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A Quick-Fire Ode to the Greatness of ‘Top Chef’

The cooking competition franchise is always at its best when it reminds us that we don’t have to be part of some theoretical rarefied elite to enjoy truly fine food and drink

Bravo/Ringer illustration

Everyone on Top Chef is great this season. Padma is great. Tom is great. All the judges whose names I can’t remember and who show up for four minutes and it’s never clear why they’re there are great. Emeril—I remember Emeril—is great. The gentleness that radiates from the still center of Emeril as he awkwardly asks some contestant about their étouffée or whatever is one of the greatest things on television. No famous person is actually nice, but after watching Emeril in 1.6 scenes on the houseboat episode this season, it’s obvious to me he’s a saint.

And the way he talks! The way Emeril talks is great. He talks as if he’s the king of a tribe of rock creatures who survive by eating flowers, and thus he’s made of granite and always has violets in his mouth. There’s literally only one way My Neighbor Totoro could be a better movie, and that’s if its director, Hayao Miyazaki, had gone, “Fuck it—let’s give Totoro a profound mastery of Cajun cooking.” No offense to the other random guest judges whose identities I can’t keep track of from minute to minute (they’re all great), but Emeril should be in every episode of Top Chef.

The contestants are great. Michelle, who made a red snapper with corn and fava ragout to evoke the spirit of the Beatles, is great. Justin, who lives in Minnesota yet somehow spends all his free time doing Jell-O shots on boats, is great. I really like Kelsey—she’s great. Brian, who was so pompous and over-serious and annihilatingly tall that I almost couldn’t stand to watch him at first, turned out to be great just by being helplessly himself, like a Dickens character. When he decided that the way to make a party fun would be to stand in the hot tub while cooking, then got in the hot tub and proceeded to act precisely as glum and pompous and serious as he always does, his annoying greatness completely won my heart.

I was going to skip ahead to the next thing, but then I remembered that Eric is also very cool and great. And Sara! Remember how great Sara was with the servers at Restaurant Wars? One of the greatest moments of the season. I love the way Eddie overthinks everything and tortures himself with inner meltdown after inner meltdown after blowing the team’s whole budget on racks of lamb in the second episode. I love the way all the contestants are friends. For a few episodes I thought Brandon might be the only person on Top Chef who wasn’t that great, because at first he was all like, “I am here to dominate … and so’s my circa-2009 Axe body spray,” but he turned out to be fine. At least fine, possibly great. He was nonthreatening enough that the dudebro pompadour shtick eventually started to seem kind of sweet.

I didn’t really think Kentucky would be a good setting for the show’s 16th season, but it’s been great. The Churchill Downs opener felt obligatory, but the whole Prohibition hotel party was fun as heck, and the houseboat sequence was sublime TV. The moment when the skeevy houseboat captain told the chefs he expected their food to knock his socks off, then went, “More’n just my socks … I want to be naked”—honestly, what a scene. I really believed that I was watching a man who wanted food to make him naked at that moment. More than that, I believed he was speaking for all houseboat captains everywhere. I was glad he was able to express their truth before climate change comes for the lakes.

I expected to get sick of the OMG BOURBON stuff that’s contractually required in any reality show that wants tax breaks from the Kentucky Department of Tourism. Bourbon is fantastic, but a lot of people fetishize it because they don’t know any better. But the Maker’s Mark distillery visit was great. Top Chef is always at its best when it’s reminding you that basic food and drink can be wonderful, and, at the same time, that you don’t have to be part of some theoretical rarefied elite to enjoy truly fine food and drink.

The whole conversation about high vs. low everything is such a mess right now in America. People are constantly saying stuff like “all these snob critics need to get over themselves and realize that superhero movies are just as adventurous and important as Antonioni.” But where are the critics who are denying this? They barely exist. Those jobs have been eliminated. Most of the critics who do have work would be terrified to come across as highbrow or snobbish. Personally, I love the Fast & Furious franchise, and the music of Franz Schubert makes me glad to be alive, and I know which of those two things I’m safer talking about on Twitter. Sixteen seasons in, Top Chef is a show that understands that potato chips are an amazing miracle, and so is confit de canard with furikake ginger mushrooms and aioli-braised cauliflower (I just made that up, it would probably be inedible, but you get the point), and true miracles deepen rather than diminish each other. Just look at the 2019 BMW X3. Yes, the silky-smooth handling is sheer luxury, but have you checked out the cargo capacity on those babies? Top Chef is here to show you, six or seven times per episode. It’s so great.