It hasn't been a great year for many things in the world, but the Top Chef franchise has persevered — and even thrived. Despite airing an All-Stars Los Angeles installment under the pall of restaurant closures and a Summer Olympics challenge that suddenly had no Summer Olympics, the Summer of 2020 saw one of the show's most exciting seasons, followed by the currently-airing Portland season, one of the show's best in a long while.
Looking to build on all those good kitchen vibes is Top Chef Amateurs, a relatively low-stakes series of standalone episodes where Top Chef fan-favorites are teamed up with amateur chefs in a kind of modified quickfire competition in order to impress Top Chef judge Gail Simmons and a different guest judge each week. It's perfectly delightful little lark of a show that suggests Bravo is finally getting serious about capitalizing on the talent and star power of their Top Chef alumni.
Top Chef premiered more than 15 years ago, a span that's seen 18 seasons, countless signature moments, and quite a few spin-offs, including Top Chef: Masters, Top Chef: Juniors, and Top Chef: Just Desserts. Each of these spin-offs has made the competition the star of the show, which isn't surprising considering how successful the Top Chef format has been.
But with so many outlets dedicated to food programming and TV chefs getting their own talk shows and mini-empires across the TV landscape, Bravo now sits on a goldmine of chefs, and while they've done a good job of keeping those chefs active and visible within Top Chef proper, they've done surprisingly little in the way of programming new shows around these chefs.
Into that void came poachers like Food Network, who have become increasingly zealous about casting Top Chef alums — who are now food world superstars in their own right — on their shows. Take a gander around shows like Chopped, Guy's Grocery Games, or Food Network's Tournament of Champions and you'll find the likes of Brooke Williamson, Antonia Lofaso, Michael Voltaggio, and countless others. Good for those chefs, and good for Food Network, but a missed opportunity for Bravo.
Top Chef Amateurs perhaps is the start of a course correction where Bravo starts making the most of the talent they've cultivated. In an episode that sneak-previewed after a recent Top Chef episode, two amateur chefs and Top Chef superfans got to team up with Top Chef alums Dale Talde and Kwame Onwuachi to make quick and creative dishes for Simmons and that episode's guest judge, Season 11 and 14 alum Shirley Chung, who drew as large a fan reaction from the amateurs as either Dale or Kwame.
What's especially delicious about the Amateurs format is the way it gleefully plays into the Top Chef mythos. Over the course of the season, the amateurs — who in their daily lives are teachers, dental hygienists, and even one CIA operative — will not only get to team up with some of their favorite chefs, they'll also get to take part in some of the classic Top Chef challenges they've watched for years. What Top Chef superfan wouldn't want to pull out their selected protein from a knife block or participate in a mise-en-place race or a blind taste test?
The interplay between the alumni chefs and their amateur partners is a key ingredient to the show's success. It's also indicative of where Top Chef has evolved as a franchise over the last decade. The show's early seasons really leaned into the cocky kitchen-jock archetype that chefs had cultivated over the years. This meant a lot of intense competition, but also a lot of chefs who were seemingly cast for conflict. Blow-ups in the kitchen were commonplace, as were season-long feuds. This led to some riveting reality television, but also some unfortunate and often numbing unpleasantness.
In recent years however, perhaps as part of a natural evolution of food culture or perhaps as a conscious programming choice by Bravo, there's been an emphasis on camaraderie and kinship among the show's chefs. The Portland season has been the epitome of this, with the chefs banding together in the face of an industry-threatening pandemic to serve as a kind of surrogate family to one another. For whatever reason, this is the version of Top Chef that works right now, and it's also exactly the kind of environment that enables a show like Amateurs thrive. No fights. No meltdowns. Just vibes — good, supportive, and yes, sometimes competitive kitchen vibes.
Compared to the flagship, Top Chef Amateurs' stakes are remarkably low. There's a $5,000 cash prize each week, and of course the honor of winning a Top Chef challenge (priceless). But those lower stakes, combined with returning faves like Richard Blais, Melissa King, and Tiffany Derry, make Amateurs ideal passive viewing. Which may sound like a backhanded compliment, but when you've got a lazy Saturday afternoon in front of you and a DVR's worth of Top Chef Amateurs episodes stacked up, you'll know just how high that praise really is.
Top Chef Amateurs premieres on Bravo Thursday July 1st at 9:00 PM ET, followed by a second episode at 9:30 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.