Top Chef All-Stars: Season Preview
By Kim Hollis, David Mumpower and Jason Lee
December 1, 2010

We guess Top Chef: The Musical was the next logical step.

For seven seasons, Top Chef has been building to this moment, the competition wherein many of the finest chefs ever to serve a dish on the show are given the opportunity to become the best of the best. Okay, that’s not completely accurate since none of the winners will be participating during this All-Stars competition. What we can say for certain is that this group of 18 chefs represents the finest assortment of players yet to claim the title of Top Chef. And since Jason Lee’s law school semester doesn’t finish for a couple of weeks, we will be handling the recaps for early December while Jim Van Nest has kindly stepped in and offered to do Survivor for us during this time frame.

Before we recap the initial episode of the show, we feel we should state our feelings about each of the contestants just as we did prior to the recent Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains season. We also take this rare opportunity to gloat about the fact that we were saying “Look out for Sandra Diaz-Twine” when most people were going, “As a previous winner, she has no chance of winning.” The good news is that being an accomplished previous performer is a positive rather than a negative for Top Chef. This is the rare reality show competition that rewards greatness rather than celebrates mediocrity. As such, the division of Top Chef talent is easily segmented into the great, the good and the “personalities”.

You may recall that our dissatisfaction with season 7 was predicated upon its focus with “personalities” whereas we relished season 6 for its breathtaking cooking talent. This brings us to an important point. A lot of the way we evaluate the chefs is predicated upon how they performed relative to the rest of their cast in their various seasons. From our perspective, Tiffani Faison’s runner-up finish in Season 1 is much less impressive than Jennifer Carroll’s fourth place finish in Season 6. Top Chef was an unknown commodity in Season 1 and a lot of the performances offered dissatisfied the judges. Being runner-up among that group is the equivalent of being Kelly Wiglesworth on the first season of Survivor. No, Tiffani Faison hasn’t engaged in credit card fraud (to our knowledge), but there was never a time during that season where we thought she was a better chef than eventual winner Harold Dieterle. He was head and shoulders above anyone else that season and even if he were a competitor for All-Stars, we probably wouldn’t have him in our top five. Meanwhile, Season 6 of Top Chef is the high water mark of reality television to date in terms of an entirely new cast all excelling at their given tasks. Finishing in the top five that season as Mike and Jen both did is a much more impressive accomplishment. Keeping this in mind, our overall ranking of the seven Top Chef seasons to date in terms of cooking strength is:

1) Season 6

2) Season 4

3) Season 5

4) Season 2

5) Season 7

6) Season 3

7) Season 1

I think most of us would agree that season 6 is easily the best and the first season was largely a work in progress. Our explanation for the rest of the ordering is this. Season 4 had two of the best chefs in the history of the show with Richard Blais being our choice for best contestant who didn’t win his season. Season 5 had one of the weakest winners in terms of overall performance in the competition in Hosea, but Stefan, Carla and Fabio are an impressive trifecta of non-winners. Season 2 winner Ilan Hall and runner-up Marcel are one of the show’s weaker 1/2 punches. What impresses us about that year is that the final five included Cliff, who had to be disqualified after that unfortunate incident, Elia and Sam. That grouping plus Ilan represents four fine chefs. We are very disappointed that Cliff and Sam are not among the returning contestants this season.

With regards to Season 7, we had originally slotted it lower than Season 3 but upon reflection, even though we disliked many of the dreaded “personalities” cast in lieu of better chefs, the reality is that the finale included some of the best food ever seen on the show according to Tom and Padma. Also, Tiffany and Ed as well as supremely annoying Angelo are all capable of making a world class meal so while we didn’t enjoy the season, we like the talent more than Season 3. This is because Season 3 made for great television and was in fact the reason we fell in love with Top Chef in the first place but when we look back on it, the reality is that there was only one great chef in Hung. CJ was funny and we have constantly stated Tre got a raw deal but upon re-watching the Restaurant Wars episodes that saw him eliminated, we now realize we had something of a blind spot for him. He deserved to go home. The other finalists that year, Dale and Casey, seem like fine, relatively accomplished chefs but other than the first and second seasons, this is the least impressive final grouping and in fact the body of the top 7 do not seem like the Crème de la Crème of Top Chef contestants. There are a lot of a likeable personalities from Season 3, which is why we enjoyed the program so much, but who would you argue (other than Hung) is definitively better than say Eli from Season 6? And Eli finished fifth that year.

We've also asked Jason Lee, who has recapped the previous seasons for BOP, to chime in with his thoughts on how the seasons ranked. Here are his comments:

Season 1

I think it would be a mistake to wander into the same pitfall that I believe my fellow BOP compatriots have stumbled into. I strongly believe that the two chefs from Season 1 will be powers to be reckoned with. Why do I think this? Simply go back and re-watch the 4 Star All Star special, in which the top Season 1 chefs competed against the top chefs from Season 2. What happened? Season 1 not only kicked Season 2’s butt, but two chefs stood out: Tiffani, who blew the judges away with her duo of kobe beef, and Stephen, who had the best Quickfire and Elimination dishes of the entire competition.

On top of that, you have to consider that the Season 1 chefs are now seven years divorced from their Top Chef experience. They have had a much longer time to take the lessons learned from the competition and put them into practice. To employ a poor culinary analogy, they’ve been marinating in their post-Top-Chef juices longer than the other cheftestants. As a result, I’d watch out for Stephan and Tiffani.

Season 2

Right or wrong, I’ve always looked at Elia and Marcel as chefs with pretty low ceilings in terms of talent. I predict both of them to fall relatively early.

Season 3

Casey was strong near the end of the season but fell off during the finale. Dale appeared to benefit from peaking right at the best time (the finale), but against a higher caliber of cast, I think he’ll drop out pretty early. Tre is somewhat of mystery. He’s rightfully seen by fans as someone who would have easily made the final if not for a slip up during Restaurant Wars (I bet he always uses peeled apples in his bread pudding nowadays) but whether he’s able to maintain a high level of performance over 14 episodes, I don’t know. I see him getting far, but burning out in the end.

Season 4

Yes, yes, this season boasted the famed, mohawked Richard Blais, but was there anyone else that season really gave Stephanie a run for her money? Antonia makes great home-y food and Spike has been making great burgers in DC since Top Chef, but it’s hard to imagine either of them making a run for the Season 8 title. Dale is similar to Tre in that he was an early pick to make the final and got tripped up in Restaurant Wars, but one wonders whether or not he can stick around ‘til the final this time around. Right or wrong, my gut says that Dale outlasts both of his fellow Season 4 chefs.

Season 5

Carla might have won the whole thing had it not been for Casey’s interference. It was a surprise when Jamie was eliminated prior to the finale, but she couldn’t beat Jeff in the cook-off for the final spot. Fabio cooked a great roast chicken, but I have a hard time remembering another episode when he outright dominated. I don’t see the Season 8 Top Chef winner coming out of Season 5.

Season 6

Here, I agree with David and Kim. This season (Robin aside) had the greatest concentration of talent in the history of the show - Michael Voltaggio, Brian Voltaggio, Kevin Gillespie...jeebus. Following the finale, all three judges agreed that Jen Carroll was the best female chef to date on the show. I predict that she goes all the way to the finale and challenges for the title. During the season, though, Mike Isabella. only won one Quickfire Challenge. Thus, while I think Season 6 was the most formidable season, I only see one of the returning chefs making a splash.

Season 7

Oh, Season 7. I actually believe that some good cooking went on during your season, but it’s an easy fact to overlook given the show’s overwhelming focus on the personality conflicts and the fact that it followed the spectacularly-talented cast of Season 6. It’s like the little brother who went to UCLA when the older brother went to Stanford. It’s like, UCLA is a great school, but... All joking aside, Tiffany and Angelo are both extremely talented. The question is whether they’ll be burned out after having just finished Season 7. Also, have they had a chance to really let the lessons learned from Season 7 sink in before starting up a new series of Quickfires and Elimination Challenges? I predict one of them makes the finale, but I’m not ready to say who.
Overall Seasons of Top Chef in terms of Strength (not just in terms of the cheftestants on Top Chef All Stars)

- Season 6

- Season 4

- Season 1

- Season 7

- Season 3

- Season 2

- Season 5