“I was notoriously bad at quickfire [challenges] on my season of Top Chef,” season 12 winner Mei Lin told me.
That gave her pause about competing on Food Network’s Tournament of Champions. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do TOC, because I can’t think quickly on my feet.”
Of course, Mei was able to do TOC quite well: She ultimately won Food Network’s Tournament of Champions IV and its $100,000 prize—and was dominant in the competition. During the 31 match-ups, only six dishes received scores higher than 90, and four of those were Mei’s.
Mei told me she’s been a fan of TOC since season one. “It just looked like such a fun show to be a part of.”
When Antonia Lofaso texted her about participating, Mei asked for the scoop: “Give me the reality. Like, how much time do you have to think about what you can make before the clock starts?”
Antonia’s response: “Literally a minute. I’m like, Oh, no. Can I do that? I just didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.”
The format of Tournament of Champions does, however, gives its competitors something to work with, even if that thing is randomly selected.
“The beauty of TOC is that you’re not fully going in blind, like, What am I going to make? The Randomizer’s giving you the ingredients to put into a dish,” Mei said. “You’re going through the pantry, you’re going through the fridges, and you’re looking at what you have, and then there’s something that sparks in your brain: I can make this.”
The chefs do have a few minutes between when the Randomizer stops spinning and they start cooking.
In this behind-the-scenes story, Tournament of Champions executive producer Brian Lando told me that there’s a brief stop-down, giving the culinary team time to put the randomly chosen ingredients into the fridges and place equipment on the chef’s stations.
I asked Mei if she was able to use that time to do any kind of planning. “There’s a little bit of time between the false start—I want to say it’s about two minutes or so. It’s not actually enough time to really fully form a concept in your brain, unless the randomizer is just so obvious [about] what dish to make,” she said.
Also during that time, the chefs can get help with specialized equipment. “If you’re unfamiliar in using that certain type of equipment, you can definitely ask the culinary team to walk you through it,” she said, but again, those lessons take place in minutes, so it’s not a lot of time.
Another behind-the-scenes fact: The first chef to finish plating gets to decide whether they want to be judged first or second. I asked if Mei had a strategy or preference.
“You talk to a lot of the chefs who have been veterans on the show, and they all have different strategies,” she said. “Some of them are like, I want to go last. The way that I think about serving food is that I always want to serve first. You’re giving the judges the dish and and its integrity—if it’s hot, you’re giving it to them hot. Obviously, if you have a hot dish, you can choose to have it held hot, but I think that changes the integrity of the dish.”
As an example, she said, “If you had a meat cooked medium rare, and then it’s sitting in the hot boxes, now it’s medium or medium well. They can’t necessarily judge” whether that was from the cooking or the sitting. “I always wanted to plate first and have the dish be tasted first.”
The people who presented her dishes, Simon Majumdar and Justin Warner, Mei said she appreciated how “they’re just so elegant, the way they speak about food.”
While we see both Simon and Justin asking questions while the contestants are cooking, Mei said that it wasn’t necessary to give them every detail. “They’re both chefs, so they’re fully aware of what you’re doing, what you’re making, and what direction you’re going in. You don’t really have to speak to them, and they just know.”
Tournament of Champions vs. Top Chef
Having now won the two biggest competition shows on cable TV, Bravo’s Top Chef and Food Network’s Tournament of Champions, I asked the inevitable question about how they compare.
“They’re both very difficult in very different ways,” Mei said. “I don’t really think that you can really compare the two.”
But she did point out one key difference: “Top Chef, you can be right in the middle and not be kicked off. Whereas in TOC, you either win or you lose.” There’s nowhere to hide.
Mei also said she appreciated TOC’s blind judging. “What’s great about TOC is that you don’t know who’s cooking your dish.”
“The fact that TOC is fully being blind judged is such a amazing concept, and that’s what really drew me to the show,” she said. “There’s just really no biases. The judges are literally just judging the food, and just letting the food speak for itself. Honestly, I love that.”
How Mei Lin beat Maneet Chauhan
Mei is now the fourth woman to win Tournament of Champions in its four seasons of existence. When she won Top Chef, she was the third woman to win the Bravo competition in 12 seasons.
“I think it’s truly amazing that four women have won TOC. I think that really speaks volumes to the different biases in the industry,” she told me. “It’s truly amazing, and I’m really glad to be a part of that.”
One of those winners was her competition in the final round: season two winner Maneet Chauhan. How was it facing off against someone who already won?
“Of course, there’s a lot of nerves going against Maneet—someone who’s been in the arena for three seasons. That’s always a little nerve-wracking,” Mei said. “But I think at the end of the day, you’re really not competing against the other person. You’re competing against yourself. You’re competing against the Randomizer. And it’s honestly whoever puts out the best dish, whoever uses like the randomizer the best, and presents the dish the best.”
Mei beat Maneet by two points, 91 to 89, but Tournament of Champions did not show us the final scorecard, as it had for every other battle in its four seasons.
Mei told me she was given the scorecard (“I don’t know where it is!” she laughed), but she did know that the two points of difference came in two different categories. “I beat her in both taste and presentation, I believe,” she said. “I think I beat her one point on both presentation and taste.”
During the competition, Mei said that she had a personal goal. “In every single competition that I go into, I want to beat my last score, and I want to do better. Because at the end of the day, you’re competing with yourself, your harshest critic,” she added.
Her internal critic came into play while watching the actual judging. When producers asked if she thought she won or not, Mei told me, “I honestly can say I don’t know every single time, because every every judging that you hear, you’re always listening to the worst parts of your dish but listening to the best parts of the competitor’s dish.”
“You always just listen to the bad,” she added, “because you want to do the best, and you want to outshine yourself.”
Clearly, she did that this season—and perhaps again next season, as Mei told host Guy Fieri she’d be up for returning to Tournament of Champions season five.
In the meantime, she told me, “I definitely make some appearances on Food Network, so definitely look out for that.”