Please pack your knives and go.
How many times has Padma Lakshmi, the ever-chic host and judge of Bravo’s reality institution “Top Chef,” uttered those words to eager, hungry chefs competing for prize money and culinary glory?
At least a few hundred at this point, as the cooking competition series begins its 20th season (Thursday, 9 EST/PST). Since its debut in 2006, “Chef” has made Lakshmi a household name, launched the careers of dozens of chefs, weathered a pandemic that brought the restaurant industry to its knees and created hilarious controversies from pea soup to risotto. And in some ways, it looks like “Chef” is just getting started.
As he heads to London for the first “World All-Stars” competition in Season 20, we look back at how “Chef” cooked up a recipe for reality longevity.
What you need to know about Top Chef Season 20
For its new season, Bravo sent the series overseas to London for a “World All Stars” competition among alumni from the show’s original American run and many of its international counterparts. And unlike past All-Star seasons, this new batch of contestants includes some past winners in the mix.
Some of the notable American chefs include Season 19 winner Buddha Lo, Season 16 finalist Sarah Bradley, and Season 18 finalist Dawn Burrell.
Why Top Chef is still simmering
Some reality shows come and go without a whisper in our collective memories to let us know they were there (remember “Joe Millionaire”? “Skating With the Stars”? “Mr. Personality”?). A select few become pop culture institutions that last for decades. Seventeen years later, “Chef” is going strong not only commercially but also creatively, adapting to a changing world far better than almost any other long-running series, in ways both subtle and seminal.
Over its first 10 seasons, “Chef” slowly shed the coziness, roommate drama, and youth antics that were reality TV. premise in the early 2000s. Somewhere along the way, the show went from simply abandoning its negativity to being a force for creative prowess, a showcase for competence and greatness. As much fun as it is to watch judge Tom Colicchio roast a contestant who didn’t season his dish, it’s much more enjoyable to watch the hardened chef’s face light up with joy when he tries something amazing. It’s a far cry from the time in Season 2 when one of the contestants tried to forcibly shave another’s head.
As the series grew in popularity and recognition in the food industry, the caliber of chefs participating in the competition increased dramatically. It started with chefs, line cooks and other young predators willing to get their hands dirty in pursuit of prize money and fame. But recent seasons have been populated by chefs, many of whom now own their own restaurants. The better the chefs, the better the food, and they’ve produced some truly delightful, mouth-watering creations over the years.
“Chef” also responds to changes in the world of food and the larger zeitgeist. The series has become much better at not exoticizing foods from non-white cultures and has developed a greater respect for them. The highlight was the quarantined Season 18 in Portland, Oregon, which celebrated pan-African cuisine — a notable blind spot in past seasons — and local foods, with a dinner attended by members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. Bringing together chefs from around the world in Season 20 is the culmination of this effort to recognize more of the French and Italian staples that make up so many cookbooks.
In 2023, Chef is a well-oiled machine. The producers and judges – including Lakshmi, Colicchio and Gail Simmons – know their beats and rhythm. All contestants have done this before. It remains to be seen who will come out on top for the 20th time.
Please, Chef, don’t pack those knives and go anywhere.