From left: Gail Simmons, Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio
11/03/2011 at 02:30 PM EDT
With 29 contestants and three cities around the state, Top Chef: Texas
is shaping up to be the biggest season yet.
found the chefs split into groups and facing off against each other in two rounds – the final qualifying rounds will air next Wednesday – just to determine which 16 chefs will actually make the final cut.
They will also be facing some major celebrities on the other side of the judges' table this season.
"I think everybody who comes on the show – especially if they're not in the food business – has a certain level of interest in food," host Padma Lakshmi
told PEOPLE of the season's array of guest judges on a conference call. "These are cities you have to fly to, and you have to take a day or two out of your schedule."
Among the big names appearing as guests this season: Charlize Theron
and Patti LaBelle.
"I've actually cooked with Charlize," head judge Tom Colicchio
said. "And she's a serious, serious foodie and loves to cook."
With so many fun foodies coming on the show, Colicchio's biggest regret is not getting to experience the guest judges' culinary skills firsthand
"I've heard that Patti LaBelle can throw down pretty good," he said. "They're not cooking for us so it's hard to say, but they all talk a really good game."
Colicchio also praised scientist-turned-chef Nathan Myhrvold, who will also appear: "He comes from a very, very different sort of angle than I do. Aside from food, he's just brilliant and fun to be around. And I think he'd be a real blast to cook with."
"We've hung out a lot," Lakshmi added. "He's just one of those people that you can ask about anything, you know? He's one of the world's foremost experts on paleontology and
he's a barbecue expert."
Although most guests appear because of their love of food, there's another explanation for Pee-wee Herman's turn at the table: In the film Pee-wee's Big Adventure
, his bike is hidden in the basement of the Alamo.
"That's it," Colicchio said with a laugh. "Do you need any other reason?"
In Season 9, Top Chef
regular Gail Simmons
, restaurateur Emeril Lagasse and chef Hugh Acheson will join Lakshmi and Colicchio as judges. Other guests include Cat Cora, John Besh and Tim Love.