The first season of Top Chef to air in quarantine happened upon its impact by accident. Filmed in late 2019 before airing in March the following year, the episodes were an unexpected snapshot of a culture on the edge of crisis. While real-world restaurants scrambled to adjust, the assembled all-stars sampled L.A. standbys; while Italy suffered a traumatic first wave, the finalists flew to Tuscany. Through esteemed guest judges and its contestants’ CVs, Top Chef had long emphasized its authentic connection to the industry. Last year, I wrote at the time, that same authenticity made the show “the de facto cultural ambassador of a nation in disarray.”
The second season of Top Chef to air in quarantine is well aware of the world it’s responding to. The first words we hear upon arriving in Portland for Season 18 are “the pandemic,” as in: “The pandemic has impacted the restaurant industry in a way that no one could have predicted.” As competitors filed in, we learned not only their culinary specialties and places of origin, but also how lockdown had upended their careers. “I had to call everybody and furlough them,” shared Houston chef Sasha Grumman. “When I closed my restaurants and my bars, I had to let go of 30 of my favorite humans in my life,” recalled now-finalist Shota Nakajima.
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. 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.
No reality show gets to 18 seasons, let alone multiple Emmys and a slew of spinoffs, without pushing itself to evolve. In its earlier years, Top Chef took after a more traditional, more sensational model of reality competition. There were villains like Marcel Vigneron, John Tesar, and Stefan Richter—often arrogant, macho men who fit the broader stereotype of the chef as maladjusted genius. Two contestants, Leah Cohen and Hosea Rosenberg of the New York–set Season 5, even had an on-camera affair. Such fireworks may have amped up the drama, but they could also distract from feats of skill that were plenty impressive on their own.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, Top Chef outgrew this template and set it aside. The kinds of chefs who succeeded on the show began to diversify, and while the conflict never disappeared, it was also balanced by mutual respect. The show’s first, inadvertent pandemic season was a perfect case in point, depicting the near-unstoppable rise of eventual winner Melissa King, a queer Chinese American chef who’d grown up in L.A.’s neighboring San Gabriel Valley. There are negative examples, too. Season 11, set in New Orleans, gave the title to Nicholas Elmi, a Philadelphia chef who made it to the finale by refusing to cede immunity after making what the judges deemed the worst dish of the challenge. As a result, the more deserving Stephanie Cmar packed her knives. Elmi then defeated runner-up Nina Compton after having a kitchen meltdown within earshot of the judges. Compton, a fan favorite, is now a member of the all-star judges’ panel for Season 18; Elmi is not. Were a more recent finalist to repeat Elmi’s stunt, it’s hard to imagine that diners would look the other way.
The New Orleans incident is especially striking when held up against a memorable scene from Portland’s homestretch. After contestants cooked dishes with ingredients sent in a care package from their families, the judges opted to eliminate Maria Mazon, a James Beard nominee from Tucson, Arizona—only for Jamie Tran, who’d already come back from a previous elimination, to beg to be sent home in Mazon’s place. The judges’ panel eventually talked Tran back off the ledge, but not before a tearful display of solidarity from two women with a self-evident bond. Tran’s ploy was the opposite of throwing her rival under the bus, and a testament to just how much Top Chef’s norms have shifted over the years.
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. “There could not be a more perfect time to compete on Top Chef,” argued contender Kiki Louya in the opening montage. “We can come together and support each other.” Some of the structural tweaks made primarily as safety measures enabled that effort. Bringing on alumni as guest judges in lieu of outside experts allowed the show to construct a closed bubble, but also for earnest advice (“Cook with passion”; “Stay true to yourself”) to take the edge off harsh critique. Former stars like King, Kwame Onwuachi, and Gregory Gourdet act as both elder statesmen and peers; in one cleverly designed challenge, that group stood in as recipe testers for their successors. For Restaurant Wars, a notorious gauntlet, teams were asked to develop a more intimate chef’s table concept instead of serving strangers. The result maintained the level of difficulty while also innovating a format that’s become somewhat staid—and facilitating a more friendly, gentle atmosphere than the challenge’s typical onslaught.
Not all of Top Chef’s pandemic measures made for better home viewing; drafting a grocery list on an iPad, for example, is a poor substitute for a frantic sprint through Whole Foods. (This may explain why the season all but abandoned the gimmick after the premiere.) Nor were all this season’s notable choices a direct result of the production bubble. As on every reality show, it’s impossible to tell how much story considerations affect wins and losses, if at all. But the cast member closest to a true villain—Gabriel Pascuzzi, a Portland native who was a vocally sore loser in the first Quickfire challenge—was eliminated less than halfway through the competition. His early exit contributed to a season that’s been notably short on friction, even by latter-day Top Chef standards.
COVID-19 isn’t the only outside influence on some of Top Chef’s more recent developments. 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.
But while the pandemic didn’t inaugurate this latest era of Top Chef, 2020 at least catalyzed its continued transformation. When restaurants have only just left a yearlong stretch of existential peril, there’s a sense that anyone invested in their continued survival is ultimately on the same team. That unity could undermine the thrill of watching big egos butt heads, but in Season 18, Top Chef cast personalities who don’t need sparks to ignite. Take the finalists: Nakajima, whose easy laugh belies a subtle, restrained style; Dawn Burrell, a former Olympic athlete with an intense drive to match; and Gabe Erales, a father of three who aspires to be the show’s first Mexican American victor. In the penultimate episode, the judges declined to eliminate any one chef, keeping all three in contention for the title. They can’t all be winners, but Top Chef has never felt less about who technically wins.