Top Chef is back, and it couldn't come at a better time. With vaccine rollouts underway, it's starting to feel like we'll soon be freed from our living rooms… but we're not there yet. And if you need a comfort-viewing reality series to get you through what will hopefully be the home stretch of quarantine, you couldn't ask for anything better than Top Chef, a show that has consistently delivered engrossing reality competition and diverting food content. And this Portland-set 18th season is even more timely, as it's the first Top Chef season filmed during COVID. With the restaurant industry having been decimated by the pandemic, this season feels like a deeply necessary piece of spiritual healing for the chefs, judges, and the audience alike.
Last time we saw Top Chef, it was for its rather excellent "All Stars: L.A." season, one of the best shows to air in early quarantine. That season was filmed before the pandemic, but it took on a ghostly quality at times, featuring restaurants that were no longer open, and offering prizes to events like the Tokyo Olympics that had been canceled by the time the episodes aired. The show also featured pre-commercial bumpers with Tom Colicchio calling for assistance for the ailing restaurant industry. In the "Portland" premiere, we see the reality of what that ailing restaurant industry has meant for the chefs. This season's cast — a remarkably accomplished collection of executive chefs and restaurant owners (Padma Lakshmi observes that we don't have any sous chefs this season) — talk uniformly about how heartbreaking the pandemic has been for them, as they've had to furlough employees and close restaurants. It's a wounded community coming together for something good in the midst of so much bad news.
If the contestants feel a bit like wounded birds, the Top Chef hosts and judges give the feeling of a family rallying around each other. As with most shows filmed during COVID, there are some format changes for the new season: there's a bigger kitchen to help combat close quarters; Padma and the other judges have their little socially distanced mats to stand on; and since it's not possible for the elimination challenges to include large groups of guest diners, the show is instead turning to a rotating panel of all-star Top Chef alumni, including Richard Blais, Tiffany Derry, Dale Talde, Brooke Williamson, Kristen Kish, Gregory Gourdet (the Quickfire judge for the premiere episode), and last year's all-star champ Melissa King. It's a creative solution to a pandemic problem, and it gives the audience one more thing to look forward to every week.
The cast this year seems, at first blush, to be tremendously talented, including four James Beard Award nominees and some really engaging personalities. Among those who make the biggest impressions in the premiere: Maria Mazon, an Arizona-based chef who says she's underestimated for merely making tacos and who doesn't appear to be a sufferer of fools; Gabriel Pascuzzi, a Portland chef who used to work for Tom Colicchio in New York City and who might be a bit of a brat; Dawn Burrell, an intense former Olympic long-jumper; and Roscoe Hall, a barbecue-pit specialist from Alabama who went to the Savannah College of Art & Design before he became a chef.
This new group of chefs get an excellent Quickfire challenge to kick off the season, as Padma sets them off in teams of three to create one cohesive dish that combines each chef's pre-chosen "ingredient you can't live without." It's initially funny to see which chefs chose really basic ingredients (butter! rice vinegar! Padma correctly notes that they do keep the Top Chef pantry stocked with these things), but the most interesting team dynamics emerge when the most incompatible ingredients need to mesh. One team has to combine Mexican chocolate, gruyere cheese, and caul fat, and since unlike many team challenges, the chefs can't just do their own thing and hope their dish holds up to the others on their team, you get some frustrations but also a lot of really creative teamwork and welcome camaraderie.
After Padma introduces the week's panel of all-star diners — Blais, Talde, Gourdet, Amar Santana, Kwame Onwuachi, and King, who serves as the fourth judge on the panel alongside Tom, Padma, and Gail Simmons — she sets them off on the elimination challenges, which involve Oregon's apparent huge love of different kinds of birds. So the chefs get assigned some form of poultry or another: quail, duck, squab, chukar (partridge), or turkey. Of course nobody wants boring old turkey. The chefs face the usual Top Chef pitfalls and miniature disasters (someone overcooks their turkey; someone runs out of time before they can sauce their dish), and the judges are already in mid-season form (Tom calls one chef's dish "a bowl full of fear"). But the presence of the all-stars is an unmistakable leavening agent. They've all been there before, and while they aren't shy with pointed and specific criticisms of the dishes, they're also putting empathy at the forefront of their assessments.
All told, it's a creative and heartwarming return for Top Chef. The additions to the judging panel are terrific, the season seems incredibly well-cast, and the twists (like how the elimination challenge is judged blind, without the tasters knowing whose dishes they're being served) are intriguing without feeling punishing. It's been a rough year, and the return of Top Chef in such good form is everything we deserve.
Top Chef premieres on Bravo April 1st at 8:00 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.