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Top Chef Celebrity Guest Judges, Ranked

Photo: Bravo

In its 18 seasons, Top Chef has served as the ultimate TV comfort food, regardless of the varying quality of each season and despite the increasingly annoying product placements. Like most reality competition shows, Top Chef is enjoyable to watch because we can simultaneously live vicariously through the cheftestants who get to cook for cool people and the judges who get to taste the innovative dishes, while also having fun watching the drama unfold and cheering for our favorite contestants to take home the Top Chef title. (I’m still bitter that Bryan Voltaggio has never won despite competing three times.)

Since the show’s inception in 2006, one highlight has always been the myriad famous faces invited onto the show as guest judges, often accompanying host Padma Lakshmi during Quickfire challenges or joining head judge Tom Colicchio and frequent judge Gail Simmons at the judges table during elimination rounds. Celebrities are frequently brought on Top Chef for exposure, usually to coincide with press tours for their latest movies, TV shows, books, and other various ventures. Nonetheless, their passion for food seems genuine most of the time, like in the cases of self-proclaimed “foodie” Natalie Portman and celebrity home cook Nigella Lawson.

Ahead of the premiere of its 19th season on Bravo tonight, we’ve highlighted 25 of Top Chef’s best celebrity appearances, ranked from memorable to iconic.

25. Jon Favreau (Season 11, Episode 14)

As Top Chef: New Orleans inched closer to the finals, this episode tasked the chefs with re-creating a dish that marked a turning point in their culinary careers. To help judge this challenge, producers invited Jon Favreau, who directed and starred in the 2014 film Chef. Favreau once said that he watched every single episode of Top Chef while doing research for Chef, so it’s pretty cool that he also got to judge this personal elimination challenge during Top Chef’s 11th season.

24. Questlove (Season 11, Episode 11)

Having previously owned a fried-chicken restaurant where the signature dish was a fried-chicken drumstick, drummer Questlove was obviously the perfect person to help judge a Quickfire based on the chefs making their own version of a drumstick using different types of poultry (some of the choices were goose, turkey, quail, and game hen). This was a fun challenge, and Questlove’s appearance was certainly more memorable than his pal Jimmy Fallon’s stint as a guest judge back in season eight, which did not make this list.

23. Aisha Tyler (Season 4, Episode 4)

The earlier seasons of Top Chef were lighter in celebrity guests (quality, not quantity), and those who were featured weren’t typically there for obvious promotional reasons. One standout is actress Aisha Tyler’s appearance on Top Chef: Chicago. The chefs were tasked with making a six-course meal inspired by their favorite films — ranging from Willy Wonka to A Christmas Story to Talk to Her — for Tyler’s birthday dinner, hosted by film critic Richard Roeper. While the challenge itself could’ve been really fun, the decision to have the chefs pair up led to more creative restraint. Still, they managed to make impressive dishes, and Tyler was easily the episode’s highlight.

22. Danny Trejo (Season 17, Episode 7)

Actor-cum-restaurateur Danny Trejo, who owns the restaurant Trejo’s Tacos, was invited to guest-judge a Quickfire challenge based on — what else? — tacos. The chefs had the seemingly easy task of making the perfect taco in 30 minutes, but the catch was that they had to trade out all of their utensils for machetes as an homage to Trejo’s film, Machete. This twist was both bold and anxiety-inducing as we watched the chefs run around the kitchen with large machetes in their hands.

21. Nigella Lawson (Season 17, Episode 8)

In this episode’s Quickfire, Padma Lakshmi, calling the cheftestants from her bed at the Venetian hotel in Vegas, tasked the chefs with making her and a special guest breakfast in bed that they must serve and present via room service. Who better to join her for breakfast than the supersweet British celebrity chef and cookbook author Nigella Lawson (who also pronounces words like “robustness” in ways that I simply cannot stop thinking about)? Truly two queens maximizing their joint slay.

20. Lea Michele (Season 11, Episode 5)

As much as we may hate to admit it, Glee really was one of the most popular shows on television at one point in the 2010s. So much so that it warranted dedicating an entire elimination challenge to a New Orleans Halloween party hosted by Lea Michele that was filmed in the dead of summer. The chefs were ostensibly assigned to make “spooky” dishes for the costume fête, but mostly had to focus on taking into consideration Michele’s likes and dislikes (she explained that she’s a vegan who sometimes takes a break in order to enjoy eating cheese).

19. Rob Gronkowski (Season 12, Episode 9)

After entering the Top Chef kitchen during the Boston-set 12th season — a sight that still confuses me yet never seems to leave my mind — footballer Rob Gronkowski, who was a New England Patriots tight end at the time, proclaimed his undying love for Polish sausages. This set up the Quickfire challenge of making sausages from scratch in one hour (there were obviously a lot of dick jokes throughout). This was a strange yet surprisingly memorable appearance regardless of whether you’re a football fan, largely because of the bizarre chemistry between Gronk (a true himbo) and Padma Lakshmi.

18. Andy Cohen (Season 12, Episode 10)

In addition to hosting the Top Chef reunions that took place in some of the previous seasons, Bravo king Andy Cohen also got to guest-judge a Quickfire during Top Chef: Boston. A graduate of Boston University, he and his college roommate tasked the chefs with making innovative ramen dishes using only ingredients from the dorms of Emerson College students (the ingredients in their horrifying grocery bags ranged from bacon to ranch to leftover pizza, sushi, and a crusty jar of salsa).

17. Anthony Mackie (Season 11, Episode 10)

Ahead of Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s release, which introduced Anthony Mackie’s Falcon into the MCU, Mackie joined the Top Chef judges’ table. A New Orleans native, he gave the contestants the challenge of making comfort dishes that remind them of foods they eat at home. The dishes were served at Mackie’s favorite restaurant in town, which truly makes his love for his hometown and the rich food of New Orleans shine.

16. Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen (Season 18, Episode 9)

Despite having to overcome barriers to film during COVID-19, Top Chef’s delightful 18th season still managed to bring in some entertaining guests. Since it took place in Portland, it was only fitting that Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, the stars and creators of sketch-comedy series Portlandia, were invited to judge a Quickfire where the chefs had to use vintage equipment and ingredients that apparently have a reputation for being “hipster” in Portland. Since this episode was released in 2021, I’m slightly haunted by the use of “hipster” as a way to describe food; I thought we were calling it “indie sleaze” now.

15. Martha Stewart (Season 5, Episode 6)

For a holiday-themed Quickfire challenge, the chefs had the somewhat simple challenge — when compared to other Quickfires like making dishes using only solar-powered equipment in the scorching heat — of making a one-dish holiday entrée that could be made in a single cooking vessel. The challenging part was having to serve dishes to none other than “American icon” (Padma’s words) Martha Stewart, who has her own book dedicated to one-pot recipes, and she’s as brutally honest as they get (she describes one dish as “unusual” and “pungent”).

14. Ali Wong and Randall Park (Season 17, Episode 3)

Ahead of the release of Netflix’s romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe in 2020, comedians Ali Wong and Randall Park, who first met through a fried-rice competition, showed up at the Top Chef kitchen to task the chefs with making the most unique fried-rice dishes they can think of. The ingredients to choose from included Fritos, Spam, peanut butter, jelly beans, frog legs, and blue cheese. Their guest appearance is fantastic because Wong and Park are naturally hilarious and have great chemistry.

13. Natasha Richardson (Season 5, Episode 6)

After the Martha Stewart–judged Quickfire, the chefs went on to cater an AMFAR holiday benefit with a guest list of 250 people, with each chef having to make a dish inspired by one of the 12 days of Christmas. A few months before her tragic death, Natasha Richardson served as a guest judge on this elimination challenge, since she also had hosting duties for the benefit that year. It’s bittersweet to look back on this episode, but it serves as a reminder of what a sweet person Richardson was.

12. Lorraine Bracco (Season 1, Episode 12, and Season 8, Episode 8)

Top Chef’s first season was a complete disaster, having not yet found its footing with Katie Lee on hosting duties and more amateur cheftestants. However, a shining moment was the season’s finale, in which Lorraine Bracco, the actress best known for her role as Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos, helped determine the winner (while giving her wine brand some attention, since the chefs had to make a dish that pairs well with a wine from her line). Bracco also returned to Top Chef in the first All-Stars season, during which she fittingly judged a family-style Italian feast.

11. Jennifer Coolidge (Season 2, Episode 5)

Since we’re currently living through the Jennifer Coolidge renaissance, we’re practically obligated to highlight her wonderful stint on Top Chef: Los Angeles. In the episode’s elimination challenge, the chefs had to create a six-course lunch using leftovers for Coolidge’s lunch party with 60 attendees. While she technically wasn’t a judge whose input was taken into account at the judges’ table deliberations, her appearance as the party’s host, despite being sparse, was ever so delightful. However, it does feel slightly bizarre to hear her speak in her normal voice as opposed to the trademark sultry whisper that we’re all familiar with.

10. Emmy Rossum (Season 12, Episode 4)

Some of the best Top Chef moments happen when the chefs are thrown the curveball of having to cook meals for people with dietary restrictions. Not only does this make for good television due to the reactions of having to work under more constraints, but it also typically leads to more creative dishes. Like her performance that carried Shameless for nine seasons, Emmy Rossum’s appearance in Top Chef: Boston is quite underrated. Initially tasked with creating a decadent three-course Italian menu, which of course requires a pasta dish, Rossum ended up giving the cheftestants a last-minute twist by revealing that she was on a strict gluten-free diet, meaning they had to adapt when making her dishes (luckily, some were able to make the right adjustments, while others couldn’t figure out how to make the substitution).

9. Patti LaBelle (Season 9, Episode 8)

While Top Chef season nine is arguably one of the show’s worst seasons due to some particularly villainous contestants, it at least gave us a memorable appearance from legendary musician Patti LaBelle. After she surprised the chefs with a performance of “Lady Marmalade” in Austin, Texas, the chefs were given their next elimination challenge: create a dish that pays homage to a person who served as their culinary inspiration. LaBelle, who is also involved in various food-related ventures, offered good commentary throughout the meal and was such a great judge in a disastrous season. LaBelle could be a permanent member of the judges’ table and I wouldn’t complain.

8. Kelly Clarkson (Season 17, Episode 4)

America’s sweetheart and die-hard Top Chef fan Kelly Clarkson joined Padma in a Quickfire of Top Chef: All Stars for a challenge promoting her movie Trolls World Tour. The chefs had to make cohesive dishes using vibrantly colored ingredients that represent each of the different “troll worlds.” While this challenge was very promotion-heavy, Clarkson seemed genuinely interested in being there and getting to taste all of the creative dishes, calling it the “greatest day ever.”

7. Joe Jonas (Season 8, Episode 2)

At the height of his career, in the midst of starring in Disney movies like Camp Rock and being a pop boy-band sensation with the Jonas Brothers, Joe Jonas made another major career move: guest-judging an epic Quickfire challenge on Top Chef: New York. In two teams, the chefs had to make a midnight snack for a large group of extremely hyper elementary-schoolers spending the night at a museum, and then also had to stay at the museum overnight in order to whip up breakfast for the kids and their parents the next morning. I constantly think about the moment when chef Dale Talde said he thought Joe Jonas was a pastry chef. Watching this episode as a child was like seeing the best of both worlds collide, and Jonas’s appearance still holds up all these years later.

6. Debi Mazar (Season 2, Episode 9)

Iconic actress and restaurateur Debi Mazar, best known for her roles in Younger and Entourage, had a stint as a guest judge/dinner-party host for a challenge in which the chefs had to serve a seven-course meal where each course represented one of the seven deadly sins. A memorable moment from this chaotic party is when she calls the foam from Marcel Vigneron’s dish (representing lust) visually similar to cat spit and then proceeded to state that the dish seemed as if it were made by someone who hasn’t had as much sex as he needs to in order to make a sexy dish. According to Mazar on Andy Cohen’s podcast a few years ago, she came close to hosting Top Chef at one point, which honestly could’ve been awesome to see.

5. Natalie Portman (Season 6, Episode 10)

Perhaps one of the most exciting things to happen in Natalie Portman’s decades-long career, running at a close second behind winning an Oscar for her performance in Black Swan, is the fact that she guest-judged an episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas (a.k.a. one of the best seasons). After proclaiming that she was a foodie (“I love eating, I love food”), Portman revealed the unimaginable: She was a vegetarian, and the chefs would have to make dishes that fit her dietary restriction. Naturally, all of the chefs responded to this revelation with absolute horror, since they had spent the previous night fantasizing about all the meats they could possibly cook at Tom Colicchio’s restaurant, Craftsteak, where the challenge was held. In the end, most of the chefs made interesting dishes that satisfied Portman’s foodie cravings.

4. Sesame Street (Season 8, Episode 10)

Some Sesame Street members, including Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Telly, stopped by the Top Chef kitchen for a Quickfire where they had one request: make the most delicious cookies possible. Some of the cookies genuinely looked delicious, and this might be the funniest Top Chef appearance and challenge to date. Although I can’t help but wonder this: How did everyone keep a straight face while interacting with Elmo and company as they “ate” the food?

3. Foo Fighters (Season 5, Episode 3)

Taking some time out of their tour, rock band Foo Fighters, who are self-proclaimed huge Top Chef fans, seemed to actually have a ton of fun in this Thanksgiving-themed episode. Split into two teams, the chefs were challenged with making an innovative Thanksgiving feast using only microwaves and toaster ovens to cook in the arena the band was performing at, and the winning team would get to see the band perform afterwards (if we try to forget that this was filmed in the summer, then it’s a perfect challenge). It was a huge missed opportunity not to call the episode “Food Fighters,” though.

2. Charlize Theron (Season 9, Episode 11)

To align with the release of Snow White and the Huntsman in 2012, Academy Award winner Charlize Theron gave the contestants the challenge of making a gothic-themed feast fit for an evil queen. While the challenge is ultimately silly like many Top Chef challenges, it’s also pretty inventive and gave the chefs an artistic challenge that allowed them to flex some of their creative muscles — some were over-the-top and literal, with one chef presenting a black chicken made to look slaughtered and a quail egg representing the chicken’s unborn child. As previously established, Top Chef season nine was an absolute mess, but Theron’s appearance will forever remain iconic, and it makes up for everything we had to endure throughout it.

1. Anthony Bourdain (Various, 2006–2011)

This might be cheating a little, since the late Anthony Bourdain could technically be considered an official judge for some of the time he spent on Top Chef between 2006 and 2011. Regardless, he was sometimes brought in under the title of guest judge, so we’ll let it slide. A culinary mastermind, Bourdain offered hilarious and sincerely (and brutally) honest commentary on the food he was served, some of which he completely detested with every bone in his body (“It’s like Betty Crocker and Charles Manson had a love child and he’s cooking for me” and “As I’m eating it, my mind was drifting back fondly to my last colonoscopy” are some memorable quotes, among many others), and every episode he was in was always an entertaining experience.

Top Chef Celebrity Guest Judges, Ranked