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."
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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.