Very few things can be described as having gotten better over the course of the pandemic, but Top Chef is one of them. Its Los Angeles All-Star season, which aired in 2020, was one of the show's most competitive and ultimately satisfying outings. Next came last year's Top Chef: Portland, filmed admirably and often ingeniously under COVID restrictions that made dining-based competitions particularly challenging, which ranked among the very best Top Chef seasons ever.
Those good vibes were clipped after sexual harrassment allegations surfaced against Top Chef: Portland's winner, Gabe Erales, but that hasn't quelled anticipation for the new season of Top Chef, with hopes high that this one can stick the landing and keep the good vibes coming.
Going by the show's season premiere, the caliber of chefs remains quite high. Last year's pandemic season saw an uptick in the number of executive chefs and restaurant owners competing, since many of them had been forced out of their jobs or into closing their restaurants due to COVID. This season's kickoff doesn't reference the pandemic quite as overtly like last year's did, but host Padma Lakshmi's introduction makes a point to single out the multiple James Beard Award nominees, the eight chefs this season who have worked in 3-Michelin-star kitchens, and the one chef, Luke Kolpin, who served as sous-chef at the famed Noma in Copenhagen, repeatedly ranked as the #1 restaurant in the world.
As is the custom on Top Chef, the new contestants are put through their paces right away. Joined by Top Chef: Portland fan favorite and Houston native Dawn Burrell, Lakshmi divides the 15 chefs into teams of three and sets them on their very first Quickfire challenge, which requires team members to work independently from each other — without being able to talk — while still creating a collaborative dish that represents all three chef's unique perspectives. It's a classic Quickfire in that it sounds impossible, and indeed some of the teams crumble under the pressure, but it's fun watching them try to scramble out from under their restrictions.
From there, the episode's main challenge involves a whole lot of meat,with the contestants remaining in their Quickfire teams. This is a decently clever production decision, in that keeping teams throughout the episode helps us keep track of all 15 competitors more easily. As great as Top Chef can be, one of its biggest weaknesses has traditionally been that it's hard to keep track of its many contrestants from the get-go. In most seasons, things tend to pick up steam once the group is winnowed down to a manageable number, although one of the great strengths of Top Chef: Portland was that it focused intently on character building. By the end of that first hour, the audience was invested in a large percentage of that cast, as they told their stories of having to close restaurants and change career plans. Portland also had the benefit of having one of the most charismatic and lovable groups in the show's history, though there's something of a chicken-or-the-egg component there. A well-built season premiere can communicate its characters to the audience in a deep and immediate way, and that's what happened pretty much right off the bat last season as we got to know competitive Maria Mazon, talented but clock-challenged Dawn Burrell, bratty Gabriel Pascuzzi, and adorable, adorable Shota Nakajima.
While brimming with potential, Top Chef: Houston falls a bit short of Portland's character-building standard. Most of the chefs who get the most screen time are for competition reasons, although we do get a few glimpses into some intriguing character beats. Jackson Kalb, a Los Angeles-based chef, confesses that he's lost his sense of taste and smell due to COVID, which are pretty crucial tools for a chef to have (or not have, in this case). Deeply chill Brooklyn chef Sam Kang establishes himself as a great and cheerful narrator. And North Dakota chef Stephanie Miller already seems like one of those chefs who's going to be stressed out all the time. But overall, this feels like a Top Chef cast whose personalities will emerge over the course of the first several episodes. This isn't the worst thing in the world; great Top Chef seasons have followed this same path.
What is magical in the Top Chef: Houston premiere is the continuing fashion adventures of head judge Tom Colicchio. Once a domineering and often purposefully un-cuddly presence on the panel, Tom has chilled out significantly as the show has undergone its evolution towards a less cutthroat, more communal environment, and along with that chill factor has come a willingness to take the kinds of chances that straight men with Little League third-base-coach vibes don't usually take. Last season's Pacific northwest environs — combined with a lot of COVID-compliant outdoor meals — saw Tom experimenting with capes and having a real love affair with hats. This season, right off the bat, Tom enters the fray with a statement cardigan, announcing his intentions to be the fashion plate of the season. Sorry, Padma.
Overall, while the Houston season starts a few paces behind Portland, it's great to have the show back in season. Few reality shows find themselves at the top of their game in their late teen years, but Top Chef is riding high deep in the heart of Texas. We deserve this moment, and so do these chefs.
Top Chef Season 19 premieres on Bravo Thursday March 3rd at 8:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer 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.
TOPICS: Top Chef, Bravo, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio