Today marks the 15th anniversary of what is still one of the best reality shows on television. When Top Chef premiered on Bravo on March 8th, 2006, the cable network was still in the early stages of its reality makeover. And while The Real Housewives of Orange County lit the way for the network's future, shows like Project Runway and Top Chef helped put Bravo on the map for quality reality programming. Over the course of 15 years and 17 seasons — most recently a Los Angeles-set All-Star season that saw the show at the top of its form — Top Chef has consistently delivered, winning an Emmy Award for its trouble, and setting the standard for food-based reality competitions everywhere.
To commemorate Top Chef's 15th anniversary, we've gathered together 50 memorable moments from the show's history. Some big, some small, but all instrumental to Top Chef becoming the show it is today.
Top Chef got their first big proto-viral confrontational moment in their very first restaurant wars, and it wasn't even the losing team at each other's throats. After Harold, Tiffany, and Dave's restaurant took the win, Dave and Tiffani got into a prickly squabble over who deserved the individual win. Dave (a meek fan favorite), who'd chaffed at Tiffani (the season's villain) talking over him all challenge, finally snapped and hissed "I'm not your bitch, bitch!" at her, making his way into reality TV lore, if not ultimately into the show's winner circle.
In just their third episode, the Season 1 chefs were placed in teams and tasked with making food for a bunch of kids at an after-school program, with the unappealing (especially for kids) monkfish as the main ingredient. When a few of the chefs (including eventual top 2 Harold and Tiffani) turned up their noses at the idea of dumbing down their culinary output for the kids' unsophisticated palates, Tom Colicchio smacked them down for their lousy attitudes. It was a bad look for the chefs, but it was kind of amazing to watch these professional chefs take the stance that kids don't know shit.
Though Padma Lakshmi is as synonymous with Top Chef as head judge Tom Collichio at this point, there was a time that she wasn’t even part of the series. Season 1 was hosted by Katie Lee — née Katie Lee Joel, as she was then married to Billy Joel — and Padma didn’t start til Season 2. We loved her from the first "Please pack your knives and go," and she’s only continued to grow as a host since.
The late great Anthony Bourdain made his first of many appearances as a guest judge in Season 2. In this particular episode, he was on hand for a Thanksgiving feast prepared by the Quickfire losers, and he focused particularly creative disdain on Michael Midgley's sad tray of sides and an inexplicable cheese plate. "What kind of crack house are you running here?" Bourdain asked Colicchio, before later comparing Michael to the result if "Betty Crocker and Charles Manson had a love child." And thus the template was set for Bourdain to be one of the most exacting yet consistently entertaining judges on the Top Chef panel.
Unfortunately we can't talk about Top Chef's second season without talking about the ugliness at the end of it, as Cliff, Ilan, Sam, and Elia (to greater and lesser degrees) tried to bully the season's resident molecular gastronomy brat Marcel into shaving his head (and nearly forcibly shaving it for him). Cliff was removed from the show for his actions, and the whole thing left a rotten taste in viewers’ mouths.
Season 2 of Top Chef felt much more like a mid-aughts reality show than the fine, polished product the show is now. There was more drinking, more fighting, and more drama. One such shenanigan came in the season’s eighth episode, after a team challenge in which two groups catered a holiday party. The judges were ready to eliminate Elia Aboumrad, a member of the losing Black Team. But Mia Gaines-Alt, one of her teammates, decided to quit at Judges’ Table before Elia could be eliminated. (This was actually the second withdrawal of the season, after Otto Borsich did so in Episode 2.) This clearly irritated the judges, as when a contestant tried to pull this in the very next season, Padma firmly told him that who goes home is their decision, not the contestants’.
The first Restaurant Wars of Top Chef: Miami was a clear misfire. Neither team performed at the level they needed to, which was particularly disappointing from the all-star team of Restaurant April: Brian Malarkey, Casey Thompson, CJ Jacobsen, and Tre Wilcox. (We mean "all-star" literally: every player on this team has returned for a future season.) That team should’ve known something was up when they competed in the first-ever mise-en-place relay race — now a series staple — and lost to their competition (whom team member Dale Levitski infamously called "the Bad News Bears"). The underdogs eventually won a Restaurant Wars re-do, while former frontrunner Tre was eliminated after failing a second time as Restaurant April’s executive chef.
The Miami cast was a fun bunch, which made the season’s winner, Hung, stand out all the more. He was serious, quiet, and exacting. His cooking was disciplined, and he routinely argued with others who didn’t perform at his level. Point blank, he could be a mood-killer. But during one Quickfire Challenge, Hung embraced his silly side, producing a full Smurf Village on his plate. The dish perplexed the judges, and had his fellow contestants in fits of laughter. It didn’t win him the challenge, but it won us over.
One of the great recurring challenges on Top Chef is the taste-test Quickfire, where the chefs are called upon to put their palates to the test and see how many ingredients they can pinpoint (often while blindfolded). This whole enterprise started in Miami, when Casey Thompson triumphed in a "Culinary Bee," a spelling-bee style taste-and-sight contest (the blindfolds didn't get implemented until later). After arrogant Hung got tripped up by his overconfidence and Brian Malarkey couldn't identify Japanese eggplant, Case rode to victory on the back of some roasted red bell peppers, and history was made.
While he was a super likeable personality throughout Season 3, Dale Levitski was a somewhat surprising member of the final four. Even more surprising: in the first part of the finale, he actually won his first challenge of the entire competition. Dale used the filming break to come back renewed — and explained the circumstances of what got him to the competition to the judges. He had lost his restaurant and his boyfriend, and hadn’t cooked for over a year before the season. That he made such a strong run for it at the end, and spoke so beautifully about the competition renewing him as a chef, made for a triumphant ending to Dale’s Season 3 journey.
One of the many reasons viewers thought Blais was a shoo-in to win the Chicago season was because he was levels above the other chefs when it came to experimental kitchen techniques. His love affair with things like liquid nitrogen became something of a trademark over the course of his two seasons, but they also helped establish him as one of the most celebrated chefs in series history.
After a record-setting seventh appearance in a row in the bottom, no one expected Lisa to edge out fan and judge favorite Antonia in the finale. But after Blais won the first finale challenge and Stephanie Izard moved on as well, it came down to the two of them — and the judges opted to eliminate Antonia. Blais and Stephanie were heartbroken to see their friend go, and Lisa called them out on not congratulating her. Blais snarked in a confessional that he would congratulate her on getting third — though considering the win came down to Stephanie and Lisa at the end, his taunt may have proved to be testing his karma.
On the whole, Top Chef isn’t an explosive show. Which makes the infamous Season 4 fight between Antonia Lofaso, Spike Mendehlson, and Jennifer Biesty — after Jen’s girlfriend, Zoi Antonitsas, had been sent home — stand out all the more. The blame game between the chefs hit a boiling point, with Antonia yelling "Stand behind your dish!" at Spike, and even sparked a side argument between Dale Talde and Lisa Fernandes. It was chaos, and we lapped it up.
It took four seasons, but Top Chef finally crowned a woman. Stephanie, who also won the show’s fan favorite prize (becoming the only person to win both for a decade) defeated Blais and Lisa in a tough finale to take home the grand prize. She would remain the only female winner until Season 10. Beloved for her graciousness, humility, and great spirit on the show, that Stephanie made history in the process of winning is just the cherry on top.
Top Chef: New York's Super Bowl-themed challenge pitted the seven remaining contestants against seven all-stars from previous seasons and yielded such overdue moments as Stefan finally failing at something and such memorable moments as Fabio sassing back at guest judge Scott Conant at Judges' Table. But it was the first solo elimination-challenge win for fan favorite Carla Hall that made this moment so special, an occasion where the judges finally tuned in to the love she was putting in every dish, and she was rewarded with two Super Bowl tickets.
Two thing happened in the New York season's Christmas-themed challenge: 1) an overnight refrigerator malfunction caused some of the chefs' (Hosea and Radhika, mostly) ingredients to spoil. And 2) everybody's dishes were so uninspiring that Tom Colicchio had to give the entire kitchen a talking-to. Ultimately he granted a holiday-spirit reprieve for everything, although he was probably just covering for the fact that they couldn't fairly eliminate anyone after the fridge snafu.
Top Chef's New York season was high on big personalities, and with the possible exception of Carla, none was bigger than Italian stallion Fabio Viviani. The Florence native's charm with diners and occasional fire with judges made him a fan favorite, which is why everybody held their breath when he injured his pinkie finger in a challenge badly enough that it bent entirely backwards. Don't worry, though; Fabio just had the medics wrap him up and then went back to cooking, saying he'd be willing to chop the finger off and sear the nub on the flat-top before he left a challenge. Noted!
The Las Vegas season was always going to end with the Brothers Voltaggio squaring off in the finale. How could there be any other result? Their rivalry was the story of the season, with Michael Voltaggio’s edgy cooking consistently wowing the judges in a way Bryan Votaggio’s clean, technique-focused style couldn’t. But the latter’s consistency kept him far away from potential elimination, while Michael flirted with going home once or twice. In the end, however, Michael’s pizazz won out, and he beat his brother to the title.
Robin Leventhal was honest from the start in Season 6 about surviving cancer. She spoke about it both in her confessionals and with her fellow contestants. But it became an issue for one of her competitors when, in an "angel and devil" Quickfire, Robin cited cancer as her devil in the inspiration for her dish. When she won, Eli Kirshtein cast doubts on whether she genuinely won based on her food, or whether her stated inspiration won the day for her. It wasn’t a cute moment, and was even rehashed at the reunion. In a relatively low-drama season, it stands out as being atypically unpleasant.
The Las Vegas contestants got the rug pulled out from under them when what they thought was going to be a steakhouse challenge turned into an all-vegetarian task for guest judge Natalie Portman and her friends. Despite Season 6's resident a-hole Eli rudely dismissing every corner of Portman's career except the Star Wars movies in an interview, Portman proved to be one of the series' best guests, bawdily cutting up with Padma and Gail while also making really on-point critiques.
One of the biggest controversies across the entire run of Top Chef went down in its D.C. season, when Ed's pea puree went missing, followed by Alex coincidentally also serving pea puree in his dish. The sheer repetition of the phrase "pea puree" that many times in one hour was enough to to make the episode feel unhinged, and then the fact that Alex won the week (his only elimination challenge of the season), despite seemingly the entire kitchen thinking he stole the pea puree, makes this a Washington-worthy scandal.
Everyone loves an underdog. Tiffany Derry in Season 7 was the definition of such an underdog. While Angelo Sosa, Kelly Liken, and Kenny Gilbert stood out as the biggest competitors in the first half of the season, Tiffany charmed most in her confessionals, and scored high in the challenges just enough to stay in the judges’ minds. But then, in episodes 8 and 10, she scored two rare sweep weeks, winning both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges. Combined with having never even scored in the low group once, and Tiffany suddenly felt like a threat to win it all. Which is why it was all the more heartbreaking to see her eliminated at Final 5, in her first trip to the bottom. Tiffany would come back for All Stars, but it was her original performance that won over audiences, earning her the fan favorite prize for the season.
This is a small moment, but it remains a thrilling memory to this day. During the Season’s 10th episode, the chefs prepared dishes with "secret identities" — a classic dish with a new twist, basically — for a dinner held at the CIA. No, not the Culinary institute of America — the Central Intelligence Agency. And then-CIA Director Leon Panetta was a guest… until suddenly, someone had to call him away mid-challenge for some official business. It’s such an intriguing moment: what could he have been doing after being called away? In a season that sometimes felt only loosely connected to its location, this was perhaps the most D.C. moment of all.
Carla Hall is one of the most beloved contestants to ever appear on Top Chef. Her joy and spirit are infectious, making her so easy to root for in both of her seasons. She was doing quite well in All Stars by the time the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon challenge came around. But after winning the chance to make one of Fallon’s favorite dishes, Chicken Pot Pie, Carla positively lost it. Her glee was infectious, and her enthusiasm helped her turn out the best dish of the episode. Out of all of Carla’s wins, this one feels the most uniquely, completely Carla.
The rivalries at play in Top Chef: All Stars were already pitched to a high level, especially between Antonia Lofaso and Mike Isabella, who tended to get on each other's nerves, he with his boorishness and she with her… general excellence? Unclear. But the gag of the season was during the Ellis Island challenge, when the chefs each got genealogy reports, and Mike and Antonia discovered that they were distant cousins. This changed the tenor of their relationship, from usually-bitter rivals to feuding family members, which was a fun wrinkle for the back half of the season.
When we say that Top Chef's first All-Stars season was on fire, we don't mean that literally. Except in this one case. As the final 5 chefs were sent to the Bahamas for the endgame, a challenge in a local eatery went up in literal flames when the fryer caught fire and caused the whole place to be evacuated. Everything turned out okay (even if Carla was eliminated in this episode, which was NOT okay), but the initial sight of a giant vat of oil in flames looked like it could turn into something truly terrifying.
Oh man, the dim sum challenge. Full-blown catastrophes are rare on this show, but the dim sum challenge was a perfect storm for a meltdown. You’ve got All Star chefs who are persnickety about their presentation, lots of big personalities in a group challenge setting, and a demanding diner base that wants to know when the hell they’re getting their food. This episode is an absolute fave, largely for the number of cuts back to the kitchen as Tiffany Derry and Mike Isabella yell "we need food" to the chefs. It’s a train wreck, but a wildly entertaining one.
While no doubt intense, Jennifer Carroll proved herself to be a fan favorite from Season 6, and was expected be one of the top contenders in All-Stars. But during a challenge to cook for children at the Museum of Natural History in the season's second episode, Jen's frustrations boiled over, and she ended up snapping at the judges, leading to every possible kind of wide-eyed reaction from her fellow chefs. Jen got eliminated shockingly early, but hers was easily one of the most memorable exits in the series.
Top Chef's Texas-set season shook up the format in a few big ways. They were the first "road trip" season, and they also started with 29 (!) chefs, whittling down to 16 finalists after a premiere-episode Quickfire. In that Quickfire, 22-year-old Tyler Stone, the youngest chef in the cast, was tasked with butchering a whole section of hog, a task to which he was so unsuited that he ended up ruining another chef's tenderloin and got eliminated by Tom Colicchio on the spot.
Love it or hate it, Last Chance Kitchen has been one of the most transformative format changes for this show. The web series allows eliminated chefs to cook their way back into the competition, but only if they can out-do their similarly eliminated rivals. In its first iteration, shock early boot Nyesha Arrington fought hard to make her way back into the main show, only to be edged out after several victories by season underdog Beverly Kim. Beverly came back at top 5, but went right back out at top 4. It would be one more season until an LCK contestant could go the distance.
Texas is the season where the early post-All Stars era got its reputation for focusing more on the game than the golden era. Other than winner Paul Qui, most of this season’s contestants went heavy on the drama, light on the food focus. Which is why this challenge, hosted and judged by Charlize Theron in a Snow White and the Huntsman tie-in, was such a refreshing change of pace. All the food was excellent, and Charlize hammed it up properly as the host. It is the highlight episode of this season, and remains a classic years later.
It didn’t take that long for the promise of LCK to be fulfilled. Season 10 saw judge favorite Kristen Kish eliminated on Restaurant Wars, after refusing to throw any of her team under the bus and accepting responsibility as executive chef. What initially seemed like a disastrous elimination turned into a moment of triumph, though, as Kristen fought through five rounds to make her return in the final 3. Though Brooke Williamson had put on one hell of a show after Kristen’s departure, winning three elimination challenges in a row (in addition to her two before Kristen left), Kristen was a force. Her finale performance — in a strange live episode — earned her the season win.
Top Chef loves a returning contestant. One of the oddest return twists came in Seattle, when three pre-All Stars alumni (Josie Smith-Malave from Season 2, CJ Jacobsen from Season 3, and Stefan Richter from Season 5) joined an otherwise all-newbie crowd. You’d think that would make them too good for the crowd, as at least two of them seemed good enough to make it onto All Stars outright. But instead, all three failed to win a single Elimination Challenge all season long, with the three of them scoring in the bottom a combined 14 times. It was fun to see them back as personalities, but they were all more memorable for their original seasons.
Midway through its run, Top Chef episodes began inserting little outtake scenes in the middle of commercial breaks, presumably to combat the folks who recorded episodes and then fast-forward through the commercials on their DVR. They were often really cute looks in at the chefs having fun with each other. Among the best was this moment from the New Orleans season when Stephanie Cmar and Nina Compton took some time out to marvel at Padma Lakshmi's beauty and her hairstyle.
Nick Elmi’s win over Nina Compton in Season 11 was one of the show’s most controversial decisions. But Nick was a controversy magnet that season. Take the final 6 challenge, in which the remaining chefs were divided into two teams to prepare French and Spanish tasting menus. One dish landed Nick’s team in the bottom: his. But Nick had immunity, after an already bizarre choice to give immunity out at final 6. Nick was asked if he wanted to sacrifice his immunity; he held onto it. In perhaps the series’ greatest robbery, later All Stars L.A. finalist Stephanie Cmar was eliminated after making great food, just because her immune teammate made a bad dish. It was a baffling decision, although Stephanie’s later return is a salve.
After the mess that happened at the end of the New Orleans season, with fans and critics upset at the judging shenanigans, it was up to the Boston season to right the ship, and it did so thanks to the nonsense-free competence of Mei Lin, who rode to the title after a finale dish that Tom Colicchio called the best dessert on Top Chef ever.
Up there with Kristen Kish’s elimination at the top of the scale of "hurts a little" to "absolutely devastating" was Kwame Onwuachi’s ouster in season 13. Kwame had been a frontrunner all season long, but went home on a fast casual concept challenge. Padma sounded heartbroken delivering the news, while Kwame’s reveal that he got his start in the food industry at one of Tom Collichio’s restaurants blew the head judge away. It was a beautiful moment, if a deeply bittersweet one.
Who wouldn’t want to get married in Palm Springs by Padma Lakshmi? That’s the pleasure 25 gay couples got in the fifth episode of Top Chef’s California season. It was a big, queer stunt, but who could say no to such an expression of joy and love? And Padma looked absolutely terrific as she officiated.
The final episode of Top Chef's fans-vs-favorites-style Charleston season came down to two chefs who were long overdue: Brooke Williamson and Shirley Chung. While Brooke won, following a similar "Last Chance Kitchen to victory" path that she was felled by in Seattle, the finale made sure both women got their share of the spotlight, especially when their families showed up for the final challenge. The final moments were so deeply emotional, in a way that felt communal and celebratory for both women.
Doing what Nick Elmi did not in Season 11, in Season 14 Jamie Lynch offered to give up his immunity rather than let one of his teammates go home. His chicken satay was the worst dish of the challenge, but it looked like Emily Hahn would be eliminated for the second-worst. However, the judges agreed to let him sacrifice his immunity, and Jamie went home. The move likely earned Jamie his All Stars L.A. slot. It was that memorable.
One of the enduring charms of Top Chef is the way that Padma ends up inevitably invested in the fates of the chefs, borne out of her fondness for them. It's what makes her one of TV's best reality competition hosts. In Charleston, Padma enjoyed one of her finest host moments when she got to prepare a meal for the top 4 chefs of the season and their families. Yes, it was an occasion to plug her line of organic rice, but it was also one of those welcome Top Chef moments where competition gives way to communal good vibes.
After the show took a good bit of deserved heat for the Charleston season's premiere episode being partially set on a plantation estate, it was able to do right by its Southern setting with a challenge that paid homage to the cuisine of legendary Southern chef Edna Lewis. The best Top Chef seasons are able to highlight the local cuisine, informing the audience as well as entertaining, and this episode did that quite well.
Some of our favorite Top Chef moments are major, some are minor, and some are just petty. This one falls into the third category. In an early challenge in the Colorado-set season, the chefs had to cook for, among others, social-media influencers, including popular imbecile Logan Paul. Padma's steadfast refusal to give Paul the time of day nor react to his attempts at humor went a long way toward making this unwelcome guest appearance go down easy.
This one was heartbreaking: Lee Anne Wong returned all the way from the first season of the show, fought her way through a special veterans round of Last Chance Kitchen, and earned her spot in the Colorado cast. All while pregnant! But the high altitude of the season’s location meant it was medically inadvisable for her to continue in the competition. She did come back for All Stars L.A., but she was on such a roll in Colorado that this will always be a question of what could have been.
How exactly to convey how important Carrie Baird's recurring "fancy toast" was to the overall enjoyment level of the Colorado season? It sounds silly, at first; the idea that simple toast could compete in a high-level culinary competition (ohhhhhhh it's fancy, is it?). But the fact that Carrie was able to be so impressive with her fancy toast on multiple occasions, to the increasing frustration of her fellow contestants, was such a triumph for unassuming simplicity.
One thing that’s so enjoyable about Top Chef is that, at its best, it fully embraces its location. Season 16 did that especially well with Kentucky, starting the season at Churchill Downs for two Kentucky Derby-inspired challenges. It was such a smart note for the start of the season, fully setting the action in the chosen location from the word go. Not every season has used its location quite this well, but especially in later years, the setting has become as much as character in a season as any of the contestants.
Because it aired during the early months of the pandemic when the restaurant industry was (and remains) in dire straits, the All-Stars: L.A. season took on added significance. Which is why an episode like the Jonathan Gold challenge, where the chefs took a tour of the favorite Los Angeles eateries of the late food critic, hit like a ton of bricks. The affection that Gold had for these restaurants, and the chefs in those restaurants had for him, infused the spirit of the entire episode, making for something that felt soul-nourishing at a time when we all needed it.
Top Chef has succeeded by bringing on family members of its competing chefs before, but the family challenge during All-Stars: L.A. was especially memorable. After a dynamite Quickfire where the chefs had to instruct their loved ones to cook a dish over the telephone, the loved ones were then partnered up with their family members for the elimination challenge. After a dramatic (but thankfully unserious) moment where Lee Anne's mom briefly fainted, the entire cast pulled together to offer help and support. We love help and support!
Top Chef Kentucky fan favorite Nini Nguyen got eliminated in a shocking 12th place in her initial season, despite having won two of the first three challenges. Redemption seemed in order for All-Stars L.A., but after two near-wins, it happened again: Nini got eliminated on a team challenge, and then she lost out to the chef who got to return to the competition in Last Chance Kitchen. It was a cruel déjà vu, but a reminder to cherish your fave chefs while they last.
In the end, it was always her. Plenty of chefs impressed in the series’ second All Stars season, including Boston’s Gregory Gourdet and Las Vegas’s Kevin Gillespie. But it was another Season 12 veteran, Melissa King, who ran the board all season long. In addition to several early wins, Melissa cleaned up in the finale, winning every single challenge but one Quickfire (which Kevin won). With six total Elimination Challenge wins, Melissa’s résumé was stacked — and a stellar finale performance sealed the deal. She became the second All Stars winner, and won the season’s fan favorite prize to boot.
Top Chef returns for its 18th season on Bravo April 1st at 8:00 PM ET
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