emergency discussion

It’s the End of Top Chef As We Know It

Photo: Bravo/Fred Jagueneau

Over 20 seasons of Top Chef, which debuted slightly over a year after Project Runway brought glossy reality prestige to Bravo, we’ve watched the competition series transform. For its first decade or so, Top Chef was a cutthroat contest with constant industry name-dropping and a fratty atmosphere — remember Marcel’s almost forcibly shaved head? — that seemed most strongly shaped by head judge Tom Colicchio’s preferences. (Two words: New Orleans.) But in the past few years, Top Chef has become a gentler, more encouraging place, with challenges that urge contestants to cook from their personal backgrounds, a supportive vibe from longtime host Padma Lakshmi (who took over from season one’s Katie Lee Joel), and episodes focused on undervalued culinary traditions.

Has that transformation been undercut by the current World All-Stars season, which could end in back-to-back wins for divisive chef Buddha Lo, who was also victorious in Houston-set season 19? And what about Lakshmi’s announcement that she’s leaving hosting duties to continue working on her Hulu series Taste the Nation and “other creative pursuits”; who could ever fill her shoes? Vulture convened its Top Chef fans — critics Roxana Hadadi and Nick Quah, writer and Good One host Jesse David Fox, and writer Jason P. Frank — for an emergency discussion on whether the series we’ve watched for nearly two decades is over as we know it.

Roxana Hadadi: Let me be upfront and say while the last two seasons of Top Chef have really tested me, I’m not yet ready to pack my knives and quit a show I have watched from the beginning, in my college dorm room while eating dining-hall fare. It’s probably hyperbolic to say Top Chef changed American dining forever, but many of this series’ veterans got restaurants, businesses, and TV deals of their own, and there is a real impact there. The series has dozens of Emmy nominations (and one win for Outstanding Reality Competition Program, back in 2010), and we’ve experienced the meme-ification of Richard Blais, the goofiness of Tom’s ongoing linen-suit phase, the intense friction between the Voltaggio brothers, and the sexual-misconduct scandal that overshadowed season 18.

I say all this to emphasize how long Top Chef has been on and its influence on this genre, and to argue that Padma as host has been central to this success. She’s a knowledgeable, calm figure who always seemed to genuinely care about the contestants, who was enthusiastic about the challenges — even when they were silly movie tie-ins for other Universal properties like Jurassic World Dominion and Fast X — and who wasn’t afraid to stand up to Tom when their opinions differed. Remember her reaction to the Gabe Erales revelations? Her frustration and disappointment felt sincere, and that forthright emotion, in contrast to how pretentious Top Chef can sometimes be, has always been part of Padma’s appeal. What does Top Chef lose in losing Padma?

Jason P. Frank: If you go back and watch that first season of Top Chef without Padma, it is clear: Top Chef loses a lot. She brings a grace to the proceedings, is willing and able to banter with guests and contestants without ceding any of her power as a judge, and, most importantly, Padma just is Top Chef. More than Gail or even Tom, Padma’s omnipresence as the only judge present for both Quickfires and elimination challenges makes her vital to the Top Chef experience. She was also, for many years, the only voice of color at many of those judging panels, and her presence in that respect cannot be discounted. She’s Top Chef’s beating heart. Revisiting that dire Padma-less first season, as I did after hearing the news of her departure, it becomes clear how vital she is to the show’s ecosystem. Her beauty and skill as a TV presenter made her a natural in the role of “host,” but her expertise on matters of food meant she was always more than that.

I can’t think of another person who has all of those qualities; her position seems unique in the reality-competition firmament. I imagine that, given Top Chef’s current standing on the food show–reality show spectrum (much more on the food side; they even apparently cut an altercation between Gabri and Victoire, according to an Instagram Live I recently watched), they’ll get a chef to come in and replace her. But her abilities as a TV presenter are next-level, and that particular alchemy will be hard to match. Nick, I’m curious what you think they should look for in a potential replacement?

Nick Quah: That’s a tough one. First of all, I agree with everything both of you have said. (Though, while I won’t defend the first season, I do think it’s a fascinating window into the 2000s. They were trying stuff out! Goatees were in!) Padma is the soul of Top Chef — at times, also a clear moral center both within and beyond the production — and her departure will fundamentally alter its feel. Of course, we do have some reference for what the show might and could look like without her. To begin with, there’s Last Chance Kitchen, though I wouldn’t say a fully Tom Colicchio–hosted Top Chef sounds particularly appetizing. Then there are the various spinoffs and non-American versions of the franchise. I haven’t seen many of those, but what I have watched suggests a show template flexible enough that another personality could be plugged in somewhat comfortably. You wouldn’t have Padma’s je ne sais quoi (who does?), but you’d have a shot at maintaining some contiguity.

I realize I’m beating around the bush, but that’s because I’m finding it really hard to address the question of how to replace Padma without grokking the larger question of whether the show needs a radical retooling in the first place. So I’ll just say it: Even before Padma announced she’s stepping away from the show, I’ve had a strong feeling the Top Chef formula may have run its course. I guess what I’m saying is that we should probably talk about Buddha. Roxana, I know you have mixed feelings about what a back-to-back Buddha win might mean for the show. Want to walk us through that?

Photo: Bravo/David Moir

RH: I just sighed very exasperatedly, but I know that’s not enough, so let me elaborate. Top Chef history is riddled with contestants who had specific tricks of the trade that gave them an advantage (often molecular gastronomy), and as the show became more popular, it welcomed competitors who came in with a certain amount of established pedigree, working as sous for popular chefs. Remember how season 12 Boston winner Mei Lin had previously worked for season six Las Vegas winner Michael Voltaggio? At a certain point Top Chef began to feel very small, and my issue with Buddha is how much he’s exacerbated that feeling by coming into the show with extensive study of how it works (and with experience working for a number of chefs who show up as judges). He’s talked about going through all the seasons and seeing what worked and what didn’t before he competed in, and eventually won, the Houston season, and that try-hard energy has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Buddha’s approach feels tied to what Top Chef used to be and out of line with the more spontaneous, soulful version of the show that exists now. It’s also resulted in dishes that often seem — and I’m quoting Éric Ripert, who judged the Houston finals, here — outdated, overly prepared, and lacking a certain passion or feeling. They’re technically wonderful, and of course the judges have rewarded that. But they lack something, even with all those tuile flowers, leaves, and insects that pop up on his plates. Don’t get me started on how this man came to the World All-Stars season with thousands of dollars of molds, and was rewarded with … a mold-specific challenge! I can’t help but feel like this season is geared specifically toward his strengths. Am I just being a hater?

JPF: I hear what you’re saying, Roxana, and I won’t be the one to mount a full defense of Buddha. (Quah, we’re expecting a lot from you.) But I think for me, the issue comes back to Buddha fatigue. I remember being excited and interested in him during the first part of his first season, when he was one of many characters. Would his system-gaming work? Or would he be beaten out by the potentially equally impressive list of competitors, like the chef without a sense of taste due to COVID? By the time the season finished up, his victory felt like a foregone conclusion, yes, but that was okay for one season by my watch. We’ve had that before! This season, there was about one episode’s worth of questioning whether Buddha would similarly clean up, and the answer was immediate: Yes. Two seasons in a row of watching someone game the system isn’t fun or interesting reality TV. It’s repetitive.

It seems to me that Top Chef may have moved so far from its roots as a reality-TV show into being simply a food show — something it’s very, very proud of — that it has lost track of what is fun to watch. I’m not a Buddha hater in the way you are, Roxana, but I am a hater of repetitive storytelling and boring TV. Heading into the final three, we have two people who have won a single elimination challenge (and one of those wins was a paired win with Buddha), and Buddha, who has won four. That’s bad TV. But, Roxana, I also agree with you that Buddha is not a particularly interesting chef to watch work. Compare his dominance with the dominance of Melissa King’s All-Stars win just a few seasons back. We watched Melissa come up with dishes on the spot, creating food intuitively — it was a true window into someone at the peak of their creative process. Buddha, on the other hand, seems rehearsed. There’s no improvisational quality to his food, making him a bad character on competitive reality TV, a genre that lives by its ability to give us a window into the creative process. To me, he’s not a bad contestant, he’s a bad TV character.

Nick, I’ve heard a rumor that you’re mounting a defense of Buddha. Tell me about that …

NQ: Okay, okay, I’ll show my cards: I think I’m the only Buddha apologist here, and I swear it’s not just because we share Malaysian roots. It’s more that I’m a “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” kinda person, and where others see a try-hard guy, I mostly see an Asian dude who had to excel within systems his whole life. I can personally relate to that.

I do hear you, Jason, about the fatigue, and yes, that’s to no small extent due to Buddha having broken the system. But I don’t think it should be a problem for a player to come in having studied the game. Rather, the problem comes from the show not being responsive enough to adjust the level of competition on the fly. Buddha hasn’t been meaningfully tested all season; as you’ve said, a crap-ton of the challenges play into his strengths. And we know his weaknesses: for whatever reason, he doesn’t really excel when made to cook from the heart, and I suspect he isn’t great on teams where he has to be dependent on other people. Surely the production must’ve detected in the moment that numerous successive challenge wins makes for absolutely boring TV. Why not shake things up somehow?

Jesse, let’s loop you in here. I hear you have a scintillating take on Buddha being Top Chef’s antichrist and embodiment of its design weaknesses. I’ll clear the lane.

Jesse David Fox: To make the case for why Buddha is the human manifestation of the show’s demise, I must take a step back. For me, Top Chef is at its best when it doesn’t feel like a competition show, in that it doesn’t feel like a series of games where contestants try to figure out how to win, and the winner of a given season is the best competitor. It is not Chopped Champions Tournament. Instead, I prefer when each challenge feels like an opportunity for the chefs to express their perspective on cooking in increasingly whimsical ways. When this works, the person who wins feels representative of whose food would be most exciting outside the show.

Traditionally, there are two types of challenge that get in the way of this happening: those that force chefs who cook a specific cuisine to create something completely removed from what they make, and those that demand specific techniques or adhere to a specific “fine dining” standard. Both penalize having a vision — not to mention have inherent cultural and economic biases — and instead reward a sort of modernist, continental cuisine that is frustratingly dated. These tendencies have never been worse than this season, and what terrible timing, considering it was a season meant to celebrate an international cast.

Nothing against Buddha — he seems like a nice-enough guy, and I’m happy he’s having fun winning so much — but he somewhat unintentionally brings out the producers’ worst instincts. I say that because this feels like the first Top Chef season I’ve watched where you can strongly feel the hand of the producers pulling for a competitor, creating challenges that play to his strengths and reward his value system. As a result, Buddha wins, but without ever giving insight into his actual perspective as a chef. What is Buddha’s cooking like? I could answer that simply for every other competitor this season, and yet I have a hard time with the likely winner. Is it molds? The show has failed Buddha, and my fear is if he wins, it will bring about more just like him.

Photo: Bravo/David Moir

RH: I’m intrigued by your question of what Buddha’s cooking is like, Jesse, because I think what I’ve enjoyed most about this World All-Stars season is the opportunity to meet contestants from all these different spinoff versions of Top Chef, and get a little glimpse into international cooking styles, comfort foods, and avant-garde trends. Jason and Nick, you’ve both made very good points that Top Chef is sometimes dominated by white, male, French-trained voices, and seeing it broaden into a more inclusive and thoughtful version of itself has, for me, made it a more fulfilling watch. Aside from the feeling that the producers are throwing it to Buddha, this 20th season has been entertaining and engaging because of the breadth of these competitors and their unique backgrounds: my beloved Ali, with his focus on updating Middle Eastern food with a plant-forward approach, or fan-favorite Victoire, with her African-Italian fusions, or even cruise chef Tom, whose smirking reply to judge Tom about the denseness of his German cake genuinely made me laugh. Watching a competitor with a singular vision, and understanding what makes them tick and how they respond to adversity, is what keeps me coming back to Top Chef, and it’s also why I’m rooting for Gabri in this finale. My guy honored his first kitchen job as a dishwasher by making a trompe-l’œil sponge for the judges. That’s cheeky and fun, and he should have won that challenge! I’ll miss Padma, but if Top Chef at least keeps attracting contestants like Gabri, I’ll probably keep watching. Jason, what about you?

JPF: Oh, I’ll never stop watching. This season is in a bit of a pickle where, if they crown someone other than Buddha, it will feel wrong, but if they crown Buddha, it will feel so deeply boring. Two seasons in a row? What a lame era. I will be rooting for Gabri, and not just because I have a crush on him. (I said I’d make it to the end of this without mentioning that, but I failed. Gabri, call me.) He’s a Tasmanian Devil of a chef who has been my favorite the entire season because each one of his ambitious dishes seems destined to land him in either the bottom or the top. He’d have to have the best Top Chef day of his life to win, but I’m rooting for it, especially since he’s the only representative from a non-U.S. Top Chef edition in the finale of a supposed World All-Stars season. If Buddha wins, and I fully expect him to, I’m not done with the show, just disappointed, like a bored elementary-school teacher.

Nick, are you aboard the Gabri train as well?

NQ: One thousand percent. I’m a simple guy: All I want from television is chaos, and Gabri is the living embodiment of chaos. I love him. But chaos could also be Sara winning, having cooked her way out of the Top Chef underworld. I’ll be into that, too.

Really, I’ll be happy for anything that’ll make me feel anything. Once again, I remain an apologist for Buddha as a person, but it will be a huge bummer to see the Padma era close on such a fait accompli. Will I keep watching if Buddha wins? Probably, given my deep attachment to the show. But you always want the best for the things you love, and in this case, I hope Top Chef takes Padma leaving as an opportunity to blow things up. Jesse, you sticking around?

JDF: My parents think the show has been giving Sara a winner’s edit, which isn’t my ideal scenario (<3 Gabri), but it would be very surprising.

I’ve thought about quitting the show before. When Sam Talbot didn’t make the finals because Tom said he didn’t “cook” anything in season two, season three brought me Hung Huynh breaking down chickens so, so fast. After I was sure the show was ruined when Padma told Hosea Rosenberg he was going to be Top Chef in season five, season six offered the Voltaggios and a season that forever raised the bar of the level of chefs who would be on the show. So yes, I still have hope for the future, even after they name Kristen Kish co-host for the first-ever “Oops, All Quickfires” season.

It’s the End of Top Chef As We Know It