I have long believed that “Top Chef” is the best reality competition show on television, and there is nothing in the first episode of season 18 to change my mind.
If you’ve never watched “Top Chef,” talented chefs from around the country compete in a number of cooking challenges to earn the title of Top Chef, a $250,000 cash prize, a feature in Food & Wine and an appearance at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado. Each week, after the Elimination Challenge, a panel of judges, including head judge Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons and host Padma Lakshmi determine which chef must “pack their knives and go.”
This season, the show takes its cheftestants to Portland, Oregon, for a variety of difficult challenges that spotlight the city’s landmarks and culinary favorites. Joining the regular trio of judges at Elimination Challenges is a rotating panel of alumni from previous seasons.
I have absolutely no idea what any of these chefs are making, even when the show provides explanations, but it is still so much fun to watch. And we can all relate to the feeling of frustration when something doesn’t quite work out the way we wanted. Reality competition shows rely heavily on editing, and the crew at “Top Chef” are truly the best in the business. Plus, the panel discussions are always entertaining, led by Colicchio, the best reality competition show judge currently on TV.
Of course, I am always thrilled to see my all-time favorite cheftestant, Richard Blais, from “Top Chef: Chicago” and the winner of the original “Top Chef All-Stars,” who is part of the rotating panel of judges. Blais and I actually spent some time together in Columbus as part of a “Top Chef” tour, and I can tell you he is as entertaining in person as he is on the show. My only concern is that the alumni panel is so large, we won’t get to hear from him as much as I would like.
The unique element about this season is, of course, the pandemic. There is no more shopping at Whole Foods, as all the ingredient selection is done online for pickup, and masks and testing are now a part of the production. But it’s the stories of the impact COVID-19 has had on the chefs’ livelihoods and how they’re using that to fuel their run on the show that truly sets this season apart. Hearing several cheftestants talk about having to furlough their employees or shutdown completely is truly heartbreaking. For the record, I am totally rooting for Columbus, Ohio, native Avishar Barua, the executive chef and general manager of Service Bar in downtown Columbus.
Whenever I have the opportunity to review “Top Chef,” I’m always reminded of how totally addicted to the show I once was. I think it’s time for me to get back into the kitchen.
“Top Chef: Portland” premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 1, on Bravo with a 75-minute episode.