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Top Chef 20’s global all-stars stunned the judges—and served them crap

Top Chef 20’s global all-stars stunned the judges—and served them crap
Top Chef 20 chefs Sylvia Stachyra, Begoña Rodrigo, Amar Santana, and Tom Goetter arrive in the show's kitchen (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

For its milestone 20th season, Top Chef has left the United States, celebrating how the franchise has expanded around the world.

Top Chef and Bravo have assembled contestants from 12 countries, including 10 winners—and yet somehow one quarter of the 16 contestants are Americans. That’s some Bravo math right there.

Some of the winners from international shows are in for some American reality TV cultural shock: Top Chef France winner Samuel Albert reveals that their challenges last at least 90 minutes, and here gets 30 minutes for the first challenge. But Samuel will get his revenge on the judges!

17 people stand in a field in front of the Tower Bridge
Padma Lakshmi (far left) talks to Top Chef 20 cast members Sylwia Stachyra, Buddha Lo, Luciana Berry, Dawn Burrell, Amar Santana, Sara Bradley, Dale MacKay, Charbel Hayek, Begoña Rodrigo, Nicole Gomez, Gabriel Rodriguez, and May Phattanant Thongthong (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Representing America, fuck yeah!, are Top Chef Kentucky runner-up Sara Bradley, Top Chef Portland runner-up Dawn Burrell, Top Chef California runner-up Amar Santana, and Top Chef Houston winner Buddha Lo.

Where are all the other winners? Oh, on Food Network, competing on Tournament of Champions and other shows.

Since we are in the middle of Tournament of Champions—which I think is Food Network’s best competition—it’s hard for me not to compare them, or at least be a little disappointed by the first Quickfire.

After greeting the chefs at Tower Bridge, Padma Lakshmi sent them back to the Top Chef kitchen, which is spacious and bright, and has a giant Big Ben-like clock face on the wall with the door.

The set design is A+. The challenge design? Eh, C+, maybe.

Each chef has three minutes to grab five ingredients, and they discover there are no proteins available. Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons show up with those: seafood. That also gives Padma a chance to educate American Bravo viewers on exactly what the UK is, and explain that it is surrounded by oceans.

A person standing with her hands clasped in front of her
Padma Lakshmi introduces Top Chef 20 World All Stars (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Instead of just letting the chefs cook, they have to pair up and do something together with the ingredients they chose. Is this the best introduction to people we don’t know?

They also have to fight over the proteins, because this is Bravo and we need drama!

The Quickfire judging is sparse, not the detailed critique I’ve been used to on TOC and other shows.

It’s a joy to see Tom clearly delighted—”This is great! I’m just loving this,” he says, beaming—but the editing rushes past the judges’ comments so fast that there sometimes aren’t any comments.

Padma asks one team, “Is this risotto? In 30 minutes?”—which, wow!—but then we’re whisked away to the next team without getting a detailed critique of that rissoto. Later, Padma says it’s “a little too al dente,” and nothing else.

One of Tom’s few critiques is that “zucchini was just under-seasoned.” Maybe there’s not a lot to critique? Maybe there’s not a lot of time to show the critique? Maybe this is just a weak first challenge and they knew it?

There are a few fun moments, like when Sylwia, paired with Buddah, says she knows who he is and that he’s a snob (what?!), or when Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay, paired with Sara, says “I’m from Saskatchewan, she’s from Kentucky,” and says they’re from “similar-feeling towns.” But Is Saskatchewan the Kentucky of Canada or is Kentucky the Saskatchewan of the U.S.?

Eitehr way, Dale and Sara get the win, and they get immunity, too.

The Quickfire is quickly over, and Padma introduces the Elimination Challenge: a vegetable-forward dish.

Each chef gets £250 to shop, and the production took advantage of being in London and all of the produce the city has to offer by going to Whole Foods.

Gabriel can’t find anything he’s looking for there, and fails to pivot, something that’ll trip him up—and then he’ll trip Dawn up by pouring boiling water all over her vegetables on the stove.

Four people stand in front of a table, at which other people sit
Begoña Rodrigo, May Phattanant Thongthong, Samuel Albert, and Dawn Burrell present their dishes during the first Top Chef 20 challenge (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

They’re cooking in a tent at the Kew Gardens, which has to be a subtle homage to The Great British Bake-Off, right?

Eventually, they’ll serve dishes to judges and guests in the massive greenhouse, and while this is a visually striking location, I struggle to understand why Top Chef builds a beautiful, spacious kitchen set and then has its chefs cook on top of each other in a tent so hot dough melts in Dawn’s hand.

Is that the challenge? Deal with the environment? Or with anything? The show never really acknowledges that the space is part of the challenge, but it really is.

Many of the chefs overcome the challenge to present some stunning food, like Top Chef Spain winner Begoña Rodrigo’s stunning pumpkin dish, and Top Chef Germany third-placer Tom Goetter’s carrot dish.

Top Chef Belize’s Charbel Hayek ended up winning for his take on onions. Charbel told us that he’d just won his season six months before filming this.

Four people sitting at a curved, blue table with the Top Chef logo on its front
Top Chef 20 World All Stars episode 1 guest judge Angela Harnett, plus host and judge Padma Lakshmi, and judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

We learn a few things about the chefs, like Begoña telling us “vegetables are my lovers” (and that she’s “sweating like hell” in the tent), and Samuel “trying to show off so many techniques” to impress the judges.

Guess how that goes? Shitty, literally: He leaves the poop intestine thingy in the shrimp (ew) and the judges and guests act as horrified as if he’d shit in their bowls.

When Gabriel accidentally pours water on Dawn’s efforts, she swears and says, “I’m pissed off,” but then tells him, “I’m not mad at you, I’m just very bad with time.”

Yet at the Judges Table—where Dawn ends up because her dish isn’t vegetable forward—she says “today was very difficult” and gestures toward Gabriel, as if to say, Ask this asshole what he did!

Gabriel also ends up at Judges Table because his dish didn’t come together, and not just because he failed to include a component (“Fuck, I forgot my siphon with chicken emulsion,” he says earlier, while presenting the dish).

Dawn’s dish is declared the best of the bottom three, so she’s still in, but it’s Samuel’s poopy shrimp that sends him home. It’s an amateur mistake, but the kind that happens under so much pressure, and in a sweaty tent.

Despite some screw-ups, Tom said that this first episode was “by far the best one we’ve ever had.” I’d hope so, with more than half the cast being winners. But I’d like to see Top Chef 20 step up to that level, because as first challenges and episodes go, this was not its best.

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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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Happy discussing!

Robert Karp

Sunday 12th of March 2023

My take: wow editing made things really move fast. I couldn't read the captions about each chef. What version of the show they were on etc. Made it difficult to get a feel for the cast.

At first I was irritated about the quickfire "twist" working in pairs so early. But it did accomplish something - getting the cast to meet and work with each other. That was a good thing.

In fairness to Dawn at Judges' Table. She didn't say anything negative and pointed to dump the boiling water on my food guy, but then said it was all good. Not something you would expect from a totally USA season.

All these shows suffer from a first episode problem of introducing a large cast. Now on Survivor I basically wait until the merge to focus on any members.

I agree, you sent them to Whole Foods in London? Sigh, product placement.

Matt H.

Friday 10th of March 2023

Isn’t it peculiar that they’re starting their first International season in a country that doesn’t have its own version. Or is that on purpose?


Friday 10th of March 2023

I’m not surprised that there are more US chefs, I think some familiarity with contestants on an “All Star” season is important


Friday 10th of March 2023

I think Top Chef could expand to 1.5 hours and cut it down to one hour half-way through the season. There is literally no reason I can think of to not offer a/c other than for drama. GBBO is worse. Most of the bakes that fail are generally because of the heat. Sorry, I get mean and cantankerous when I get hot so I just assume everyone else does.


Friday 10th of March 2023

@Christopher, they have added 15 minutes in the past


Friday 10th of March 2023

I was super excited that the run time (for me) was 1 hour, 45 minutes! I thought that they'd give us a super extended episode with lots of time to get to know the chefs I'm not familiar with. Alas, no. My DVR lumped Watch What Happens Live in the Top Chef recording.