When I’m overwhelmed by the endless scroll of streaming platforms, I put on Top Chef. It’s comfort food TV, no matter whether it’s a good season (Season 17, All Stars: LA) or a comparatively bad one (Season 11, New Orleans). Still, I was skeptical when Bravo announced Season 18, Portland, the first to be filmed since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Aside from the obvious safety concerns of filming on-set, pandemic-era TV remains ideologically confused about whether it should acknowledge reality, or attempt to be a COVID-free escape.
Top Chef relies entirely on experiences the pandemic has rendered dicey and unsafe. It’s all about sweating elbow-to-elbow in small kitchens, squeezing in as many guest appearances as possible, constantly tasting each other’s cooking, feeding hundreds of people at big events, and running through Whole Foods while shouting at teammates about which ingredients must be cut at the check-out line. How would the hazards of our current world change the Top Chef-verse—and of course, with real-life restaurant dining restrictions then-in-place across the country, what would become of the pinnacle of each season: Restaurant Wars?
Against all odds, this season in Portland has been one of the show’s best yet. It’s a rare-for-the-moment combination of escapist drama (the challenges, like being forced to use tree stumps as prep tables, are still ridiculous and unrealistic) and actual, humanizing reality (chefs like Shota Nakajima and Sasha Grumman talk about the hardship of closing their restaurants and furloughing their workers). Top Chef adapted, and all its COVID-spurred changes somehow worked to the show’s benefit. (If you’re not caught up, mild spoilers may follow.)
Producers spread out the kitchen and required regular COVID tests, showrunner Doneen Arquines told the Oregonian when Top Chef started filming in September. Contestants ordered groceries from a tablet instead of running through the store. How they served food changed: Episode five’s elimination challenge involved serving diners who ate in their cars at a low-contact, pop-up drive-in, and episode seven’s required cooking meals in full PPE for the pandemic’s frontline workers through a partnership with José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen. And Restaurant Wars, which was re-envisioned into a smaller chef’s table format, produced what seemed to be one of the most successful concepts of the show’s recent history: Kokoson by chefs Shota Nakajima, Jamie Tran, Maria Mazon, and Byron Gomez, who will be bringing it back as a sold-out, one-night pop-up in San Diego in August. The food, overall, has seemed top-tier.
The “production bubble” that acted as Top Chef’s COVID-safety protocol ended up being one of the season’s biggest selling points. As Arquines described, that meant a rotating panel of judges that featured the usual faces—Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons—alongside 12 former contestants including Melissa King, Kwame Onwuachi, and Brooke Williamson, all fan favorites.
While other seasons of Top Chef can feel like shoehorning as many cooking stars into the show as possible, the members of the small rotating cast were able to be better judges since they had a sense of each contestant’s cooking over the entire season. Big names like Andrés and Massimo Bottura weren’t absent from the show, but they appeared briefly and only as everyone does now: via video call. The fact that the rotating judges were all Top Chef alums made them more empathetic, too; they knew how much the competition could suck, so they gave more thoughtful, constructive critiques.
Despite my love for Top Chef, I’ll admit that the show sometimes suffers from too much fabricated drama to make the whole thing feel cutthroat; the entire premise, obviously, is that there can only be one Top Chef at the end of it all. Maybe it’s because of the way the restaurant industry has been hit hard over the past year, but this season has felt more like community over competition. A dramatic example came in the eleventh episode, when the decision of who would be sent home was down to chefs Jamie Tran and Maria Mazon. Tran, who’d been eliminated in an early episode but returned to the competition through Last Chance Kitchen, offered to go home instead of Mazon in order to let her have the second chance that Tran already had. (Mazon ultimately packed her bags.)
Every chef this season seems to be trying to find a bright spot after a tough year, and as a result, seems more eager to help their competitors. It helps, of course, that the entire roster of contestants is not only very talented but likable, especially former Olympic long jumper and current finalist Dawn Burrell.
I’ll be sad to see this season go. But after the Top Chef season finale this week, I know Season 18 will make it back into my rewatching rotation soon.