Eight seasons, 109 cheftestants, one astonishingly conclusive list.
The finale of Top Chef's eighth season airs on Bravo this Wednesday. We're a couple of die-hards, so in celebration, we took it upon ourselves to rank the eight seasons. This was not a good thing to attempt before lunch.
8. Season Seven: Washington D.C.
By the seventh season, the Top Chef formula was getting stale. In an effort to spice things up, the producers devised some of the goofiest and most contrived challenges the show had ever seen. Chefs were forced to make baby food, cook while tied to one another, and trade dishes halfway through cooking them. And after the heavy hitters of Season Six, Season Seven saw a serious dearth of talent; it ended only months ago, and yet you can't remember the name of the guy who won, can you?
On the plus side, the producers finally wised up enough to replace the insufferable Toby Young, whose canned bon mots would have gotten him instantly booted from Top Wiseass (rimshot!), with Eric Ripert. Ripert may not be very quick with a quip, but he's a great chef, handsome, and a pleasantly French foil to Tom's bearlike charm.
Highlights: The hilarious weirdness of Angelo Sosa. That one time during the Hilton challenge when Padma Lakshmi mentioned six individual corporate sponsors in one gerundial phrase.
7. Season Two: Los Angeles
Top Chef's sophomore season introduced Padma Lakshmi, who took over for Katie Lee Joel as host. For all her quirks, Padma was a step up from the affectless Katie Lee. But it would be some seasons before we learned to truly appreciate Padma for who she is.
While Season Two's cheftestants were a talented bunch, they also came off as probably the biggest assholes in Top Chef history. Winner Ilan Hall was an uptight, passive-aggressive non-entity whose only redemption came when he managed to beat, and so momentarily silence, Marcel Vigneron, almost certainly the most unbearable person on television ever. Even the fan favorite, Sam Talbot, was mostly voted in for being "kinda handsome despite his thick greasy mane."
Highlights: Cliff Crooks acting out the collective wishes of the entire nation by holding Marcel down and trying to shave off his ludicrous boy-wonder coiffure. Michael Midgley's notorious Cheeto-in-chocolate amuse bouche.
6. Season Five – New York
The joy of new life — Gail Simmons' pregnancy — hatched an evil spore in the middle of Season Five when Toby Young joined the roster as a judge. Obnoxious bald guys were a recurring trope of Season Five; winner Hosea Rosenberg distinguished himself not through his food but by cheating on his girlfriend, on camera, with the equally milquetoast Leah Cohen. (Look, if you're going to cheat on your girlfriend, make sure you're not on a reality show. Especially not on Bravo.)
The season's charisma vacuum was mitigated somewhat by the comic geniality of Fabio Viviani. Meanwhile, one challenge was scrapped after a refrigerator malfunction — does it seem weird to anyone else that this show is supported by outrageous product placement from makers of kitchen equipment, yet said kitchen equipment is constantly breaking on air?
Highlights: Fabio's legendary slam "This is Top Chef, not Top Scallop," not to mention his boasts about his hosting skills ("We can serve monkey ass in empty clam shell and we would still win!"). Carla Hall's "Hootie! Hootie hoo!" which seemed absurd at first and ended up being awfully endearing.
5. Season One – San Francisco
The season that started it all was exciting at the time, but subsequent seasons have improved on the formula, with better production value and a relatively expressive host. (Apologies to Katie Lee Joel; sources suggest her emotion chip was faulty.) Among the cast, Tiffani Faison and her grating personality lasted for the entire season before finally being undone by Harold Dieterle, whose own personality was — how to say — non-existent. Runner-up Lee Anne Wong managed to distinguish herself enough that she designed challenges for the show for several seasons following.
Highlights: Dave Martin's snappy response to Tiffani's nagging ("I'm not your bitch, bitch"). Dave managing to cry in seemingly every episode.
4. Season Three – Miami
Season Three saw the birth of the amazing blog Amuse Biatch, which for its all-too-short tenure would come to be the preeminent voice in Top Chef fandom. In January of that year, they broke some very important news: Padma Lakshmi is a big stoner. This went a long way towards explaining her spacey line-readings and erratic sense of humor. Bottom line, this show is a lot more fun if you watch it imagining that Padma is baked as hell.
As far as cheftestants go, Season Three's were a talented if not terribly colorful group. Sweaty palookas Joey Paulino and Howie Kleinberg first fought, then learned to love; the otherwise competent Casey Thompson revealed that she was not very good at chopping onions. While Hung Huynh was a deserving winner, he was so far ahead of the other chefs in technique and consistency that it seemed unimaginable he'd lose after about the fourth episode.
Highlights: Dale Levitski's bravado; "I'm a big gay chef and I'm going to kick your ass" can still be heard among certain groups of men. In an apparent moment of whimsy, cranky, aloof Hung makes a "Smurf village" out of breakfast cereal ("A land without humans… very peaceful… very clean").
3. Season Four – Chicago
One of the stronger seasons talent-wise, Season Four gave us the high-tech antics of Richard Blais, the douchy hats of Spike Mendelsohn, and the locker-punching rage of Dale Talde (who could reliably be counted on to fly off the handle even when guesting in later seasons, at least until he turned up for Top Chef All-Stars having apparently received a personality transplant). The final four included two level-headed female chefs, Antonia Lofaso and eventual winner, Stephanie Izard, as well as the dyspeptic Lisa Fernandes. Blais choked in the finale. We would feel more sympathy for him had he ever shut up about it; to this day, he has not.
Highlights: Spike cooking frozen scallops. The phrase "culinary boner."
2. Season Eight – New York
The premise for this season was so amazing — take all the most interesting and talented chefs eliminated from previous seasons and bring them back, with heavy "one shot at redemption" pathos — that it really should have been our top Top Chef season. But despite an exciting start (including a truly diabolical challenge that found the cheftestants remaking the meals that'd gotten them booted the first time around), the season has sagged in recent weeks. In a Faustian misstep, the producers opted to give away about triple the cash and prizes of previous seasons; to secure all that cash money, they've run some insanely hokey sponsored challenges. The episode where the chefs had to cook using only what they could find in a Target might reign as the worst episode ever. (Rumors persist that Padma will host the entire finale dressed as a Buitoni pumpkin ravioli.) It's been a drag to see the show's strongest contestants jumping through the show's dumbest hoops.
Over at judges table, we were given a treat in the form of Anthony Bourdain, who quips at the Gatling-gun pace of Toby Young, yet is actually funny. (And fuckable.) His appearances were few, but always amazing.
Highlights: Jen Carroll's amazing meltdown upon her early elimination. Blais' protracted descent into neurotic self-loathing ("I hate everything I do"). Dale Talde and Tre Wilcox's hilariously stoic reactions to Marcel's "rapping." Muppets facing contestants who are in no kind of emotional condition to be cooking for Muppets.
1. Season Six – Las Vegas
After the talent shortage of Season Five, Top Chef's producers apparently realized they had to step up, bringing in some of the show's strongest competitors of any season. These included steely (yet, ahem, vulnerable) Jen Carroll, malfunctioning android brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, and — perhaps the most lovable Top Chef contestant ever — "gastrognome" Kevin Gillespie, who both treated his castmates with a most un-telegenic kindness and managed to thoroughly dominate the proceedings. We're still sad that Kevin lost, but he seems to be doing fine; he turned down a chance to compete in Season Eight because he's too busy running his restaurant. There was never much doubt which four contestants would make the finale, but their cooking was thrilling to watch, confirming that this show is at its best when it privileges talent over contrived drama.
Highlights: Guest judge Rick Moonen insisting that his seafood restaurant, located squarely in the middle of a desert, constitutes "sustainable cuisine." Jen Carroll coming off as a total hardass and then getting steadily punchier, weirder, and funnier for eleven weeks. Padma and Natalie Portman making more fellatio jokes in forty seconds than we've seen all the other seasons.