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Top Chef 20’s fast, furious mise en place challenge was its best yet

Top Chef 20’s fast, furious mise en place challenge was its best yet
Tom Colicchio, guest judge David Zilber, and Nicole Gomes during the mise en place race on Top Chef 20 episode 8 (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

For the first time on Top Chef World All Stars, a challenge finally felt worthy of this talented cast.

That’s not to say the previous challenges have been easy for the contestants, but they also felt indistinguishable from previous seasons. Some of them have been nonsensical, at least in terms of what the chefs were being asked to do.

But no challenge has really taken what Top Chef normally does and ratcheted up the difficult or pressure—perhaps because Top Chef challenges are already pretty difficult?

Two people wearing green aprons and black chef coats watching a third cut produce
Charbel Hayek, Sara Bradley, and Amar Santana during the mise en place race, before they misunderstood the elimination challenge (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

What changed this for me was the return of a Top Chef classic, the mis en place race, that itself was elevated by being converted into an elimination challenge—with a Fast and Furious sponsorship and colorful flashing lights!!

It challenged the chefs while allowing them to showcase their craft via precision preparation, cooking quickly, and highlighting an ingredient.

First, a street food quickfire challenge

First, though, the episode opened with a charming scene that I could have watched for an hour: last episode’s guest judge, Gaggan Anand, visiting the chefs in the stew room. I didn’t love his challenge judging, but I loved his time with them.

“Give me a beer,” he said after a few moments. “I just didn’t come here to have a solemn moment!” He got a beer and chatted with the chefs briefly, and exited with some terrific advice: “Don’t hold yourself—just have fucking fun!” He pointed out that they were here “having free beer and having a holiday.”

For the episode’s quickfire challenge, Padma Lakshmi told the chefs, “It’s important to travel and learn about other cultures around the world.” Does that include watching Below Deck Mediterranean or nah?

The quickfire challenge was to create a dish inspired by street food from a country. The chefs selected their food by racing to grab a passport from a wall. The producers really seem to be hoping for a concussion!

Victoire was last to arrive again—but got Jamaica, which she was excited about. “I’ve never been to Jamaica but I have spice in my blood,” she said.

Tom pointed out that “no one took India,” and after he added, “I guess there’s a reason for that,” the editors cut to footage of Padma smiling with a ding! sound effect.

Buddha eventually won with his version of a Vietnamese bánh xèo, while Gabri and Tom were also in the top. Guest judge Judy Joo said Buddha’s dish “truly took us back to that country.”

Buddha told us it was his “first time ever winning back-to-back quickfire challenges,” and now he has immunity for a team challenge, which should make his team thrilled.

Fast, furious filleting in the mise en place race

A person in a black chef coat and yellow apron cuts open a fish
A frozen moment in time of Gabri’s fast and furious filleting of a fish on Top Chef World All Stars episode 8 (Photo by David Moir/Bravo)

The elimination challenge began, as it often does, with some sponsored content: the trailer for Fast X, a movie I will most definitely see because I love big, dumb action movies where things go boom and the emotional depth doesn’t go past saying the word “family” over and over again.

Speaking of, I thought there was a real missed opportunity to lean into the family of it all on Top Chef, but instead the producers used the movie as an overlay for the mise en place challenge.

After dividing into three teams, they learned that there would be three rounds, with three ingredients each. First team to finish each round got their pick of which of the three ingredients they wanted to actually cook with later.

The nine ingredients were connected to nine The Fast and the Furious films, and while this is all very ridiculous to write, it worked. Also, there were flashing LED lights in each team’s color underneath their stations, and there’s nothing like lighting to distract me.

Top Chef supervising challenge producer John Adams talked to Salon about the challenge, and it’s a great read, including that producers had “a five- or six-page document of different ideas” to present to Bravo about how to integrate Fast X.

The chefs were impressive and quite fast—some much faster than others. Tom tried to give Gabri advice about filleting a fish, and Gabri said, “Don’t worry. Let me do my thing,” and proceeded to filet so fast I thought I’d accidentally hit fast-forward.

After the three rounds, it was time to actually cook. Each team had to divide up the three ingredients they’d picked/been stuck with and make a dish.

And they had to prepare their dish in “the fastest cook time in elimination history,” Padma said. Sure, 30 minutes is fast for Top Chef, but so many other competitions use even less time—Chopped’s 20 minutes, for example—that the time was the least-interesting part of the challenge.

The judges sat and watched the cooking, and quickly ran out of things to say. For a moment I worried Padma was going to turn into Narrator McExposition: “Everybody’s cooking!” she said. And in a kitchen! On a TV show! Wow!

The winning team, Ali, Gabri, and Tom, won a trip to the world premiere of Fast X, while Tom won for his roasted bell pepper dish.

“I just want to make one dish Tom really likes,” Tom said, and then Tom said, “Nice job, Tom,” and then Tom didn’t pick up the hint and say something else with “Tom” in it, alas.

Amar, Charbel, and Sara were the bottom team, because, as Amar explained, “we may have misunderstood the challenge.” Yes: instead of each choosing one of the three ingredients they’d selected during the mise en place race, they all decided to make lamb dishes, ignoring the other two dishes.

Their cooking wasn’t bad. “I’m not furious at the food we just had,” Tom said at the end of judging.

Sarah’s lamb was their favorite, and Charbel’s was their least-favorite. Padma called it “boring” and guest jduge David Zilber, from Top Chef Canada, told Charbel that if he’s going to make a three-ingredient dish, “those three ingredients have to blow my bloody mind.”

To grind the knife into the wound a little more, Tom—judge Tom, not contestant Tom—said “someone is still going home for making the worst dish.” That was Charbel.

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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 itโ€™s made and what it means.

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Tuesday 2nd of May 2023

I didn't like the Fast & Furious tie-in. It was interesting how they made the challenges fit, I just didn't like it.

Was there a Covid outbreak during filming? This is like the third episode in a row where they didn't leave the Top Chef kitchen.