In my household, Top Chef is the one television show that unites the family. My wife and I will drift in and out of each others’ favorite shows (I devour intense narrative television for both work and pleasure; she prefers “background TV” that she can halfway tune out), but neither of us would dare watch Top Chef without the other.
Where other cooking competitions may rely too much on typical reality show melodrama or, conversely, be so gentle and cozy as to undercut any sense of stakes, Top Chef is as much about craft as it is about personality. We tune in to watch competitors with remarkable skills test themselves against their peers in a professional environment. Sure, there’s still the occasional bitter rivalry or the rare on-set romance, but it’s been a decade since anyone (allegedly) stole someone else’s pea purée. Top Chef presents itself as the Big Leagues, where good television is just a fortuitous byproduct of great food.
That may be more true than ever this year, as Top Chef is marking the occasion of its 20th season with Top Chef: World All-Stars, assembling winners and runners-up from the core US series and the franchise’s many international spin-offs. All 16 competitors (I refuse to use the word “cheftestants”) have already proven their fortitude on one stage or another, and that means fewer inflated egos, less bickering, and arguably, inferior reality TV. As competency porn, however, Top Chef is as satisfying as ever.
No major spoilers ahead for the first two episodes of Top Chef: World All-Stars.
Set in London, which lacks its own Top Chef varietal and is therefore neutral territory, World All-Stars adheres to the show’s time-tested format: Chefs compete for immunity in a brief, quickfire skills challenge on the pristine Top Chef set before traveling offsite to serve the judges — chef/restaurateur Tom Colicchio, critic Gail Simmons, and host Padma Lakshmi — a meal highlighting a particular ingredient, theme, or technique. The best dish wins its creator prestige or some sort of prize, while the chef behind the weakest dish must “pack their knives and go.” Once the cast has been reduced to four, the survivors (plus the winner of the season-long gauntlet Last Chance Kitchen) will travel to Paris to crown a champion of champions. The challenges require a great deal of creativity and dexterity, and because there’s not a single scrub in the cast, no one can coast by on a mediocre dish.
Contrary to earlier seasons of Top Chef, all of the contestants seem to have arrived with their egos in check. No one gives the impression that they see the 15 rounds of the contest as a mere formality between themselves and the vaunted title, even Michelin Star-winner Begoña Rodrigo of Spain. This lends an air of respect and legitimacy, but it also robs the show of an important narrative ingredient: a villain. This itself has been a trend on Top Chef over the past few seasons, which have largely done away with your classic reality show baddies who are “not here to make friends.” (See: Season 7’s smug manipulator Angelo Sosa, or Season 9’s bully Heather Terhune.)
Instead, we have a mix of kind, quiet, and competent chefs like Thailand’s May Phattanant Thongthong and Lebanon’s Charbel Hayek, and boisterous but benign personalities like Brazil’s Luciana Berry and Kentucky’s Sara Bradley. The characters who pop most in the opening two episodes are the chefs who buckle under pressure, which might be enough to get you rooting against them out of pure frustration. Dawn Burrell’s considerable talent took her to the finals of US Season 18, but two years later she’s still struggling against the clock and radiating an energy of constant dread. Top Chef: Mexico winner Gabri Rodriguez is a fountain of positivity, but he’s also a walking disaster, so excited about his culinary creations that he forgets to share the kitchen or follow the rules.
The rules actually play an unusual role as a sort of antagonist for World All-Stars, as they have an unavoidably uneven relationship with the international cast. Each of the contestants is a Top Chef veteran, but those Top Chef franchises don’t all follow the exact same format. Top Chef: France, for example, is set entirely in the confines of its home kitchen, so French winner Samuel Albert has difficulty adjusting to working on location for the first elimination challenge. Top Chef: Mexico has no shopping component, leading Gabri Rodriguez to load his cart at Whole Foods with nearly twice his allotted budget. And, as cosmopolitan a food city as London is, not everyone is going to find the ingredients they’re used to working with at The Official Supermarket Chain of Top Chef. A challenge in the second episode is built around rice, one of the most ubiquitous staples on Earth, but a relative stranger to two of the chefs. This adds a bit of texture to the game not provided by the players themselves, and a built-in underdog dynamic that could potentially pay off down the road.
Still, if you’re still watching Top Chef after 20 seasons, it’s probably not because you’re looking for gossip and drama, it’s because you want to see tremendous culinary talents compete at the highest level, and to get a peek at fine cuisine that most of us will never taste for ourselves. In that regard, Top Chef is still the gold standard, a reality show that makes you feel classy and educated for watching it, whether or not that’s actually the case.