It’s Top Chef‘s 20th season premiere, just a few days before the Oscars, and the stars are out tonight! Padma, Tom, Gail, and even Graham Elliot, who has been turned into an Indian man by a witch or genie:
I kid, I kid. That’s Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian chef to earn a Michelin star! Always gotta have one judge with white frames, I always say. (Sharp-eyed viewers would’ve known it wasn’t Graham because he wasn’t wearing a polka dot suit jacket with an orange choker).
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This season’s Top Chef competition is officially titled Top Chef World All-Stars, and it’s bringing together Top Chef winners and finalists from all the different Top Chef iterations all over the globe. And they’ll be competing in London — the world capital of things stolen from all over the globe!
I hope there’s a bread pie challenge. Bangers and mash? Bubble and squeak? Crumbly willies? (Okay I made that last one up, but it’s a testament to the silliness of English food names that you probably couldn’t tell).
This season we’ve got chefs from France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Thailand, Mexico, the Middle East, North Africa — shit, everywhere! Throw a rock at the map and you’ll probably hit a country that has produced a chef who can make you a sick foam or bitchin’ crudo. (A gangster bisque?) And as Gail Simmons, who is looking positively luminescent I must say, says in the intro, “I can’t wait to get to know all of you through your food.”
Hell yeah, Gail don’t wanna know you until you’ve served her. That was basically fancy TV talk for “bitch, go make me a sandwich.”
The cheftestants got one fun bus ride through the sights of foggy London town before it was time for the first quickfire. For that one, the chefs were told to grab five ingredients from the pantry to make a dish. Only, OOPS, MOTHERF*CKIN TWIST TIME: turns out the proteins would be sold separately. A protein surprise! (Your mom’s favorite dish). It was revealed that the proteins would be SEAFOOD, which really sucked for the contestants who had grabbed blue cheese and chocolate. AND they’d be working in pairs.
Ah, those are the classic Top Chef twists I love. A few weeks ago, we left the TV on after the Super Bowl and watched that new Gordon Ramsay cooking show. We watched the contestants all grab ingredients from the pantry and I kept yelling things at the TV like “they’re going to have to switch ingredients!” “There’s going to be a surprise protein!” “They’re going to get to steal!”
And then the contestants just straightforwardly cooked with the ingredients they’d all grabbed. I ended up sounding like a crazy person. It’s possible I’ve been watching Top Chef too long. Magical Elves? More like Evil Leprechauns! (…Magical Elves is Top Chef’s production company. Like I said, I’ve been watching this show too long).
After that it was time for the Elimination Challenge, co-judged by the white frames man, in which the chefs were challenged to make a “vegetable forward” dish. Not vegetarian, just a dish where “vegetables are the star” and the protein is more like a seasoning (your mom’s favorite seasoning, I will never stop this). A good half of the contestants took this to mean “cook a vegetable melange and stick some seared seafood on or next to it.”
There was even some DRAMA when one of the contestants accidentally dumped a pot of water on another contestant’s dish.
To the rankings!
Gabri and Luciana. Silwia and Buddha. Sara and Dale*.
Charbel and Dawn. Albert and Tom. Nichole and Victoire.
Charbel*, Begoña, Tom.
Samuel**, Gabri, Dawn.
16. (Eliminated) Samuel Albert
Resume: Winner, Top Chef France, Season 10.
Nicknames: Frenchy (obligatory). Deuce. Poop Pie.
How dry and deadpan is Samuel Albert? He paired with Chef Tom Goetter in the quickfire challenge because, as Samuel said, “France and Germany, you know, we go well together,” and I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
I’m also calling him Deuce on account of he has two first names. Sadly, Sam Al simply couldn’t get on track, landing in the bottom three in the quickfire thanks to a “gritty puree” on their cabbage juice poached salmon (a dish that sounds dull as hell on every level).
Then he ended up getting sent home for one big mistake that the judges simply couldn’t overlook: undeveined shrimp. Which one judge called a “poo pie.” Instant nickname alert! Sorry, Samuel. I actually thought shrimp with the intestines intact didn’t seem as bad as another chef’s dish, which looked like a pile of dried leaves. Don’t chefs serve shell-on shrimp all the time on this show? Those aren’t deveined either, are they?
But then I remembered that the dish was “shrimp carpaccio,” aka raw shrimp in an acidic sauce. Undeveined raw shrimp does admittedly sound pretty gross, even before Padma referred to it as “slimy.” No one likes a slimy shrimp (don’t ask me how I know).
I can’t believe the French guy got sent home in episode one. I pray they don’t guillotine him for this. Hopefully, he makes a comeback in Last Chance Kitchen, but until then, let’s just appreciate Sam and Tom for giving us the most “European Man Having His Food Criticized” face of all time:
Samuel also noted that Top Chef: France never gave their chefs fewer than 90 minutes to cook a dish. That seems good and civilized, maybe we could apply that here? (Haha, of course, we wouldn’t, this is America, baby! Good ideas are for pussies! USA! USA! USA!)
15. Gabri Rodriguez
Resume: Winner of Top Chef Mexico, Season Two
Nickname(s): The Sabateur. The Black Pearl.
Irrepressible Chef Gabri told the camera that he was known for “going a little crazy” in the kitchen and immediately proved it when he “accidentally” threw water on top of Chef Dawn’s pan of sauteeing vegetables.
Then he served the judges his take on a Mextlapique. I say “his take” because he apparently couldn’t find some of his key ingredients in the London Whole Foods, and I think that could be a problem for Gabri going forward. Trying to find authentic Mexican ingredients in the UK, where ketchup is considered a hot sauce. (Did you ever see the Mexican episode of British Bake Off? The horror…)
The dish he prepared had confited avocado (?!), black beans, and some other good-looking stuff going into it, but what he actually served looked like a pile of dead leaves. Most of the judges sort of scratched their heads, wondering if they were supposed to eat it with a rake.
It apparently was supposed to also have some chicken emulsion that was supposed to go with it, though I can’t imagine how that could’ve been incorporated or how it would’ve helped. “Damn, you know what this pile of dried leaves needs? Some foam.”
I thought for sure he’d be going home when Padma pointed out that none of his vegetables were cooked or seasoned properly. He’s survived for another week though, so those must’ve been some damned good confited avocados under there.
With his jaunty earring and fabulous pearl necklace, Gabri likes to present as everyone’s gay best friend, but that’s clearly just a disguise for a diabolical saboteur. I’m calling him “The Black Pearl.”
14. Victoire Gouloubi
Resume: Finalist, Top Chef Italy Season Two
Nickname(s): Al Dente. Minute Rice. Steven Seagal.
It’s a good thing Victoire (who has one of those names that defy English pronunciation) showed up on the same episode as a Top Chef France guy who didn’t de-poop his prawns, because being a Top Chef Italy finalist who served raw risotto would surely have been the biggest boo-boo otherwise. What’s the Italian version of the guillotine? They serve you pineapple pizza until you die of performative revulsion? (Note to Italians, you pair prosciutto with melon as a matter of course — quit acting like ham and pineapple is unimaginable).
Victoire was paired with Chef Nicole in the quickfire round, where she tried to cook risotto, then claimed it was done after about 10 minutes, then said it was “Al Dente.” Ah, that classic Italian dodge for presenting raw food. Maybe the Italian version of the show takes place in the fourth dimension? Her elimination round was less noteworthy (she made cassava, a reflection of her Congolese heritage), but I’m nicknaming her “Steven Seagal,” on account of she doesn’t keep track of space and time too well.
13. Nicole Gomes
Resume: Winner of Top Chef Canada Season 5: All-Stars
Nickname(s): Clawhauser. The Contessa.
Chef Nicole who is apparently the GOAT of Top Chef Canada (the Alpha Moose?), didn’t make a huge splash this first episode, first landing in the bottom three during the quickfire, though that was almost surely Victoire’s fault for serving raw risotto. Not much Chef Nicole could do about that, short of demanding that Victoire put it back on the stove. And that was never going to happen, Canadians are much too polite. Plus, no one likes a risotto bully.
Chef Nicole took a pretty big L when the judges said her seabass concoction “felt like an old-fashioned dinner,” though one of them (I think it was Gail?) said “I found the old-fashionedness kind of charming.”
If you put that through the passive-aggressive Top Chef bitchiness translator, that diss was basically a bar from “Hit ‘Em Up.”
Not a lot to go on this early in the game, but I’m nicknaming Chef Nicole Clawhauser and Contessa, because she reminds me of a cross between Ina Garten and the Leopard front desk officer from Zootopia. (That’s a compliment, I f*cking love Clawhauser).
12. Dawn Burrell
Resume: Finalist, Top Chef Portland (season 18)
Nickname(s). Stormcloud. Calamity Jane.
Chef Dawn did what she’s been known for since season 18, which is making great food but also get in the weeds and freaking out a little. I think I identify with her as a person whose creativity frequently manifests itself as frazzledness. And also as an athlete whose competitiveness frequently manifests as hotheadedness. And also as a former Olympic long jumper and celebrity chef. Fine, maybe I’m projecting a little there.
Anyway, Dawn landed in the bottom three in both challenges, with a couple of big caveats. First, she tried to warn Chef Charbel about his wack-ass zucchini, which the judges ended up picking apart (classic zucchini omen situation). Then in the elimination round, Chef Gabri accidentally dumped half a pot of water over Dawn’s pan of sauteeing vegetables, at which point she promptly freaked the f*ck out.
In fairness, having waterlogged vegetables is pretty tough to come back from in a vegetable challenge. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt… for now.
11. May Phattanant Thongthong
Resume: Finalist, Top Chef Thailand, Season One
A contestant with both “phat” and “thong” in her name? Come on.
Anyway, May won the award for least screen time this episode, with two dishes that landed her solidly in the middle of the pack. I have to imagine a finalist in Top Chef Thailand is going to be a force in this competition (in my experience, even bad Thai food is still pretty good), but I worry that she’s going to run into the same problem as Chef Gabri — trying to find the tropical spices that make Thai food delicious in a land of soggy potatoes and gravy. Thais eat their food at a spice level that would dissolve Dame Prue on contact.
10. Dale MacKaye
Resume: Winner, Top Chef Canada, Season One
Dale comes from Sasketchawan and landed himself immunity (along with partner Sara) for their winning quickfire dish, some barely-cooked langoustines. His lamb shoulder with vegetable stuff underwhelmed in the elimination, so it’s anyone’s guess where to rank him. I do feel confident about my nickname though, Johnnycakes, based on Vito’s hot fireman/short-order cook boyfriend in my favorite episode of The Sopranos.
I love you, Johnnycakes.
9. Luciana Berry
Resume: Winner, Top Chef Brazil, Season Two
Nickname(s): The Realtor. Lady Bangles.
Chef Luciana came within a hair of winning the quickfire (along with her teammate, Chef Gabri) thanks to a scallop crudo and a shot of lobster stuff. Smart — the only thing Top Chef judges love more than scallops is a crudo.
After that, Luciana sort of disappeared, though she seems to favor jangly, chunky jewelry, which makes me sad that I already nicknamed a Top Chef competitor “Bangles.” Also, all I can think of when I look at her bio image is Cartman’s picture from the South Park episode where he becomes a real estate agent.
8. Chef Ali Ghzawi
Resume: Winner, Top Chef Middle East & North Africa (M.E.N.A.), Season Three
Nickname(s): Consonants. RRR.
We didn’t learn a ton about rhyming named Jordanian Chef Ali Ghzawi (rolls right off the tongue) other than that he seems very handsome. He also looks like a Middle Eastern version of the star of RRR. I hope there’s a challenge where the chefs have to hunt and kill a tiger.
7. Sara Bradley
Resume: Top Chef Kentucky (Season 16) Finalist
Nickname(s): Party Mom
Let the record show, I nicknamed Chef Sara “Party Mom” even before she was pregnant. As she told the Louisville Courier-Journal:
“When Uproxx (an entertainment site) came out and called me ‘Party Mom,’ they didn’t know I was pregnant. They had no clue. ‘Party Mom,’ I think they said it was a mentality. And that’s totally me. I would be that person that would get you really drunk and hold your hair back while you vomited.”
See, that’s why I don’t fact-check these nicknames, man. If you start putting “actual truth” over “emotional truth” you lose your powers of prophecy. Anyway, Sara is back, now an actual mom of a three-year-old but no less a Party Mom in spirit. When Sara, the only chef who had never been to London (what?!), saw Big Ben, she quipped, “I thought Big Ben would be bigger.”
Haha, okay, settle down, Party Mom.
Sara and Dale got together in the quickfire, under the dubious proposition that Sara is from Kentucky and Kentucky is the Sasketchawan of America (would that make Lexington Moosejaw or Regina?). I’m still not sure about that analogy but they crushed some langoustine and won immunity. Next Sara cooked up some cover crops in pot liquor both components of which sort of sound like old-timey slurs.
Everyone agreed it was delicious but some of the limeys complained that it wasn’t pretty enough. See, this is why had to have a revolution. I hope Sara puts a gravy-slathered biscuit under one of their powdered wigs.
6. Amar Santana
Resume: Top Chef Finalist, Season 13
Nickname(s): Big Sleazy.
Did you know I had to go all the way back to 20 goddamned FIFTEEN to try to remember what I had originally nicknamed Amar? That’s eight years ago! This show is so damned old, a kid born when Amar’s first Top Chef episode aired would be old enough to drink now! Not legally, but, like, in France.
Anyway, Amar is always a joy to watch because he seems like he’s always in a great mood and never gives a f*ck. You look at this guy and think, “now there’s a chef who likes to grip it and rip it.”
Also… Remember when we did this? We were all babies back then!
In the quickfire, Amar paired up with Ali for easy alliteration purposes, and together they cooked a seabass in kimchi emulsion. They didn’t land in the top three, but that is a lot of great chef words. In the elimination, charged with using protein “more as a seasoning,” Amar just said f*ck it and stuck a scallop right in the middle of the plate. It seemed like he barely listened to the instructions, but managed to cook his food well enough that he just skated right on by anyway.
To me, this is a model for life.
5. Sylwia Stachyra
Resume: Winner, Top Chef Poland, Season Seven.
Nickname(s): Madame Potatoes. Auntie Claus.
Sylwia is one of those people who I haven’t actually seen say anything funny yet but I still get the strong suspicion that she’s hilarious. You know how sometimes there’s a language barrier keeping someone from being able to articulate a joke, but you can sort of still sense it purely through vibes? It’s like that.
Sylwia (whose name is spelled “Sylwia” on the show’s titled but “Sylvia” in her bio, I dunno, man) revealed that on her season of Top Chef Poland, she was known as a “gusto coach,” who helped keep everyone in good spirits. I always love it when a non-native English speaker comes up with a totally new phrase and it’s better than anything we’ve got.
Gusto Coach. Perfect. Totally a thing now.
Anyway, Sylwia paired with Buddha in the first round (“I watch his season, and… he was kind of snob?”) and they made some turbot over dilled potatoes. They dilled those potatoes harder than your mom (okay this is officially a sickness now), and the judges just loved the taste of them.
A creamy dill potato dish is pretty much exactly what I expect from an apple-cheeked Polish lady and it sounds amazing. She should lean into that. I’m naming her Auntie Claus because she kind of reminds me of Santa Claus’s wife, but not that old. If the Clauses had kids (do they not? is that the deal with all the elves?), Sylwia would be the fun aunt.
4. Tom Goetter
Resume: Finalist, Top Chef Germany, Season One
Nicknames: Klaüs. Günther. Brüno. Ümlaut. Carrot Houdini.
Did I really need to write it for you to know that Tom came from Top Chef Germany? Look at that hair, it’s like an architect designed it. That barely restrained smirk. Yes, this is a German man. Hold on, I’m getting some live footage of Tom:
Anyway, Tom, who lives on a damned boat because he’s some kind of cruise ship chef, and seems to be about as carefree as Germans ever get, paired with Frenchy in the Quickfire. They’re lucky I don’t entirely know whose idea a cabbage juice-poached salmon was because that sounds dull as hell and they were rightly relegated to the bottom three over it.
The judges criticizing two acclaimed European chefs over their food went, not surprisingly, even worse. Need I remind you:
The Frenchman: Can’t believe this merde. The German: already plotting revenge.
I would probably have Tom ranked much lower if not for his “Carrot Houdini” dish in the elimination round, which was either a collection of things that weren’t carrots built into a carrot or a collection of carrot-based things shaped into the form of a carrot that didn’t actually taste like carrots. I’m not too clear on it, other than that “Carrot Houdini” definitely sounds like a sex act.
That’s right, Tom drove the judges wild with his disappearing carrot.
3. Charbel Hayek
Resume: Winner, Top Chef MENA, Season Five
Nickname(s): Soup Nazi. 25. Davos.
Charbel is making a name for himself as the brashest chef in the competition. I think he mentioned that he was 25 like four times. His hubris seemed like a handicap in the elimination round, when he ended up in the bottom three with Dawn for some underseasoned zucchini, and then later like a secret weapon when he won the elimination challenge for his roasted onion with onion puree in between each layer (pretty ingenious, that was legit).
I’m calling him Charbel Davos because Sir Davos was the Onion Knight. You’re the onion knight now, dog. Also, tell me this guy doesn’t look like the soup nazi.
2. Buddha Lo
Resume: Winner of Top Chef Houston (season 19).
Nicknames: Moneyball. Double Down. Buddha (he’s already got a nickname!).
Is this the first time a Top Chef winner has won a season and immediately run it back to compete in the following season? I’m calling Buddha “Double Down” for obvious reasons.
Buddha came out hot with a top three finish in the quickfire (paired with Sylwia), and then cooled off a bit in the elimination challenge with some kind of dashi broth concoction that the judges seemed to enjoy, though not enough to land him in the top three.
Buddha is a cuddly bear with an accent like molasses, but by now we know it’s all a trick. He’s also one of the most strategic, laser-focused chefs to ever compete on this show, to the point that I’m almost talking myself out of not giving him the top ranking. We’ve come a long way from the days when every chef had a faux hawk and a tattoo of a carrot. (Now it’s only like a third of them with forearm tattoos and they all have publicists).
1. Begoña Rodrigo
Resume: Winner, Top Chef Spain Season One.
Nickname(s): Beach Mom. Naranja County (that’s Orange County in Spanish). Ursula.
Begoña might have the chill vibes and turquoise jewelry of a California beach mom, but she’s actually from Balenthia, Thpain, one of those accents it’s impossible not to mimic when you transcribe her. She was paired with Chef May from Thailand in the quickfire and they ended up in the middle of the pack with some monkfish.
Then in the elimination challenge, she constructed some kind of sea anemone out of butternut squash tentacles and a center of raw cream. True, she didn’t actually win the challenge, but the judges were going crazy for it and it was kind of blowing my mind. (I’m calling her Ursula because only a sea witch could turn a squash and some milk into a sea anemone).
What can I say? These week one rankings are always kind of based on a random hunch (though let the record show, I correctly picked last season’s winner after episode one). I just feel like Spanish food is the perfect amount of “ethnic” for British palates.
Read the rest of our Top Chef Power Rankings here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter.