‘Top Chef,’ Better Now Than Ever, Has Outgrown the Chaos of Restaurant Wars (Column)

·5-min read

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers from the Restaurant Wars episode of “Top Chef” Season 19, which aired April 21 on Bravo.

The most stressful storyline on TV this year, bar none, has been the exquisite tension of waiting for everyone on the 19th season of “Top Chef” to find out that contestant Jackson Kalb was competing without a sense of taste, thanks to a nasty bout of COVID before production began. Incredibly, Kalb had kept it a secret for weeks as he cooked spectacular dishes lauded for their bold flavors — none of which he could taste at all. That it finally caught up with him this week during “Restaurant Wars,” the franchise’s most iconic challenge, made for an abrupt, but fittingly dramatic end to his unlikely run.

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And yet: as the season inched closer to this episode, I found myself hoping that this Restaurant Wars wouldn’t be half as traumatic as per usual. In fact, I hoped we’d get a repeat of Season 18’s version, which was shot in a bubble during a higher peak of the pandemic. Suddenly unable to overwhelm the contestants with hungry diners, Season 18 had to do things a different way — and ended up making the show as a whole even better.

Few shows on television, period, have proved as steady, smart, and willing to adapt as “Top Chef” has in its 16 years on the air, and Season 18 represents the pinnacle of its evolution. Rather than trying to make the audience forget the dire circumstances surrounding the season, “Top Chef” faced them head-on to become the best version of itself — which is saying something, considering just how good the series had already become.

With so many restaurants closing during the first year of the pandemic, talented chefs who might not have otherwise been able to compete joined the show with renewed enthusiasm. Everyone was so excited to be there that they couldn’t help rooting for each other, echoing the mutual admiration that define increasingly popular competition shows like “The Great British Baking Show” and “The Ultimate Pottery Throwdown.” There was none of the sniping or sabotage that’s defined past seasons, and the cast was one of the franchise’s least homogenous to date. Bucking 15 years of tradition, no one in the Top 7 was white. It is unfortunately worth noting that the eventual winner has since been the subject of workplace harassment allegations — which made for an especially disappointing coda to a season that otherwise prized camaraderie and teamwork above all.

When COVID-19 forced TV to scale down and tighten safety protocols to the point that every production became its own bubble, most shows had trouble adjusting to the new normal. “Top Chef,” however, found inventive solutions that made its pandemic season one of its very best. A panel of all-star “Top Chef” contestants joined the bubble to become a rotating set of guest judges, giving them keener insight into each competitor’s food and arc. Each episode made greater use of the season’s home base of Portland, Oregon and its surroundings, traveling to vineyards, coastlines, and temporarily shuttered restaurants. When they did cook for a larger audience, it was for exhausted frontline workers at overrun hospitals.

So when it came time for Restaurant Wars, Season 18 couldn’t make the chefs run the usual gauntlet of building an entire pop-up restaurant in 24 hours to accommodate floods of hungry diners. Instead, the show challenged them to create a progressive menu for a more intimate, but no less difficult, chef’s table style tasting menu. There was still drama; having to cook a limited number of tiny, perfect portions for a panel of judges sitting mere feet away made sure of that. For the most part, though, this version of Restaurant Wars was made less for chaos than a truly creative menu. Both by happy accident and canny producing, the new Restaurant Wars rejected the forced mayhem of seasons past to concentrate on the food itself.

Season 19 tried to split the difference. Not only did it have the judges sit at a chef’s table within eyesight of the kitchen, but it once again tasked the contestants to open a full restaurant for waves of diners. Kalb ultimately went home for his disastrous front of house performance, in which he ignored the judges in favor of schmoozing with guests.

If Kalb had only the judges’ table to worry about, he probably still would’ve been on the chopping block for his uninspired dessert and ill-fated choice to serve his team’s menu family style for no particular reason. But there’s always been something frustrating about watching a chef go home because they couldn’t handle the job of a host, an extremely demanding position for which very few Top Chefs are qualified — and this many seasons into the show, it feels like the kind of messy elimination that’s not just unnecessary, but outdated.

The first several seasons of “Top Chef” made for great, engaging television, and remain the blueprint for plenty of copycat food competition shows today. But they also leaned on the kinds of twists and bombastic fights that once fueled just about every reality show, where personalities (and even bigger mistakes) reigned supreme. These later seasons, smart and engaging simply because they feature talented people proving their worth, have demonstrated exactly why the show doesn’t need to throw chefs headlong into the fire to make them interesting. Given all the ways in which the show’s reinvented itself over the years, it should embrace the chance to give Restaurant Wars a more lasting makeover.

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