-area restaurants that were connected the show -- getting access to people who'd been featured in the episodes and learning about the area's history as they shared a progressive meal.

Tour development coordinator Chasta McIntyre said the company had started growing its food-focused tours even before "Top Chef" was announced. But now that the show has aired, companies and organizations across the commonwealth are attempting to capitalize off its publicity.

Bradley, the Kentucky contestant on the season, let customers get a taste of what she served the judges by rolling out dishes from the show on her restaurant's menu.

Guest judge Newman Miller of Star Hill Provisions recreated the meal he served at an elimination challenge for three sold-out dinners.

And the Kentucky Tourism Department has launched a web page dedicated to the places and people seen on "Top Chef," allowing visitors to create their own itineraries.

"I feel like they've done a tremendous job of using 'Top Chef' to promote" the state, said chef Michel, who served as a guest judge on episode 12.

Margie Gainey Cassidy of Tennessee said the show and a Facebook group dedicated to it have encouraged her to plan a trip to Kentucky this summer.

She's never been to the Bluegrass State and lives almost 200 miles from Paducah. But she plans to visit Bradley's restaurant as soon as she and her husband can.

"In the 'Top Chef' group, everyone is talking about how they've been to Sara's Freight House before and how good the food is," Cassidy said. "It makes me want to go there."

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