Thursday night marked the season finale of Top Chef Portland, one of the best seasons of Top Chef ever and arguably one of the best shows on TV this year. Taped during the pandemic — a degree of difficulty that is both tough to understate and also a huge part of what makes it so impressive — the season was an unabashed triumph of everything that makes a reality show great: casting, challenge design, judging, and best of all adaptability. Eighteen seasons into its run, Top Chef is riding as high as ever, thanks to a season made in the most dire of circumstances. So what made the Portland season such a cut above the rest? And where does it rank among the best Top Chef seasons ever?
The answer to the first part is pretty multifaceted. Coming on the heels of the also-quite-good All-Stars Los Angeles, Top Chef was transitioning from a season taped in the before times but aired after the restaurant industry had ground to a halt, to a season taped in the middle of that very halt. All-Stars L.A. was a thrilling competition, featuring the eventual triumph of one of the show's most satisfying winners in Melissa King, but it often played like a show waiting out a vigil for a world that was put on pause.
That world had definitely not yet unpaused by the time it came to tape the Portland season, but the show's producers made a series of smart fixes that not only ensured its ability to safely shoot during COVID, but also to make the resulting product even better than before. The Top Chef kitchen was expanded and tricked out. The weekly trips to Whole Foods (a tradition that almost never enhanced the narrative) were jettisoned in favor of grocery delivery. And most impactfully, the show's usual revolving door of special guest diners and judges were replaced with a panel of Top Chef alums who each took turns in the judging seat next to Tom, Padma, and Gail, but who all showed up to dine for each challenge.
Beyond the simple fact that it was great to see fanfavorites like Melissa King, Brooke Williamson, Kristen Kish, Dale Talde, Gregory Gourdet, Kwame Onwuachi, Carrie Baird, and Richard Blais again, the group brought a whole new element to the judging process. Now they could watch the chefs evolve week-to-week just like the full-time judges, and they could also bring their expertise and most importantly their compassion for having been through this experience themselves.
That spirit of compassion was a big part of the appeal of the Portland season. Top Chef is a show that began in the mid-Aughts, when conflict and confrontation was pretty much the only way to make reality television. And while that's still the case for many a franchise, Top Chef seems to have intentionally evolved away from hothead chefs and back-room fights into a more communal casting vibe. That could not have been more appropriate for this season, with a cast made up of executive chefs and restaurant owners who had been forced to either close down, move on from, or drastically adjust their businesses in order to survive. Watching these chefs lean on each other for support during a traumatic time was both lovely and cathartic.
So. Where does the Portland season rank among the series' best seasons? Let's start by laying out where each of the other seasons stand:
I'm not saying these seasons were devoid of talent. In fact, several favorite chefs came from these seasons, including L.A.'s Sam Talbot, D.C.'s Tiffany Derry and New Orleans's Nina Compton, Shirley Chung, and Stephanie Cmar. But as seasons go, each rank as the worst. Both Texas and Los Angeles were incredibly unpleasant to watch, and L.A. has the added stain of the episode where the chefs hazed/assaulted Marcel. Meanwhile, New Orleans's excellent roster of chefs was marred by one of the most infuriating endings in show history.
The Struggle Bus:
Here too, each of these seasons had some great chefs — the mere presence of Carla Hall makes me want to rank NYC higher. Still, each falls short of the greatest Top Chef seasons. Boston had a great winner in Mei Lin, but the season as a whole felt largely blah, while California had the opposite problem of a largely exciting season marred by a truly blah winner. Meanwhile, NYC was marred by an infuriating faux romance subplot between Hosea and Leah that distracted from the Carlas and Fabios of its cast.
The Colorado and Kentucky seasons marked a trend of general upward movement for Top Chef over the last few years, each producing strong winners and good, creative use of their locations. Colorado gets a bit dinged for its high altitude causing pregnant Lee Ann to have to drop out of the competition, but the mountain challenges were thrilling for the most part. Seattle leaned a bit too heavily on Last Chance Kitchen to bail out the elimination of Kristen Kish, but it's hard to penalize a season with Kish and Brooke Williamson too much. And Miami, which boasted one of the best top-to-bottom rosters of any non-all-star season, would probably rank higher if the winner Hung Huynh's narrative had been stronger
Three really excellent seasons. Charleston got a lot of justified criticism for its cringe-worthy handling of race issues, especially with a challenge on a plantation, but as sketchy as the first half of the season was, the second half was dynamite, with one of the best final episodes ever. Las Vegas is a respected season for its Voltaggio-on-Voltaggio endgame, and it would probably be a top five season if the rest of the cast (save for Jen and Kevin) were as strong. The first season of Top Chef deserves a ton of credit for starting the franchise off strong, and while it features the expected first-season growing pains (co-host Katie Lee Joel), overall it's a great, personality-heavy season.
Okay, here's where we settle the Portland question. The other three seasons in contention for the best ever are:
Chicago is by far the best of the old-school combative, hotheaded seasons. The cast was wall-to-wall stars, it featured the first-ever female winner in Stephanie Izard, and if you're going to have a season with arguments and fights, at least have the best fights in the history of the show. (Watching the evolution of Dale Talde from volatile hot-head in Chicago to cuddly cardigan-wearer in Portland is instructive of the evolution of the series' sensibilities as a whole.) The first All-Stars season was one of the most impeccably cast seasons of television ever, and would easily rank as the best season ever if the endgame didn't get bulldozed by Mike Isabella. For its part, All-Stars Los Angeles had a far more satisfying conclusion/winner than the first All-Stars season, and its airing during COVID made it a balm during some very dark times.
I try my best to guard against recency bias, but I honestly think Portland may be Top Chef's best season of all time. The fact that this cast was as strong as any cast, the challenges — including one at a drive-in movie theater and a smart reinvention of Restaurant Wars — got incredibly creative, and the twist with the all-stars on the judging panel may well change the way Top Chef presents itself for seasons to come. Meet your new grand champion.
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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.