As all Top Chef fans are WELL aware, the premiere of Season 15, set in Colorado, is tonight on Bravo! We’ve all been waiting and waiting for this, so in celebration of this momentous occasion, I decided to give my review of the franchise by ranking the previous fourteen Top Chef seasons in reverse order of how much I liked them. Without further adieu, here is my humble opinion, ranked from worst to best. Enjoy!
14th Place: Season 9, Texas
Winner: Paul Qui
Wow, what a dumpster fire of a Top Chef season. And to add insult to injury, it was the one I was MOST looking forward to, being a native Texan and all. With few exceptions, the challenges were clichéd and stupidly stereotypical (exceptions going to the Chili Cook-Off and the Salt Lick Barbecue challenge), especially that horrid progressive dinner party thing in Dallas. That serious, experienced chefs were forced to cook for those insular snobs with palates of spoiled three-year-olds was just tragic. I PROMISE, MOST DALLASITES ARE NOT LIKE THAT. The only reward from that embarrassment of an episode was that Tom looked like he’d rather be enduring a simultaneous root canal and colonoscopy than even one more minute of that dinner party, and even John Besh, a man whose many flaws do not include a lack of social graces, seemed to be struggling. And who can forget the over-the-top, mean girl antics of that season? Seriously, chefs Heather Terhune and Sarah Grueneberg (who apparently told Emeril Lagasse to fuck off when she lost??!!) made me ashamed to be a woman. Heather with her outright bullying of every woman except Sarah, and Sarah turning on the waterworks every time she didn’t want to take responsibility for herself? Oh, and then the winner turns out to be a girlfriend batterer! Yippee. The only redeeming thing from this season was it introduced the world to Edward Lee, a true gem of a chef who also seems to be a true gem of a human being.
13th Place: Season 11, New Orleans
Winner: Nicholas Elmi
Terrible shitshow of a season, and the location which had me the second most excited! I have roots in Louisiana from both my parents’ sides, and NOLA is probably my favorite city to visit, ever since I met my husband there (I’ll tell you that story sometime). How the producers could take arguably the richest, deepest, most unique culinary city in the entire US and screw it up this spectacularly is beyond me. It was boring as hell, and the drama wasn’t entertaining at all. Hey, I know! Let’s keep promoting a man-baby who can’t season his food properly and thinks he’s entitled to the win because he’s away from his family during filming! Um, because the rest of the cheftestants got to bring their families along? Then he wins the whole fucking thing over one of the most interesting women chefs in the business because… I will never know why. I think the ONLY good things about this season were Leah Chase and seeing Emeril as judge in a city he’s so passionate and knowledgeable about.
12th Place: Season 2, Los Angeles
Winner: Ilan Hall
Congratulations, Season 2 – you’ve been upgraded from Dumpster Fire and Shitshow to Train Wreck. This was, simply put, a train wreck of a Top Chef season. The finale sees Sam getting viciously robbed, but when you think about it, it was necessary, because how else were the producers going to achieve a last episode showdown between two exhausting, Kanye-sized egos? But that wasn’t even the worst part! The worst part? Betty. Hands down, no questions, cheftestant Betty was the most god-awful, sorriest excuse for a human being to ever appear on fourteen seasons of this show. She blatantly cheats in the low calorie challenge and when called on it, displays the flimsiest, most Razzie-Award-worthy, woe-is-me-I’m-so-innocent, babe-in-the-woods performance… and the judges totally bought it!!! WTF? Then she spends the rest of her time there oscillating between making pathetic excuses for her bad food at judges’ table and verbally abusing Marcel, and yet the judges turn a blind eye to all of it. Ridiculous! Thank god season 3 turned things around.
11th Place: Season 5, New York
Winner: Hosea Rosenberg
Season 5. Sigh. This season brought us Toby Young, the absolute worst judge ever seen on the entire franchise. Whoever is second worst, congratulations: it’s not even close. Besides being borderline misogynist, he’s pathetically trying to be British Bourdain, and I could do a better job convincing you I’m the Queen of Uruguay. Let’s see, what else? Oh! The winner was a skeeze who cheats on his girlfriend during the show, so that was nice.… Fabio and Stefan were highly entertaining, in very different ways (long live Team Europe) and I think we all agree that being introduced to Carla Hall is proof the universe occasionally loves us. But most of this season was kind of uninspiring. The only part I truly enjoyed was the finale: unlike Season 11, they did New Orleans right. Otherwise, just go away, Season 5.
10th Place: Season 1, San Francisco
Winner: Harold Dieterle
I can’t snark on Season 1 too much, it was the pilot, it was one of the first cooking competition shows on the air, and they were still working the kinks out. The producers successfully implemented some much-needed changes in later seasons (no more home cooks and sommeliers, please and thank you), so props to that. Steven was an entertaining caricature of a human being, and they created a nice controversy with eliminating Dave when pretty much everyone on the planet thought Tiffani should’ve been sent packing (myself included) and then the nice guy did finish first! It was a good hook for starting a long-running franchise.
9th Place: Season 7, Washington, D.C.
Winner: Kevin Sbraga
Season 7, you are squarely in the middle of my list. You weren’t bad at all. But as Top Chef goes, you weren’t terribly compelling either. Major props for really taking advantage of location, maybe more so than any other season. Using US government institutions and key figures like you did was awesome. Other than that, not much memorable going on. I liked Ed and Tiffany a lot, and I suppose everyone will always remember Angelo, our resident Douche Canoe with a Heart of Gold. But aside from keeping us forever wondering whatever in hell happened to Ed’s pea puree, not much to see here. Moving along…
8th Place: Season 6, Las Vegas
Winner: Michael Voltaggio
Why did you bring Toby Young back? That aside, Season 6 was pretty damn entertaining, even if it was entirely predictable. By the end of the second episode, it was SO obvious that the finale would be both Voltaggio brothers, Jen Carroll, and Kevin Gillespie, and that Mike Isabella and Eli would be among the last few standing in Vegas. I don’t think there’s been another season where the talent pool was so stark and almost neatly divided in half. The drama was mostly on point. Voltaggio brothers? Check plus. They are so awesome, and having them on the same season was the right thing to do. On the other hand, Robin? Wow, that went downhill fast. Look, I get each season must have its villain, but that was like the surgeon that cuts too deep and nicks an important artery. There were a few episodes there in the middle, where she got soooo much screen time, that I almost changed the channel but for Mike Isabella’s Robin commentary. That was pure gold. And I personally did not find him sexist. A woman with zero inner monologue deserves as much shade as a man without one.
7th Place: Season 12, Boston
Winner: Mei Lin
Dear Top Chef Boston: you got downgraded a slot because YOU TOOK AWAY THE STEW ROOM!! WTF? WHY??! Not only were those scenes some of the most entertaining parts of the show, now it’s just stressful to watch, because now we’re all wondering how long those cheftestants standing off to the side have been on their feet, or which one might need to pee. Otherwise, good job! Returning judge Hugh Acheson was at his finest Hugh Acheson-ness, and we saw the debut of Richard Blais as a rotating judge. Now he’s not nearly as obscene as Wolfgang, or as snarky as Hugh, but I thought he did a really good job. The cheftestants were a nice blend of the proper amounts of whininess, dickitry, off-the-wall nuts, likeability, and inspirational, all mixing together in just the right ways to entertain us all. The Boston-based challenges seemed thoughtful (loved the authors and the Julia Child), and this season capped off with I’d say the second most moving win ever. So cool to see Michael Voltaggio’s protege win it all. Go Mei!
6th Place: Season 3, Miami
Winner: Hung Huynh
Season 3! I have dubbed it the They Got Their Shit Together Season. This is the season where they finally nailed all the right formulas to make a tight cooking competition show, one with just the right ratios of cooking to drama, and just the right kind of drama. The first episode was the strongest show they’d done up to that point; you knew the ship had been completely righted when Howie defended himself for forgetting a key component on his dish by throwing Bourdain’s own book back in his face, and of course Bourdain took it like a pro. It also gets a major nod for being the last season where you could safely play the Top Chef Sponsorship Drinking Game. Those were the good old days, where the show had just enough sponsors to provoke some light-hearted mockery but it wasn’t quite yet to the point of “We’re leaving Whole Foods and jumping into our Lexus RX V6 450 horsepower SUV’s with premium leather seating and an extra cup holder for your convenience and heading back to the Top Chef Kitchen to cook in our super shiny GE Monogrammed appliances that each cost more than your parents’ first house.” Nowadays I’m terrified I’ll succumb to alcohol poisoning if I play it. All jokes aside, I really do think Season 3 was when they got it, when they pulled all the necessary pieces together to really make this show into something unique and secured their longevity.
5th Place: Season 14, Charleston
Winner: Brooke Williamson
I liked Season 14 for the most part. It was nice to change up the format a bit what with doing the half rookies/half veterans thing. I highly approved of the veteran choices. Any season with Sheldon is a good one, and I have the biggest soft spot for John Tesar now. He was such a dick on Season 10, and initially I groaned and rolled my eyes at bringing him back, but he really seems like he’s gotten everything together now. And kudos for bringing Shirley back – she was one of the few standouts from the abomination that was Season 11, so good on TC for giving her another shot on a much better season. That said, I have to minus Season 14 a point for sheer predictability. The veterans kept pounding on the rookies, challenge after challenge, and it was so obvious that would happen from the get-go. Also obvious that no rookie had a prayer of ending up in the finale. And then there was Emily. Season Villain, you have been cast. Her whiney antics and scraping by on so many challenges got really old. But, drama gotta come from somewhere, right? I can’t leave this season without mentioning the first sudden death Quick Fire, because initially I was like, “OH MY GOD THEY’RE MAKING A BLACK GUY COOK FOR HIS SPOT ON A FUCKING PLANTATION?! WHAT KIND OF MONSTERS ARE YOU??” But in the end, I thought they handled it as gracefully as could be done. Most importantly, they gave Gerald a voice, and Tesar mentioning his mom being a civil rights activist back in the sixties added to that thoughtfulness. Overall, a job well done. But Tom, you were filming in Charleston: did you really think you could avoid okra?
4th Place: Season 10, Seattle
Winner: Kristen Kish
Josie. Josie? Josie! JOSIE???!!! WHAT THE HELL MAN??!! Despite the fact that someone felt the need to bring back possibly THE most annoying cheftestant ever, and then the judges let her sabotage Kristen Kish in Restaurant Wars, this was a very good season. We were introduced to the (well, my) most favorite of all the Fan Favorites Sheldon, got to witness more of Stefan’s hot-headed tantrums (does he mean for them to be so funny?), and I for one thoroughly enjoyed finding out how snarky and even obscene Wolfgang Puck can be. Then, possibly the best finale ever, where Kristen gets her revenge, and smokes everyone in Last Chance Kitchen to take the title. Even if it was Officially Not Engineered By The Producers, it was still a great tv moment – so satisfying to see the right person win after getting screwed so badly. Tears!
3rd Place: Season 13, California
Winner: Jeremy Ford
I loved Season 13, I thought they really hit it out of the ballpark. Most importantly, Emeril’s back! The roadtripping aspect was fun, the nod to Obergefell was awesome, and how great were the guest judges! I’ve always wondered how many of the straight guys were concealing boners when Chrissy Teigen judged that Quick Fire. But perhaps my favorite part of this season, what made it so damn good, was just how inherently likeable so many of the cheftestants were. I mean, sure, not all. I don’t know why they brought Grayson back, other than to stir shit up, and of course we had to have Millennial Man Bun there to fuck up mashed potatoes (totally forgot his name, not looking it up). But overall, most of the chefs on there were people I so wanted to hang out with – as long as I don’t have to cook for any of them, of course. Seriously, who didn’t fall in love with Isaac Toups doing the hammer dance… FOR MC HAMMER?! Next time I’m in New Orleans I am most assuredly eating at his restaurants. Oh, and if Kwame making Tom cry at Judges Table when he was eliminated didn’t also make you cry, then please start a GoFundMe to find your soul that you obviously lost.
2nd Place: Season 4, Chicago
Winner: Stephanie Izard
Season 4 will always hold a special place in Top Chef history, and my heart, for having the first female winner, the inimitable Stephanie Izard, who has kicked some serious ass in the real world since her win. I can personally testify, Girl and the Goat is one AMAZING restaurant. But even aside from Stephanie winning, this season was still such greatness. I mean, BOURDAIN! Hell yeah! Plus, while the drama was quite high, it struck the right balance of semi-trashy guilty pleasure without being exhausting. I have to admit, I kept shouting BULLSHIT at the TV every time Lisa didn’t go home, but my elevated heart rate on the final episode from worrying she might win when SHE WAS ALWAYS ON THE BOTTOM and SO BITCHY AND WHINY made the show much more interesting. There are so many memorable chefs from this season too, who are extremely successful now as a result. You’ve got Spike’s franchised hamburger joint (cures hangovers – oh god, don’t ask), Antonia on Food Network (she’s awesome), Dale Talde’s restaurants (JC’s Talde is really incredible), and Richard Blais alone has been one unstoppable force of ass kickery. Plus his daughters are really cute. Good job, TC!
1st Place: Season 8, New York All-Stars
Winner: Richard Blais
When I first heard the news that they were doing an All-Stars thing for Season 8, I was so excited, like Little Kid on Christmas Morning Excited, and I’m thrilled it did not disappoint in the least. My husband Matt and I actually made predictions on who would go out each episode, and set up our own little March Madness-style tournament for watching this season. I’m sorry to say, he pretty much creamed me. Ah well, just like actual March Madness, there were upsets no one saw coming, like Jen Carroll going out second (I had her as runner-up on my bracket!), and neither of us predicted Mike Isabella being in the finale at all. But, he earned it! Bourdain coming back is always a treat (although did anyone else notice how he just up and DISAPPEARED right before the finale? And he wasn’t at the reunion? Seriously, what the hell happened?), and I think my favorite episode was Jimmy Fallon guest judging. Mostly though, seeing familiar faces was just really fun (I think that’s why they keep throwing random veterans back into subsequent seasons) and I’m such a sucker for a Self-Awareness and Redemption Story, so I felt all the warm fuzzies seeing how much Dale Talde and Tiffani Faison had changed. They were still competitive beasts, but this time without all the asshattery. And to cap it off, awesome to see Richard Blais win it all (of course it was more awesome for Matt, who, unlike me, actually had Richard winning it all on his fucking bracket, but still). It’s okay, he earned it. Blais, keep rocking the pink shoes and writing cookbooks.
The End. Thank you so much for sticking with me. And don’t forget to set your DVR’s for tonight!