Top Chef is 10 years old.
In the past decade, the show has aired 13 seasons, awarding 13 chefs the coveted prize of $100,000, a feature in Food & Wine magazine, and a showcase at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
Its judges have ordered many more chefs to pack their knives and go. There have been more than 150 Quickfire Challenges, at least seven bad Restaurant Wars competitions, and enough blunders that all new contestants know they shouldn't cook risotto, bake, or make dessert during Top Chef challenges unless they want to go home.
Top Chef has asserted itself as one of the best and most enduring competitive reality television shows in the history of the genre.
Top Chef is compelling in spite of a huge disadvantage
With competitive reality shows, viewers are asked to be judges.
On Project Runway, what the audience sees is essentially the same as what judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia see (although the judges get a closer look at the textures and craftsmanship). On American Idol and The Voice, we hear what the contestants sound like, just as the judges do. On Survivor or Big Brother, we can assess how the contestants have played the game. Even if we don't get to vote at the end, we most certainly have opinions on who deserves to win or lose.
With Top Chef, we'll never get to taste the crudo that Jeremy made this season or the bread Marjorie baked or the disastrous strawberry bungle that Phillip concocted. Asking viewers to judge food they can't taste should be a damning flaw, but with Top Chef it's not.
The show overcomes this obstacle by relying on charismatic, knowledgeable judges and tight storytelling, achieved with the winning combination of Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and the editing team that puts everything together. Simmons and Colicchio have figured out how to talk about food — whether they're describing the taste (like the acidity or texture of a dish) or the preparation (why it's difficult to make seven duck ballotines in three hours) — in a way that makes sense to viewers and lets them feel knowledgeable and respected. That's easier said than done.
The very best season of Top Chef was season six
If you were only allowed to watch one season of Top Chef, your best option would be season six. And a lot of that is due to the turd gremolata that was season five.
Season five ended with the crowning of Hosea Rosenberg, possibly the show's most disappointing winner aside from some guy named Kevin, over adorable angel Carla Hall and bald Finnish monster Stefan Richter.
Throughout the season, Rosenberg was fine but not spectacular. Hall became an audience favorite because she seemed like a good human with exceptional French technique. Richter, a guy the audience loved to hate, was efficient and a force to be reckoned with. Rosenberg won because Hall and Richter both made massive mistakes in the final challenge; Rosenberg also had a better sous chef.
And, to be blunt, Rosenberg was probably better known for his showmance with fellow contestant Leah than for his cooking.
But disappointment in season five's winner wasn't the only reason the cycle felt flat. Simmons was pregnant, and a mean bald journalist named Toby Young became the interim judge. Colicchio told TV Guide in 2010 that Young "didn't have the most authoritative voice." That was kinder than what most fans say about him.
The show also lacked compelling cheftestants. Outside of Fabio and two of the final three, no one stood out.
So in season six, Top Chef made a concerted effort to load up on talent and charisma. The show brought in the Voltaggios, Bryan and Michael, two good-looking, talented blond brothers with drastically different cooking styles. Also in the mix was Jen Carroll, a talented but nervy chef who apprenticed with renowned chef Eric Ripert, and Kevin Gillespie, an adorable Southern chef with kind eyes, who is now one of the show's most successful alums. This foursome dominated the season, but there were also a few dark horses, like Mike Isabella and Eli Kershstein, who provided some sparks of entertainment (fights!) and some great dishes along the way.
Their post–Top Chef careers have been solid — a validation of the caliber of chefs that season. Carroll and Isabella have gone into business together and will be opening a restaurant in Washington, DC, in 2017. Gillespie, in 2011, was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef of the Year, was nominated for Food & Wine’s People’s Best New Chef award, and has opened two successful restaurants. Bryan Voltaggio is a James Beard Foundation Award finalist, competed on Top Chef Masters, and owns six restaurants. And Michael Voltaggio, who won the season, has a litany of accomplishments, including a Michelin star, an acclaimed restaurant called Ink, and glowing praise from Tom Colicchio.
Top Chef's current 13th season is definitely one of its better ones. It's been the season of crudo and the one where we learned to hate tweezer-plated entrees. The season has focused on California's rich food scene, teaching us about woks as hot as the sun, tacos, and the tradition of a beefsteak banquet.
And the final three contestants are a study in contrasting personalities. Marjorie Meek-Bradley is kind of a surly jerk, yet she's immensely likable. Jeremy Ford introduced America to the concept of a dad-bro. And Isaac Toups is a loud, brash underdog. (Spoiler: The Last Chance Kitchen winner was also part of Thursday's episode.)
I'm not ready to place season 13 among my top three (season six is still the best, followed by season four and season one) but that's more a testament to the great work Top Chef has done over the past 10 years.
Top Chef is more about education than crowning a winner
When Top Chef debuted in 2006 people weren't as interested in food as they are today. To be clear, Top Chef is not the reason so many people are aware of French cooking technique, the farm-to-table movement, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, the artisanal food trend, the fact that Anthony Bourdain loves anything you crack an egg over, the lack of gender equality in kitchens, James Beard Awards and Michelin stars, or chefs like Hubert Keller, Joel Robuchon, and Daniel Boulud.
But the show has played a key role in the bigger, more general democratization of the food conversation in America.
Top Chef benefited from debuting when the US was grasping to understand the "foodie" movement. Food, like comic books, video games, indie music, scrapbooking, and home design (among other things) was once a niche, even wonky, topic with only a small number of die-hard fans. But thanks in large part to the internet, there's been a relentless mainstreaming of everything niche (food included) that's allowed everyone to participate.
As a result, there's an appetite for learning — one that Top Chef has helped sustain. And at its core, the show is as much about imparting food knowledge as it is a competition.
People who are interested in how to prepare sous vide steak got a crash course in it during Top Chef's season five finale. When the show wants to talk about molecular gastronomy, it brings in chef Wylie Dufresne, who specializes in the field. Top Chef spinoff Top Chef Masters challenged more established (and in many cases famous) professional chefs with making offal for the masses. And so on and so forth.
The show's structure reflects its instructional appeal. The meat of each episode is devoted to chefs talking about their dishes and the ingredients they're using. Contestants explain the flavors they're going for and, when appropriate, who the guest judges are and what makes them so special.
In a recent season 13 episode, the contestants were in San Francisco for a Quickfire, and in 15 minutes we learned about the legacy of San Francisco–based chef Traci Des Jardins, the trend of artisanal toast, the flavors San Francisco is known for, and the importance of texture in any good dish. Sure, I can tell you who won and who lost, but I can also tell you why Des Jardins, who's known for French technique and California style, was not a fan of Amar's overstuffed and goopy toast dish.
It's one moment in an episode of one season. There have been countless more of these moments over the show's existence. Teaching people and telling stories about food is what truly makes Top Chef a treasure, and it's far more important than all the fights, the dishes, the challenges, and even the chefs we've seen over its 10-year, and well-deserved, existence.