I say this as someone who loves television: There are too many shows. There are too many channels, too many streaming services, too much content to sift through if you’re not able to devote every waking moment to screen time. So for a show to not only stay on the air for years but stand out as one of the best is no easy feat. Top Chef is one such show.
The 19th season of the cooking reality competition is currently airing Thursdays on Bravo—the finale will be on June 2—and even after all these seasons it still manages to give us everything: innovative recipes, exciting challenges, and a guy who can’t taste or smell but keeps it a secret from everyone (and still manages to do a pretty good job). It’s a rare accomplishment that the show not only continues to be entertaining and relevant, but continues to churn out contestants with staying power.
The TV network Bravo went all in on reality TV in the early 2000s thanks to the success of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and in 2006 premiered the then brand-new shows The Real Housewives of Orange County, Million Dollar Listing, and Top Chef.
The format of the cooking series was simple: a collection of the country’s best chefs come together in a different city each season, competing in quickfire challenges to earn perks and elimination challenges to stay in the game. One by one they’re told to pack their knives and go until only the winner is left we can only assume with knives all asunder, never to be packed again. That winner takes home a cash prize to put toward their culinary empire—it started as $100,000 in 2006 and now sits at $250,000—not to mention the celebrity gained from being on TV.
The show’s popularity has inspired a number of spin-offs, including international versions, Top Chef Masters, Top Chef Amateurs, Top Chef Junior, Top Chef Just Desserts, and most recently, Peacock’s Top Chef Family Style. And there certainly have been some changes to the original along the way—never forget that Katie Lee hosted before Padma Lakshmi came on in the show’s second season and Last Chance Kitchen, which allows eliminated contestants to return to the competition, was introduced as a permanent twist in 2011.
But the base concept has stayed the same, simple yet nimble enough to evolve over the past 16 years, and it just keeps getting better.
As a cultural touchstone, the show reflects culinary trends of the moment. Each past season is rewatchable as a time capsule of the years everyone was deconstructing dishes and turning everything into foams with molecular gastronomy and getting really into putting avocado in everything. If you want to know what the next big thing in restaurant food is, watch Top Chef.
In recent years, there’s been an increased focus on highlighting different ethnic culinary communities in the cities where the show is being taped, where international dishes are being made by people with roots in those countries. Moving away from the colonialist tendency to have all chefs replicate “trendy” national dishes, the focus is instead on what those cuisines inspire from each chef’s own personal background to put on a plate. It’s an awareness that makes the entire series hold up even upon multiple rewatches.
Shows like American Idol and Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model have produced some stars, sure, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Top Chef contestants go on to run award-winning restaurants, star in their own cooking shows, act as judges on other competition series, and remain celebrity chefs from the time they leave the show. It’s a starmarker in the food and drink world. And because the contestants come from all over the country and tend to return to their hometowns instead of trying to “make it” in New York and L.A., these are accessible stars whom fans can easily visit in their restaurants and support directly.
The creativity of the challenges in Top Chef abound—even when quickfires and elimination challenges are repeated from one season to another, each batch of contestants brings a new flair that makes them feel fresh. And some that happen every season, like Restaurant Wars, are celebrated staples that give longtime fans something to look forward to without being predictable. It’s that mix of comfort and excitement that makes Top Chef such an easy watch from week to week.
There’s a dichotomy across all aspects of the series. The dishes created are equal parts aspirational and attainable: sometimes they’re creative meals that, through the contestants’ expert description, could easily be recreated at home, and sometimes they feature a mixture of ingredients and techniques so elite that the joy comes from just sitting back and marveling.
Those (like me) who love reality television for the drama and tropes get their kicks as well—in season one, episode one, we get a classic “I’m not here to make friends.” Throughout the 19 seasons there have been hookups, handheld camera footage of after-hours drama, and plenty of tears, both of sadness and joy. And have I mentioned the contestant from this season who hid his lack of taste and smell the entire. Time. He. Was. On. The. Show?! This series really has something for everyone, and if you’re not already watching it’s never too late to start.