Ranked: Top Chef Seasons from Worst to Best

Eight seasons, 109 cheftestants, one astonishingly conclusive list.

By Ben Reininga and Peter Malamud Smith

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.

Commentarium (16 Comments)

Mar 28 11 - 9:46am
Sissy

You nailed it. I'd have put these in the exact same order. I keep saying we need to play the "product placement drinking game".. but then.. we'd all be to shitfaced drunk by the end of the hour to even know or care who won. This is the ONE and only reality show that gets my attention.

Apr 04 11 - 7:18am
Jen

I did the product placement drinking game often during Season 6, and while shitfaced, I was still cognizant enough to yell "GO YUKON!" during appropriate judges' table moments.

The Gladware Family Of Products really slammed you during certain challenges.

Mar 28 11 - 9:49am
Sissy

No.. wait.. I should have read the headline.. I thought it was Worst to Best. ... ok.. I'd completely have reversed the order. Kevin and the Volt brothers will forever be my favorite season..

Mar 28 11 - 10:02am
blam

No, you got it right. It is worst to best. If you actually read it, they're def saying that 7 was the worst...

Mar 28 11 - 10:09am
lindaaargh

I'd argue that this was a low-point instead of a highlight: "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." Sure, Marcel is kind of unbearable, but the assault on him was just completely out of line and I had a hard time watching it. Regardless of how annoying Marcel is, being bullied by folks who are supposedly professional adults is just not acceptable -- and you can see the situation escalating to an ugly place as the season progresses. Marcel's reaction to the constant digs at him gracefully, and his response to the Cliff situation was sort of remarkable. Cliff threw him on the floor and pinned him down, and the next day, Marcel shook his hand and wished him luck after get was kicked off for assaulting him. He's irritating and a little socially retarded, yes, but no one deserves to be treated like that. Ever. (Also, Ilan was equally irritating and nerdy and egomaniacal, he just had the good sense to ingratiate himself with the designated Cool Kids of that season and become ringleader of the Marcel-bullying club. What a little twat.)

Mar 28 11 - 10:22am
PeterSmith

Yeah, we were being flippant--that whole incident was appalling.

Mar 28 11 - 11:35am
SeeingI

I understand you were being flippant, but bullying is bullying, n'est-ce pas? Or is it only acceptable when applied to weird artsy types with douchey hair? (It's just like high school all over again!). Or do the rules not apply to people on TV? Is that what makes it so easy to say, "X annoys me, therefore even though I condemn, pro forma, this attack, I still secretly applaud it"?

Mar 28 11 - 11:07am
Sanskrit

I would've put Miami lower, as the whole season was just disappointment after disappointment (both Restaurant Wars teams failing, requiring a do-over; rival food trucks, each serving ceviche tacos; the horrible "live" finale gimmick; Hung in general), put I definitely agree with the top three. The first half of All-Stars was miles ahead of any other entire season in terms of creative challenges, quality food, and sheer fun, with the Sesame Street/Target episode as serving as a shark-jumping (being heckled by Telly and Elmo = adorably awesome, everything else, not so much).

Las Vegas ruled. Kevin was the most lovable chef in the show's history and Robin was the most sympathetic foil on Bravo since Wendy Pepper in Project Runway season 1.

Mar 28 11 - 12:14pm
KT

Disagree. Fabio was the most lovable chef in the show's history!!

Apr 04 11 - 7:19am
Jen

gastrognome!!!

Then Fabio, with his turtle, who does not have a name, because he's never had to call her.

Mar 28 11 - 12:27pm
Nora

I'm so sad about Amuse-Biatch!

Mar 28 11 - 2:04pm
Lindsay

My roommates don't understand the magic of Top Chef, therefore I watch this show alone every Wednesday. Still obsessed. I saw a Top Chef cookbook in a gift store the other day and almost peed my pants with excitement.

Mar 29 11 - 3:32pm
SP22

GAIL SIMMONS left to get married, not have a baby (I"m pretty susre she doesnt even have akid).

Mar 29 11 - 6:35pm
zakmpls

i would have ranked 2 a little higher. the whole marcel vs everyone and i thought mike was hilarious.

Mar 30 11 - 10:08am
Anna

Yep- totally spot on. Great job.

Jul 08 11 - 11:57am
eli

I somewhat agree. My order is from worst to best,
7 2 3 1 4 8 5 6
7 sucked
2 everyone had horrible attitudes but i liked marcel's cooking
3 was a bit boring. Hyung was fantastic but I hated Casey and she went on to screw Carla
by suggesting she do a dish in the final that she had never done before.
1 great start to the show but I hated the host and dave
4 had a number of interesting chefs. Richard Blaise was a genius and i wish he won. Lisa was extremely obnoxious and I remember her for coming in second to last in the last 6 challenges of the season. Stephanie was a deserving winner. Spike was an idiot. (once he won a challenge where he got to choose ingredients that no one else could use. Some of the ingredients he chose were chosen only to make it harder for the other contestants and not to help his dish).
8 was the ultimate battle because all the contestants had d0ne well in their seasons but it fell short.
There are many chefs that weren't on the show and i wished they had been. for example Steffan and Kevin. Many chefs changed for the worse. I liked Jamie on season 5 but she was easily the worst here.
Dale became boring, which is an adjective i would never have associated to him because of his crazy personality on season 4.
5 I actually liked. I loved Fabio. I liked Carla. At the time I liked Jamie and Ariane was good in the beginning all though most people don't remember her because she was sent home when leah and hosea threw her under the bus. My favorite chef on season 5 was Steffan he won basically every challenge and he should have won the season. He is my favorite contestant of any season.
6 was easily the best. Jen C was incredible in the beginning but by the half way point it was clear that she lacked mental toughness. Eli was hilarious. The final 3 was the best final 3 in top chef by far. They won 13 out of 14 elimination challenges. The brothers were great to watch and kevin was incredible.