Top Chef is back! And the stakes are higher than ever. For season 20, sixteen former Top Chef winners and finalists from all over the world bring their talent, creativity, and techniques to London to claim the title of “Top Chef World All Star.” Among the familiar faces is Houston native, Dawn Burrell, a finalist in season 18, Top Chef Portland. (See our Season 20 sneak peek to find out who will join her and more about what the season has in store for them).
The new season premiered Thursday night and here’s our almost-in-real-time recap.
Host Padma Lakshmi greeted the all-star chefs in London, and quickly informed the contestants that this season the ante had been sufficiently upped! In addition to the list of prizes that the winner usually gets, including a feature in Food & Wine magazine, an appearance at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, and the prize money of $250,000, this year the winner gets to claim the impressive title of “World All Star.” And, for the first time, the finale will take place in Paris.
Among this season’s returning chefs a few big names caught my eye. Buddha Lo, who won season 19, Top Chef Houston, (which also featured Houston’s own Evelyn Garcia) returns, as does Luciana Berry, winner of season two of Top Chef Brazil, and Ali Al Ghzawi, winner of Top Chef Middle East & North Africa, Season 3. With resumes piled high you could cut the tension like a hot knife through soft butter.
During the season’s first quickfire challenge, each contestant had three minutes to raid the Top Chef kitchen, and could only choose five ingredients to cook with, all of which were vegetarian. However, it wouldn’t be Top Chef without a twist or two. In strolled judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, with a massive spread of some of the United Kingdom’s finest seafood. In a second twist, chefs then had to pair up in teams of two. Each pair was then required to combine their selected ingredients with their seafood choices.
With immunity from elimination on the line, each team went to work perfecting their first dish. Chef Burrell partnered with Chef Charbel Hayek (winner, season five, Top Chef M.E.N.A.). The pair came up with a grilled mackerel with zucchini and sauce vierge with balsamic vinegar. Unfortunately for them, the dish was one of the judges’ least favorite and landed them in the bottom three. According to Padma, the mackerel “left something to be desired.” The winning dish (and immunity from elimination) went to Chefs Sara Bradley (finalist, season 16, Top Chef Kentucky), and Dale MacKay, (winner, season one, Top Chef Canada), who created a langoustine with seafood sauce and gremolata.
For the first elimination challenge of the season, the judges asked the chefs to create a vegetable-forward dish, “where the protein is used more like a seasoning, or an accent,” said Lakshmi. The challenge was held at the gorgeious Royal Botanic Gardens, with a panel of chefs from around the United Kingdom gathered to taste the competitors’ cooking. No pressure. The first guest judge of the season was Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett, a Gordon Ramsay protégée and owner of London restaurant Murano.
With Chef Burrell reeling from the quickfire, she looked for redemption in the elimination challenge, but while shopping for her ingredients, she struggled to conceptualize what she wanted to make. She settled on an onion squash patty with West Indian flavors, coconut broth on the side, and a mushroom salad.
As usual, things in the kitchen were tense, and before Chef Burrell could present her dish to the judges, Chef Gabriel Rodriguez (winner, season two, Top Chef Mexico) accidentally sabotaged Burrell’s dish by spilling water onto her flavored vegetables. His retribution was fast, however, as Rodriguez forgot to include his protein, a chicken emulsion, that would’ve topped off his dish of Mextlapique-charcoal vegetables, confit corn, black truffle beans, pickled mushrooms, and red rainbow chard. The oversight left his dish unfinished and in the bottom three, fair game for elimination.
The judges were most impressed with Chef Tom Goetter’s (finalist, season one of Top Chef Germany) dish. His blistered carrot chutney with carrot ginger mousse and bone marrow dust won the judges over and was hailed as the favorite dish of the day. On the flip side, Chef Burrell found herself in trouble once again. Fateful missteps like forgetting ingredients, and missing key techniques were just a few of the reasons that she, Chef Rodriguez, and Chef Samuel Albert (winner, season 10, Top Chef France), ended up in the bottom three. Despite the judges thoroughly enjoying Burrell’s dish, the consensus was that the focus was on the pastry and not vegetables. “Right dish, wrong time,” is what Judge Colicchio called it. But Chef Burrell’s dish was good enough to keep her in the race for another week. Chef Alber, however, wasn’t so lucky and was told to “pack his knives and go.” Only 15 chefs remain in the competition. (Although, as in previous seasons, Last Chance Kitchen is in play, which allows eliminated chefs to get back in the game).
Check back with us next Friday for another recap Top Chef All Stars. You can catch the new season Thursday nights on Bravo.