In late March, season 17 of Bravo’s Top Chef premiered. It was the cooking competition’s version of Bachelor in Paradise, bringing fan favorites and runners-up from past seasons to Los Angeles for a chance at the title of Top Chef. The star-studded cast, headlined by Bryan Voltaggio, Gregory Gourdet, and Melissa King, as well as host Padma Lakshmi, meant that there would be no shortage of talent — and drama — to keep fans hooked on the series.
As much as I love any sort of cooking show, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been a Top Chef fan. This year was different, however. Maybe it was the fact that I needed something to replace the restaurants, reality tv, and live sports that COVID-19 has taken from me, but this season captivated me in ways I wasn’t expecting.
Top Chef excels from a storytelling perspective. From the outside looking in, the basic format of the show doesn’t seem television-friendly; it’s the same cast of people with the same objective for 14 weeks: cook the best dish. It should get boring, and it definitely shouldn’t inspire you to structure your schedule around each episode, but Top Chef has a sort of magic that keeps you watching.
The characters of the show were just as interesting as the competition. Especially in this all-star season, each chef came in with their own backstory. Last Chance Kitchen winner Kevin Gillespie had just beat cancer. Voltaggio came to LA looking to win after finishing second to his brother, Michael, in season 6. Lee Anne Wong, best known for competing while four months pregnant on Top Chef: Colorado, surprisingly reached the final seven before leaving, surviving multiple close eliminations and her obvious disdain for Brian Malarkey. Malarkey himself was a maturity story throughout the season, transforming from an overconfident mid-tier competitor to a fun-loving, light-hearted personality who came within one episode of the finale. Boston-based private chef Stephanie Cmar was just happy to be part of the action coming in, but her growing confidence carried her to the final episode with a clear intention to win. Some chefs were more memorable than others (sorry, Joe Sasto), but each made their mark on viewers.
With that said, the $250,000 at stake wasn’t for a personality contest, it was about the food. Going in, I was split between Voltaggio and Gourdet as my pick to win it all. Both chefs ended up in Italy for the three-part finale, joined by King, Cmar, and Gillespie, who all outlasted preseason favorites like Eric Adjepong. Gourdet was the first finale contestant sent home, followed by Gillespie. After being in the bottom for weeks 8-10, King won four consecutive elimination challenges, including the finale, to take home the title of Top Chef.
Top Chef attempts to blend cooking shows with reality tv, and masters both areas better than most shows who only focus on one. Every week is essentially the same, yet electrifyingly different. I may have missed out on the first 16 seasons, but season 17 turned me into a Top Chef fan for years to come.