Top Chef Portland arrives at the show’s signature challenge, Restaurant Wars, tonight, in its eighth of 14 episodes. But already, before that super-sized episode and its drama, I have everything I want and need from a season of Top Chef. Season 18 has been a basically perfect season so far.
Along with Project Runway, Top Chef is the gold standard of American reality TV talent competitions, so my expectations are always quite high. And this past year, as if challenging myself to find yet another way to judge things in the world, I’ve started holding reality shows to another standard, if they were filmed in the middle of a pandemic. I ask myself: Does this justify putting people’s lives at stake? So often, the answer has been no: absolutely not, not a chance, and hell no.
I don’t want anyone to get sick, injured, or damaged just to produce entertainment for me. And I still have no idea what Top Chef’s producers or network executives were thinking with the bizarre and inconsistent physical distancing, which last week had all the judges and all-stars tucked in around a picnic table, before a handful of them went inside and sat approximately five miles apart at Judges’ Table.
But I am so glad to have Top Chef Portland right now. It’s so good. It’s just fucking great competition reality television.
All of Top Chef strengths are equally on fire this season: the casting, the challenge design, the locations—even Last Chance Kitchen, which has evolved beyond a Redemption Island rip-off to be a key part of the competition that offers second chances and frequently cheeky opportunities for redemption.
The drive-in challenge had me on the edge of my seat with the competition between the two teams, and then tumbling off the couch, overcome with laughter as the judges and all-stars sat in their cars, two by two, eating and critiquing and laughing themselves.
The show has managed to have both silly moments like that and serious conversations. The producers anchored this inspired array of challenges inside its now-familiar format, and it doesn’t feel like tonal whiplash to go from learning about the African diaspora to picking fruit in an orchard to cooking food to be eaten in a car.
Five years ago, Top Chef’s shameful plantation challenge in Charleston suggested the show was not truly capable of addressing either history or identity, and how those two are so tightly bound up in food. (Padma Lakshmi’s Hulu show Taste the Nation does explore that, and very well.) But this season has, so far, managed to integrate several thoughtful challenges that honor cuisines and cultures without asking the chefs to co-opt or appropriate other cultures. With Gregory Gourdet and Kwame Onwuachi, the chefs visited restaurants in the Portland area that serve food from the African diaspora. Their challenge was to cook food inspired by those flavors, not to duplicate it or try to make it their own.
The pool of rotating alumni the producers brought to Portland to live in the production bubble alternately serve as guest judges or diners, and that has changed the show for the better. (It’s something I’d like to see every season.) The contestant chefs get more consistent judging from their literal peers—people who know how absurdly hard it is to run around that kitchen and whip something together, and then have to turn around and work together to make 75 portions of a menu that is cohesive yet demonstrates individuality. I certainly appreciate having them anchor every challenge, especially when the alternative is a parade of random celebrities with projects to promote.
Reality competitions either work or fail based on the strength of their cast, and this cast is near-perfect. They feel more like a Great British Bake-Off group than a typical Bravo cast, even a Bravo competition cast: they’re warm, connected, friendly, and supportive (especially now that Gabriel Pascuzzi exited). Perhaps that’s because of the isolation and events of the past year; perhaps they’re just a bunch of great people. They’re charming and talented, and pour personality out of the screen, whether it’s Jamie Tran’s sound-effect reactions or Avishar Barua declaring that the chefs are like a “weird, messed-up support group.”
And, of course, they can cook. This is the first season in Top Chef history to only have executive chefs and chef-owners—there are no sous chefs—and while rank is not necessarily an indication of talent, all of this cast could easily compete in an all-star season, that’s how good they are. The judges are often having to split hairs to send someone home. During a double-elimination challenge, where the chefs used first produce introduced to them by representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Padma said, “whoever goes home tonight will be going home having made a good dish.”
That’s not the easiest situation for the judges, and perhaps not ideal for those viewers who’d rather watch Gordon Ramsay smash a plate of terrible food and scream obscenities at the person who cooked it. But it is exactly what I want from Top Chef: a season of watching great chefs rise to the considerable challenges being presented to them.
Top Chef Portland: A