This year’s Top Chef was followed by Top Chef Amateurs, a surprisingly flat and mediocre competition, even with the presence of the talented and amiable alumni. It felt like such an afterthought that I didn’t pay much attention to Top Chef Family Style when it premiered, thinking it was going to be more of the same attempt to use the brand.
On paper, Top Chef Family Style even seems like it has nothing new to offer: it’s kids cooking alongside a family member, which we’ve seen on other cooking competitions, such as Disney+’s Be Our Chef, and the show uses Top Chef’s format.
But the reality is that Top Chef Family Style is a fantastic, first-rate reality competition. As a television production and a talent competition, it’s equivalent in quality to a new season of Top Chef, and just happens to have contestants ages 9 to 75. It’s worthy of the Top Chef title, unlike some of the other spin-offs.
The finale of Top Chef Family Style will be on Peacock Thursday. I’ve seen the first three episodes, which are free; the others require a Peacock subscription.
While I would not pay for Peacock to watch its adaptation of Frogger, Paris In Love, or that Andy Cohen show, Top Chef Family Style is so high-quality that I’d pay to finish the season. (I’m curious if NBCUniversal will do what Discovery+ has done and eventually air this on Bravo, or if it’ll remain behind the paywall.)
The quality starts with the contestants, who may be young but are not amateurs. Head judge Marcus Samuelsson introduces the contestants in the trailer as “culinary prodigies on the road to stardom”; among them are a former Chopped Junior winner.
The kids range in age from 9 to 15, and their adult partners are mostly parents, but there’s also a grandmother, an uncle, an aunt, and siblings.
They work together and are judged as a pair. The adults aren’t mere sous chefs, nor are they treating the kids like assistants. It comes across as true collaboration, though the kids’ individual talent and creativity definitely stands out.
Pairing up contestants on a reality TV competition is method for creating conflict; add familial relationships, especially parent/kid, and that seems like a recipe for instant drama.
But while there is tension and frustration, and occasional screw-ups or stumbles under the pressure of the competition, this is not a show that’s full of drama. It’s instead fueled by collaboration and connection.
“Competing on Top Chef with someone you love, it’s just a beautiful thing,” Padma says during her guest judging appearance, and Top Chef Family Style makes that clear.
There’s also a lot of camaraderie between all the contestants, giving it a bit of a The Great British Bake-Off vibe—or just a very congenial season like Top Chef Portland was.
The quickfire and elimination challenges are not dumbed down, but just seem like they’re from a normal season of Top Chef, from the mise en place quickfire to the iconic Restaurant Wars elimination challenge.
Along with Padma, Top Chef alumni and A-list chefs show up as guest judges, as do some celebrities with things to promote. Anchoring each episode are Marcus Samuelsson and Meghan Trainor.
While Meghan Trainor’s hosting comes off as monotonous and bland, I appreciated her approach as a judge. She doesn’t try to pretend to be a culinary expert, and at one point even expresses surprise that she was asked to host the show. As a bonus, as the competition progresses, her judging improves. “She’s becoming a really good judge, by the way,” Marcus says in the third episode.
Top Chef Marcus Samuelsson judges in the same way he judges on Top Chef and on other shows: with high standards that draws from his vast culinary knowledge.
In his critiques, Marcus offers actionable advice, but never in a way that condescends to the contestants. That’s key because Top Chef Junior began as a show that was surprisingly patronizing to its young chefs.
Top Chef Family Style treats its young and adult contestants as qualified to cook in the Top Chef kitchen, and approaches the show as if it was just another season of the Bravo competition, and together that makes for excellent television.
Top Chef Family Style
Peacock’s cooking competition is worthy of the Top Chef name. A
What works for me:
- The high quality of the contestants, challenges, and production
- The relationships between the contestants, both as pairs and collectively
- Marcus Samuelsson’s judging and Meghan Trainor’s approach to judging
What could be better:
- Meghan Trainor’s hosting
- Perhaps one more permanent judge, like a Top Chef alum
- Making all episodes available on the ad-supported tier so more people can watch