With the Portland season, the first to be taped in a pandemic bubble, "Top Chef has never felt less about who technically wins," says Alison Herman. "Headed into its Thursday night finale, Top Chef’s latest chapter stands out as a unique entry in the franchise’s now 15-year history," says Herman. "Set against the backdrop not just of the pandemic, but also the protests that broke out months before the show resumed production last fall, with Portland a particular flashpoint, this season’s episodes both looked and felt different than any that came before. But in the context of Top Chef lore, the pandemic season isn’t as abrupt a pivot as it may seem. Lockdown may have forced Top Chef to change course, but in the end, the show steered only further into the direction it was already taking: away from cutthroat competition, and toward camaraderie and a celebration of craft. Some parts of Top Chef—the Restaurant Wars elimination challenge; the mise en place relay race; beyond-aggressive product placement—are eternal. Others have changed with the times, adjustments the past 16 months have now made especially clear...This year, Top Chef wasn’t just a chance at a six-figure cash prize; it was contestants’ chance to collaborate with peers for the first time in months." Herman also points to how the success of The Great British Bake Off has influenced Top Chef's change in direction. "COVID-19 isn’t the only outside influence on some of Top Chef’s more recent developments," says Herman. "The biggest success story in televised food contests since, well, Top Chef is The Great British Bake Off, the sweet-in-all-senses-of-the-term series whose gentle positivity has spilled over into a slew of copycats. Bake Off is an ode to the amateur, while Top Chef thrives on hard-won experience. Still, it’s easy to draw a line from Bake Off’s rise (no yeast pun intended) to Top Chef’s increasing sweetness, even if the link isn’t one Top Chef has explicitly acknowledged."
Top Chef nailed the pandemic TV show in Season 18 by focusing on community: "While other seasons of Top Chef can feel like shoehorning as many cooking stars into the show as possible, the members of the small rotating cast were able to be better judges since they had a sense of each contestant’s cooking over the entire season," says Bettina Makalintal. "Big names like Andrés and Massimo Bottura weren’t absent from the show, but they appeared briefly and only as everyone does now: via video call. The fact that the rotating judges were all Top Chef alums made them more empathetic, too; they knew how much the competition could suck, so they gave more thoughtful, constructive critiques. Despite my love for Top Chef, I’ll admit that the show sometimes suffers from too much fabricated drama to make the whole thing feel cutthroat; the entire premise, obviously, is that there can only be one Top Chef at the end of it all. Maybe it’s because of the way the restaurant industry has been hit hard over the past year, but this season has felt more like community over competition...Every chef this season seems to be trying to find a bright spot after a tough year, and as a result, seems more eager to help their competitors. It helps, of course, that the entire roster of contestants is not only very talented but likable, especially former Olympic long jumper and current finalist Dawn Burrell."
Tom Colicchio on why Season 18 was so special: "Well, we shot back in September and the challenges, obviously, were COVID and keeping our production safe," he says. "Which we did. We have about 150 people on our crew and no one got sick. We also shot during the fires in the Northwest, which was really challenging at times, because there were five days where there was really thick smoke in the air, so that was somewhat disruptive. But it was a good season. A lot of the chefs were out of work because of COVID, and, you saw this season, the chefs really came together. They’re very supportive of each other. I think COVID had a lot to do with that. It was also great to get out of the house and do something that sort of took my mind off my restaurants being closed and all that stuff."