Why San Francisco's Street-Food Challenge Was Tom Colicchio's All-Time 'Favorite' Top Chef Moment

Tom Colicchio Top Chef

He’s filmed 12 seasons of Top Chef — the most recent one in Boston, which began airing last week. But Tom Colicchio says that his favorite moment happened during the first season.

He was referring to the street-food challenge in San Francisco, when the chefs had to sell their dishes out of carts. “Partly because we were actually able to go on the street because no one knew of the show yet, so we were pretty anonymous … We were in the Mission, and I think it was Sunday morning, and there were a lot of characters out there,” he tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview.

RELATED: Tom Colicchio’s Top Three Thanksgiving Desserts (Not a Pie Among Them)

Of course, eight years later, not only are the cast and crew not able to sneak around, they now welcome “super fans,” as Colicchio calls them, to become part of the show. “I think it’s actually easier that way … We typically set up in a warehouse, we put up four walls and create the kitchen. We actually invited [fans] in for a cocktail party that was a challenge as well. So that was pretty neat,” he says.

Turns out Colicchio is a bit of an expert in the Boston area, as his son attended school in nearby Concord. The chef thinks that the city has “great people watching” and is best observed by just walking around. “I always find that Boston kind of reveals itself if you take time to look at it. It’s not something where you get a guidebook and hit all the sights,” he says. Of course, he does have a few restaurants he recommends, such as Via Matta and Tico (both run by his “good friend” Michael Schlow); Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette’s Coppa, an Italian wine and pizza bar; and Barbara Lynch’s B&G Oysters.

As he reflected back on 2014, Colicchio shared his two favorite (and contrasting!) food experiences. He says he started gardening this year, so one was being able to cook and eat the bounty he grew. (His take on swiss chard, which he tosses with chiles, garlic and onion, sounds especially sublime.) “Swiss chard and beets, too, they taste like dirt, they taste like the earth, there’s just something about it,” he says, adding that during the winter months, “a good roast on a hearty vegetable is as satisfying as any steak I’ve ever had.”

The second was having the chance to eat the 20-course tasting menu at René Redzepi’s Michelin-starred Noma, in Copenhagen. “[Redzepi] is just a wizard. It’s real food and a lot of what you are eating is locally sourced and things that you don’t typically see here. Certain mosses and things like that which really sounds like, ‘who wants to eat moss?’ but it was great. Every dish was something new,” he says.

But even a culinary guru Colicchio has a few food dislikes, such as okra and mountain yams (“It’s the slime factor!”) and insects (though he cops to enjoying the new Exo bars, which are made with cricket flour). So would he eat creepy crawlers for the sake of good television? “I’m not a fan of eating actual whole bugs. If I had to do it I guess I would, but I’d really fight with the producers on that challenge,” he says. Still, as a judge he knows he has to remain impartial. “I’ve been served okra [on the show] and it’s not about me or my preferences, I’m not like, ‘you’re voted off.’ No, I have to eat that okra and judge it.”

With season 12 behind them, Colicchio and the show’s producers must no doubt be planning for Top Chef‘s future, and the chef revealed a few folks who he’d love to see in front of the camera, like actor Wendell Pierce of Treme and The Wire. “He’s a good guy who really loves food, I think he’d be a lot of fun,” he says. Also on his wish list: A certain political power couple who are known for eating well. “Obviously it would be great to get the First Lady on or even the President, but they’re a little busy these days.”

Watch our exclusive interview with Colicchio below:

Top Chef airs Wednesdays on Bravo (10 p.m ET).

—Lexi Dwyer

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