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Top Chef World All Stars is struggling to ignite. But why?

Top Chef World All Stars is struggling to ignite. But why?
Gabriel Rodriguez prepares an amuse bouche to be served on a world-saving Ritz cracker during Top Chef 20 episode 2 (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Bravo’s Top Chef World All Stars has everything going for it: a cast of winners and finalists from around the world, a city with a rising culinary scene.

There are some contestants emerging as both personalities and talented chefs, and the challenges have not been easy for everyone.

Yet these first two episodes have been oddly flat for me. It’s fine, and I’m glad to have Top Chef back, but kind of like its second eliminated chef, it’s not doing the work that we know it’s capable of doing.

Three people stand and talk to four people who are sitting at a table eating
Ali Al Ghzawi, Amar Santana, and Dawn Burrell present their rice dishes to Top Chef 20’s judges (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

After the winner of Top Chef France was eliminated in episode one, Buddha said “the finale’s already here,” in the sense that they’re all chefs who made it to their respective finales. But it doesn’t feel like that yet.

Perhaps that’s because relatively simple errors have sent the first two chefs home: poopy shrimp last week, Dawn serving a congee that was not creamy like a congee should be.

I think that’s mostly because of the editing, and the four challenges so far have lacked creativity, and the obstacles put in the chefs’ way are dumb. And yes, I’m looking at you Ritz crackers.

Take the prep time for the elimination challenge. Every burner on the stove was covered, and when Amar and Dawn needed space, they asked if anyone was boiling water. No one replied; they dumped the boiling water; Luciana realized her hot water for boiling eggs was missing.

Like: just have enough burners! How hard is that? The production has built a gorgeous kitchen set and yet it cannot accommodate 15 chefs? Give them stoves at their stations, like The Great British Bake-Off does.

The elimination challenge also had the chefs make 100 portions of their rice dish at Alexandra Palace.

But who were those people? Why were they there? They didn’t vote; their feedback didn’t matter. Why serve 100 portions? Why prep outside in a hot tent yet again?

I expect a competition like Top Chef to place obstacles in the way of its chefs. But when those obstacles don’t have any purpose, it’s evident. Okay, yeah, we need to do a challenge outside with lots of people, get out the tents.

The quickfire challenge had the chefs grab an ingredient, from goat cheese to caviar cream. They ended up in a trio, and had to cook something using all three ingredients.

Then they learned it had to be an amuse bouche, and had to be served on a Ritz cracker. “This is too many twists,” Sylwia said. Yes! This. Stop overcomplicating things!

Also, I love a Ritz cracker, but this seemed like a bit of a branding mismatch, and Padma really had to strain to say nonsense such as, “Ritz is on a mission to make the world a more welcoming place.” It’s a cracker, not a hotelier.

I will give her credit for “hands up, crackers down,” OMG.

A chef puts her hands in the air
May Phattanant Thongthong, the winner of the quickfire challenge, after finishing cooking (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

The editing hasn’t helped. For a 75-minute episode, things somehow move all too quickly. (Thankfully, Bravo didn’t pull the same shenanigans it did last week and include a half-hour of Andy Cohen.)

Padma and guest judge Santiago Lastro judged the amuse bouches with lightning speed. I started to time it: most chefs had less than 10 seconds—some just five seconds—to describe their dish and get a reaction, and the judges didn’t even give any feedback or reaction to many of the chefs.

Tasting, commenting, and choosing a winner for each trio took about a minute for most of them. That makes it hard to get to know the chefs or their food.

The winners, in their trios, were Nicole, Tom, Dale, May, and Gabri, with May taking the overall win: $10,000 and immunity.

But May wasn’t done yet.

Chefs hug and clap
Top Chef 20 episode 2’s bottom and top chefs: Dawn Burrell, Gabriel Rodriguez, Ali Al Ghzawi, Sylwia Stachyra, and May Phattanant Thongthong (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

For the elimination challenge, Top Chef South Africa judge Lorna Maseko was the guest judge. I love brining in other Top Chef personalities, but I also wish the producers would also bring some of the guests’ regions or shows with them.

For an example from a different franchise , Top Chef México winner Gabri told us that, on his season, they did not shop for ingredients, so he’s unused to that. He way overspent at Whole Foods. “Oh my god, this is so expensive,” he said. Welcome to Whole Foods! (May shared some of her budget with him.)

And once again: We’re in London but back at Whole Foods? Why even be in London? Where is the city? Next week’s episode shows a pub crawl, so maybe Top Chef will finally start taking advantage of its location, instead of just using it as a backdrop.

That’s what happened at Alexandra Palace, which might as well have been a parking lot with tents set up. That’s where the chefs had one more hour to prep their rice dish, on portable equipment.

Cooking rice-forward dishes was a challenge both in conception and execution. Tom told us “there’s not a single bloody rice dish in the whole of Germany,” and I laughed when Sylwia, who’s from Poland, said, “I’m not a big fan of rice. I’m a potato girl.”

Instead of visiting stations, the judges just sat at a table and were served—again, why not just do that in the Top Chef kitchen?—and then chatted.

Their favorite dishes were May’s rice pudding with sweet potato, Ali’s smoky rice that he infused with smoke from charcoal, and Gabri’s mash-up of risotto and mole. Ali’s won.

While Gabri went from the bottom last week to the top this week, Dawn stayed in the bottom two, joined by Sylwia and Luciana. While Tom Colicchio said the “dishes were all good today,” they each had issues with their rice.

Dawn struggled to cook her black rice in time, and ultimately served something that wasn’t recognizably congee, with Gail Simmons describing it as “crunchy” and Tom saying it “ate more like black rice soup.”

Dawn at first defended her dish to the other chefs (“that’s what i wanted to do. if they didn’t like it, they didn’t like it”), but said in her exit interview “I made some mistakes.”

Even the best make mistakes, and I think she’s in good company, as Top Chef World All Stars is also fumbling in these early episodes. Hopefully it can find its way.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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Saturday 18th of March 2023

I need more Santiago Lastro.


Saturday 18th of March 2023

I also agree it’s been flat. One of the reasons why I think it’s been that way has the been the lack of “wacky” or “quirky” chefs. For every Straight forward chef, it’s always nice to have a standout “character” to root for like a Brian Malarkey, Jamie Tran and Joe Sasto


Friday 17th of March 2023

I agree it's a bit flat so far, but it always seems that way to me at the start of the season when there are so many chefs to get to know. But I really love May so far! And I'm looking forward to Last Chance Kitchen.

I find myself curious about the dumbest thing... why aren't they sponsored by San Pellegrino this season?!


Friday 17th of March 2023

@Melissa, Oh, I also hate it when they have to cook for a large group of people. The best thing about the covid seasons was that they didn't have to do that. This is not Top Caterer.