‘Top Chef’ season 16 casting already underway in cities across the U.S.

“Top Chef” fans are still a few episodes away from finding out who wins season 15, but the casting process for the next installment of the hit Bravo show is already underway.

In-person “meet-and-greet” sessions for chefs aspiring to compete in season 16 kicked off on Thursday at the restaurants of “Top Chef” alumni and friends.

The final list of “cheftestants” (as the show’s participants are called) won’t be announced until mid-spring and their kitchen battles won’t air until late this year, but Bravo executives and the production company behind the unscripted TV program like to give themselves ample time to narrow down a wide applicant pool, says Samantha Hanks, SVP of casting at Magical Elves. That time also gives chefs latitude as they prepare to leave their kitchens for at least a month.

“The application is something quite daunting and coming on the show and leaving your kitchen for that long is a big decision to make,” Hanks says.

From what the former food publicist tells us, we gather that the actual casting call taking place Monday at alum Dale Talde’s dim sum spot in Chinatown, Rice & Gold, will be only as high-stakes as applicants themselves choose.

“Chefs can come in whatever time works for them on their schedule, and they can either just chat with us or they’re welcome to cook,” Hanks explains.

If they do elect to throw themselves in the fire, they get a burner and 30 minutes on the clock to prepare a dish with the one protein, one starch and one vegetable they have brought with them.

Producers are looking for a few qualities in potential contestants, Hanks says: talent; experience; a “great personality”; and a “point of view,” or strong feelings about the food they like cooking best — whether or not it’s on the menu at their current restaurant.

“We’re really proud of this season in terms of the diversity and the different voices across the board,” Hanks says, pointing to contestants like Tanya Holland (a vocal champion of emerging female chefs of color), Rogelio Garcia (a Mexico City-native who diligently worked his way up on the kitchen food chain) and Tu David Phu (a Vietnamese-American exploring the flavors of his heritage) as examples of chefs bringing unique perspectives and backgrounds to the show.

Bravo and Magical Elves executives do a lot of research, networking and recruiting to find their ideal candidates, consulting the show’s judges and alums for recommendations and following up with chefs who may have turned down their invitations before (New York City-based chefs Fatima Ali and Chris Scott are two examples of the latter), but they also invite chefs to reach out. A formal application calls for a video submission, poses questions like “What chefs do you think are overrated in your city?” and gives prompts such as “Create a dish inspired by the texture of ‘velvet.’”

“We put the word out,” Hanks says, “because you never know where someone’s going to come from.”

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