From the opening moments of Tournament of Champions, it establishes itself as a different kind of reality competition for Food Network. Inside the studio, crew members polish the set’s shiny floor, while the chef contestants arrive outside: Michael Voltaggio gets out of his car, and Jet Tila skateboards up to the studio, knives in hand.
They arrive and greet each other, clustering and having conversations. Host Guy Fieri eventually gathers the 16 chefs, who sit and stand on the edge of the set, like this is some kind of pre-production meeting.
All of this breaking of the fourth wall is obviously produced, but it’s also refreshing for its difference—we rarely see anything backstage on Food Network competitions, and certainly don’t see the crew, or what’s happening outside the soundstage.
And all of this behind-the-scenes footage signals that what follows will be different, and it is: Tournament of Champions is a swift, surprising, and playful competition that both showcases and challenges a range of chefs, most of whom are from Food Network.
Food Network competitions regularly have their judges compete, and often against each other. Chopped and Guy’s Grocery Games frequently have multi-week tournaments.
So all of this should feel familiar, but it doesn’t; it feels new and fresh. Part of that is how simple the competition is: no gimmicks, twists, or curveballs, just an assignment to make a single dish, and move on or go home.
Yes, it’s a brutal sudden-death elimination competition, one that has organized its contestants—from an Iron Chef to an almost-forgotten Top Chef—into a bracket.
The Tournament of Champions bracket
The contestants on Tournament of Champions are nearly all recognizable Food Network talent, mostly people who judge various competitions. Rather than the Ina Gartens, we have the judges of Guys Grocery Games. That’s what Food Network primarily focuses on now: competition reality shows.
The chefs have been ranked—based on previous competitions, wins and losses, and “fan write-ins” on social media—and placed into brackets:
- East Coast: Maneet Chauhan (6) vs. Rocco DiSpirito (3), Alex Guarnaschelli (1) vs. Darnell Ferguson (8), Amanda Freitag (4) vs. Elizabeth Falkner (5), Marc Murphy (2) vs. Christian Petroni (7).
- West Coast: Richard Blais (5) vs. Beau Macmillan (4), Jet Tila (6) vs. Eric Greenspan (3), Antonia Lofaso (1) vs. Marcel Vigneron (8), Michael Voltaggio (2) vs. Brooke Williamson (7)
The east versus west distinction seems rather meaningless, since I associate none of these chefs with a coast, and more importantly, the entire competition isn’t framed as trying to figure out which compass direction has the best chef.
But the match-ups themselves are a mix of underdogs and heavy-hitters, making for some interesting face-offs.
Best of all, all of the chefs have seemed up for friendly competition. So far, at least, there have yet to be phony rivalries, and while the losers from the first episode may have been disappointed, they weren’t bitter.
Those first six chefs all approached the task as if they were having fun with their friends, not as if they were creating the most consequential dish of their lifetimes, and their buoyant enthusiasm makes the show a lot more fun than somber importance.
The competition’s format and its smart choices
On a set that is minimal and dark, painted in a dark, dull colors, the chefs first face the “Randomizer,” which dictates what protein, produce, and equipment the chefs have to use, plus a cooking style and length of time they have to cook.
It’s so low-budget that Guy has to spin each of its wheels manually, like this is a 1980s game show. But this is also a great way to create a real challenge: there are four different things each chef has to include (two ingredients, a style of cooking, and use of a particular piece of equipment), which isn’t always easy, but they still have a lot of latitude within that to be creative.
Once they’ve cooked, the chefs go back to individual green rooms and watch on a TV monitor when they’re judged in the most fair way possible: by judges who don’t even know who is cooking, never mind who cooked what.
The judges—Marcus Samuelsson, Nancy Silverton, and Curtis Stone in the first episode, plus future appearances by Michelle Bernstein, Traci Des Jardin, Ming Tsai, and Jonathan Waxman—get some basic information about the dish and its preparation from Simon Majumdar and Justin Warner, who’ve been observing the cooking. But mostly, they just have to taste and evaluate, which they do using a point system.
This is so rare in cooking competitions! How often does personality bleeds into decision-making, even by judges who try to be as impartial as possible? Even on a show like Beat Bobby Flay, which is judged blind, I’d bet that some judges can probably easily identify which dish is Bobby Flay’s, if they’re at all familiar with his style, techniques, and go-to ingredients.
Also rare: quick, efficient competitions that burn through their talent.
In the first 90-minute episode, there were three battles, with three chefs eliminated already. The rest of the competition will go by just as fast, as there are just four episodes left of Tournament of Champions (Food Network, Wednesdays at 10).
Watching three strong chefs be knocked out of the competition in the premiere was thrilling, especially in this era of Edge of Extinction and non-elimination episodes on other reality competitions.
In many ways, Tournament of Champions feels like a rebooted, revitalized version of Iron Chef—a tiny studio audience, roving reporters, and two heavy-hitter chefs facing off to make a dish out of surprise ingredients—but with none of the elements that made it such a bore in its recent years.
Mostly, it’s a showcase for Food Network talent who share a love for being challenged in the kitchen, and that easily makes Tournament of Champions one of Food Network’s best competitions.