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The Group Chat

Let's Dig Into the Top Chef: World All-Stars Season Premiere

The competition series brings together past winners and finalists from around the world to fight it out in London.
  • Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons in Top Chef: World All-Stars (Photo: David Moir/Bravo)
    Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons in Top Chef: World All-Stars (Photo: David Moir/Bravo)

    The Group Chat is where Primetimer staffers and contributors share everything from first impressions to warring opinions on TV's biggest moments. Because everyone needs a group chat.

    Top Chef ventures to London for the World All-Stars season, which is stacked with previous winners and finalists from the franchise's international spinoffs. Some of these contestants, like Top Chef: MENA winner Charbel Hayek, are rarin' to go — the 25-year-old Lebanese chef sees no reason he can't emerge victorious in a season full of fellow champions and elite competitors. Others, like Top Chef: Portland's Dawn Burrell, are clearly having trouble shaking off previous missteps. 

    The Season 20 premiere had plenty of highlights, including racing around a London Whole Foods, some budding friendships, and of course, an array of impressive dishes built around "humble" vegetables. We polled editors and writers Danette Chavez, Joe Reid, Mark Blankenship, and Brianna Wellen on the premiere episode, as well as asked them to stump for their early favorites.

    Did you have any favorites coming into Season 20? After watching the premiere, who do you think are the frontrunners?

    Mark: I’ve got to divide my responses between the competitors who are new to me and the ones I know from earlier U.S. seasons. Regarding the latter, I remain vexed by Dawn’s inability to get anything done on time, especially because she’s so skilled. I mean… I understand it’s not her fault that somebody spilled water in her dish, but if she were better at time management, she could’ve adjusted more easily to the problem. There’s got to be a Tyra Banks meme for the way she makes me yell at the TV. But at least my frustration with Dawn is balanced by my love for Buddha and Sara. I swear it’s not recency bias when I say Buddha is one of the show’s all-time greatest champs: He can apparently cook any style of food, and his ability to think on his feet makes him well suited to this type of game. Just look at the homemade butter that appeared in his Quickfire dish, as if by magic! Meanwhile, Sara seems incredibly cool. Like her, I’m also from the South, and I recognize her vibe as a Southern woman who can handle her business in a polite way. I am ready to hang out with her at any time.

    Among the international contestants, I’ve got my eye on Begoña. When she serves her bird’s nest made of pumpkin noodles in the elimination challenge, she says, “You like it, or you hate it. There’s nothing in the middle.” I respect both the innovative presentation and the confidence. It’s easy to root for someone who decides she’s a winner from the jump.

    Danette: I must confess that I have been lax in my Top Chef viewing in recent years, so I didn’t really come into this season rooting for anyone in particular. Top Chef Season 13 finalist (and Season 18 judge) Amar Santana brings a genial presence to the show once more, but I wonder if he’ll be able to kick things into a higher competitive gear as time goes on. I’m always delighted to see a Mexican contestant, though Gabriel “Gabri” Rodriguez has his work cut out for him this season — like Samuel Albert, the Top Chef France Season 10 winner, he struggled to adapt to the conditions of the London-based competition. Make sure you have a back-up dish in mind going forward, Gabri!

    I’ll be keeping my eye on Charbel Hayek, who won Top Chef Middle East & North Africa, Season 5: Saudi Arabia, and not just because of how he wowed the judges in the premiere. His unfettered ambition charged the episode, and I like that he’s poised to be a bit of an enfant terrible. I have never wanted to eat onions so badly in my life!

    On a different note, Victoire Gouloubi, who was a finalist in Top Chef Italy, Season 2, going straight for the risotto fail and ignoring her partner’s advice could mean she’s not long for the competition.

    Brianna: Coming into Season 20, I was most looking forward to meeting the international contestants and experiencing new styles of cuisine and different cultural approaches to food. While I enjoyed watching Buddha Lo take home the prize on Season 19, there wasn’t enough of a gap before his return for me to be rooting him on — leave some of the glory for someone new and let absence make the heart grow fonder, Buddha!

    When it comes to who will deliver TV gold, Gabri Rodriguez is the one I’m watching. His quickfire dish was stunning and landed in the judge’s top three. Then he spilled water onto Dawn Burell’s cooking station during the elimination challenge and had an outburst when he realized he forgot an ingredient on his dish — good at cooking and a source of drama? He just might be the perfect Top Chef package.

    Looking at pure cooking potential, I’ve got my eye on Luciana Berry and Victoire Gouloubi. So far, they’ve shown a passion for showcasing a, yes, humble ingredient they both have personal connection to (cassava) and presenting it in a beautiful way. Still, Charbel Hayek seems like the one to beat. Going all-in on onions was unique and creative, elegant in its simplicity. It’s a hard combination to achieve and proof that his mind works a little differently than everyone else in the competition, which should serve him well for many challenges.

    Joe: Nagging time-management concerns or not, I remain a ride-or-die for Dawn Burrell. One of these days, she's going to put the whole package together, and that will be a glorious day. Until then, I'm just going to throw my hands up to the gods and wonder why Dawn, of all people, is the one whose dish gets a quart of water dumped on it (by accident, poor Gabri).

    As for the international contingent, I was struck by just how terrifyingly confident everybody is. Begoña's love-it-or-hate-it nest of pumpkin noodles looked delicious, and Charbel had me completely sold on his "onions, onions, and nothing but onions" dish, even as I should be deeply wary of anyone who brags that much about being 25. Brazil's Luciana, meanwhile, described herself as having "blood in [her] eyes" at one point, and I think I believe her. Even Victoire stood by her doomed-to-fail 20-minute risotto with a steely declaration that it would work. It didn't, but I wouldn't have argued with her if I were Nicole either.

    Which Top Chef judge’s evaluations do you swear by?

    Mark: First, let me say that I love it when the judges call a vegetable “humble,” which they do so many times in the episode. “This carrot has a PhD in neuroscience, but she’ll never tell you. Because she’s humble!” And while I love all the regular panelists, I particularly enjoyed Tom in this episode. As he got excellent dish after excellent dish in both the Quickfire and the elimination challenge, he laughed with amazement. I respect someone who can do this job for so long and still be delighted by it. It makes me trust him when explains why something’s great.

    Danette: When I first started watching Top Chef, I always looked to Tom Colicchio for confirmation of my own opinions of the dishes (really, assumptions, because my smart TV still cannot transmit taste). He’s certainly gotten mellower with age and experience; he was downright avuncular in the Season 20 premiere. But in the last several years, my ears prick up when Padma Lakshmi shares her thoughts. Early on, Lakshmi was sort of the outsider on the panel — the lone judge who wasn’t a professional chef. But as she’s shown in her Hulu series Taste the Nation, Lakshmi has an abiding curiosity about how food is sourced and made. She can be incredibly generous in her feedback, but also very pointed, as we saw last night when she dug into Samuel.

    Brianna: Tom Colicchio seems to have the greatest handle on balancing the evaluation of taste, execution, and personality. Ultimately, he’s the judge I trust the most to be impartial and really think about the food first. But as a highly emotional person, I always appreciate when Padma Lakshmi considers the heart and story that goes into the dish (or seems to judge someone with a bad attitude more harshly).

    Joe: The early seasons of Top Chef conditioned us to default to Tom Colicchio as the final voice of authority on this show, which I ended up resenting quite a bit. One of the great things about the way this show has evolved over the years is that the judging panel has democratized. It's made me like Tom more, but it's also really allowed Padma to grow into her role as host/judge. Her food takes have become more trustworthy, and she's also usually the judge who's able to cut through to the heart of the matter on a dish, like she did in this premiere episode, pointing out that Gabri's dish in the vegetable challenge didn't actually do right by any of his vegetables. (I also ran into Gail at the bodega across the street from my old apartment in Park Slope a few times, so I love Gail too.)

    Finally, just for fun, what is one highly specific, but ultimately harmless, food opinion you have?

    Mark: Barbecue sauce enhances almost every savory breakfast food, including eggs, hash browns, and chicken sausage. I am not accepting questions at this time.

    Danette: Juice is pointless — if it retained its original form (be it fruit or vegetable), it would at least be a snack. But in its liquid form, juice is neither satisfying nor thirst-quenching. The breakfast industrial complex is pulling the wool over your eyes!

    Brianna: Anything can and should be pickled.

    Joe: American cheese is a Top 3 cheese. Nothing melts better, and melted is the ideal form of cheese. The humble (thanks, Mark!) grilled cheese sandwich with American cheese is a dish that has never been improved upon. 

    Top Chef: World All-Stars airs Thursdays at 9:00 PM ET on Bravo. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    TOPICS: Top Chef: World All-Stars, Bravo, Padma Lakshmi, Top Chef, Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio