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Top Chef 20’s two creative challenges were πŸ”₯😍, despite some πŸ€¨πŸ™„ judging

Top Chef 20’s two creative challenges were 🔥😍, despite some 🤨🙄 judging
Nicole Gomes cooks during the emoji-themed quickfire challenge on Top Chef World All Stars episode 7 (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Except for a brief trip to London landmark Whole Foods, and a visit with the chefs at their hotel, Top Chef World All Stars stayed entirely in the Top Chef kitchen for its seventh episode.

There, both challenges gave opportunities for the chefs to really demonstrate their creativity.

They were each inspired by guest judge Gaggan Anand‘s cooking: the quickfire came from his emoji menu, while the elimination challenge came from his “Lick it Up” dishes.

Focusing both challenges around an acclaimed chef’s work could potentially be limiting, but both challenges really offered a lot of open-ended creativity.

Two people standing on either side of a very tall representation of a mobile phone, with five rows of circle cards, each of which has an emoji in it
Top Chef 20 guest judge Gaggan Anand and host Padma Lakshmi with the emoji options for the episode 7 quickfire challenge (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

The quickfire: choose an emoji, and make a dish inspired by that.

Because watching people smash into each other is fun, the chefs had to fight over the emojis, which were placed on a large smartphone set piece.

“I think I was the loser in the running challenge,” Victoire said. While Victoire wanted fire, sun, or heart, but then chose sushi instead of more open-ended options like the rainbow or laughing face. The sweating face—although that has, uh, alternate meanings—could have easily represented heat.

Top Chef did not offer emojis that would make me giggle, but Nicole did ask Dale about his use of the eggplant emoji, to which he responded, “I’m more of a medium zucchini.”

Thank you, Dale and Top Chef, for countering traditional media representations of eggplant size!

Gabri ended up with the fire emoji, and used that as an opportunity for a story and metaphor. As a kid, he spilled boiling water on himself and burned his legs down to the tendons. “The fire touched me, and now I control the fire,” he told us.

A person pouring liquid nitrogen out over a table, which is covered in a cloud of fog
Buddha works on his frozen dish for the Quickfire challenge, which he ultimately won (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Meanwhile, Buddha had the frozen face, and created a dish titled “Freezing Myself to Death,” with a skull-shaped ice cream on top of raspberry sorbet, which offered “a little bit of gore to it.”

While Buddha’s dish was fun, the judging was frustrating. Both Padma and Gaggan demanded basically literal interpretations of the emojis.

When Ali introduced his as a plant, they were like, NO THAT IS A CLOVER IT IS GOOD LUCK DUH YOU LOSE.

Then Gaggan told Dale that his chosen emoji, the heart, “is a very difficult thing to represent in food.” Cooking with love? Making actual heart? Doing anything else because this isn’t a create-an-emoji challenge?

Victoire got in trouble, too, because she cooked fish and rice, while Gaggan said her sushi emoji “means uncooked fish.”

Critique the dish, sure! And okay, emoji often has a clear antecedent. But part of the fun of emoji is using them to communicate different things (eggplant, for example), so why not make space for the chefs to interpret the images?

Three people holding white plates in front of them
Top Chef 20’s Gabriel Rodriguez, Sara Bradley, and Ali Al Ghzawi prepare to lick a rainbow-colored world off plates. (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Thankfully, the judging during the elimination challenge was less limiting.

First they tried—by licking— a dish Gaggan made to “spread a message of love … during COVID times, [because] there was a lot of hate on social media,” especially toward LGBTQ people. The dish was a representation of Earth’s land masses in rainbow colors. So, pretty literal, which may explain some of his quickfire judging.

In a fun flashback, we saw Amar licking plate in Portland—which reminded me mostly of how much I loved that season (except for its shitty winner). I wish we’d go back to that format, with all stars judging.

The chefs’ task for the elimination challenge was to create a visually stunning dish that would be eaten without utensils, and that communicated a message important to the chef.

Tom Colicchio said “it gives the chefs really creative license just to go for it,” and it did. The plates the chefs presented were beautiful and fascinating.

Ali, for example, did a vegan mushroom dish, countering the idea that meat is a necessary part of a meal.

Buddha’s dish used a hand mold, and between that and his quickfire skull mold, I’d really love to know what the chefs are allowed to bring with them and if there’s any restriction to how often they can use it.

Instead of projecting her own ideas onto the dishes she was eating, Padma actually asked questions. Specifically, Padma asked Victoire if, “when this dish is eaten normally,” it’s sweet or savory, and and Victoire said, “in Ghana, savory; in Congo, it’s sweet.”

Three people in black chefs coats hug each other
Top Chef 20 episode 7’s top three Amar Santana, Ali Al Ghzawi, and Charbel Hayek (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

Charbel, Ali, and Amar were in the top: “The Middle East boys are kicking some ass,” Charbel said.

Amar’s deconstructed Thai salad was “completely different than anything we’ve ever seen from you,” Tom said, adding that it also tasted great.

Charbel’s dish, which was very personal with its representation of the Lebanon flag, was what Gail said was a “call to action,” while Tom said its flavors were “alive and vibrant.”

Tom complimented Ali’s meat-free dish, a mushroom kubbeh. “I love the message,” he said. “You don’t need meat with every single meal, and I say that as the owner of a steakhouse.”

Ali won, because, as Gaggan said, Ali “took the message and mate it beautiful” and “delivered an absolutely tasty dish.” This is Ali’s third win, and an immediate rebound from his bottom-of-the-quickfire challenge.

In the elimination challenge bottom three were Dale, Victoire, and Tom. Padma said that, ultimately, there were “10 extraordinary dishes.”

They dinged Dale because his “chicken had very little flavor,” Tom Colicchio said.

Gaggan liked Victoire’s sauce and story, but said the seasoning was lacking.

And the judges were sad that Tom’s mousse didn’t set; Tom Colicchio told him, “you would have won this thing” if it had.

Ultimately, Dale was out, becoming a “two-time loser,” as he told us. But he has a chance to lose for a third time, as he’s headed back to Last Chance Kitchen.

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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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