“Top Chef: World All Stars”: We see London, we see France, we see cheftestants cooking up plants

“Top Chef: World All Stars”: We see London, we see France, we see cheftestants cooking up plants

Rejoice! “Top Chef” has returned for yet another season — its landmark 20th season, actually, which plays host to a worldwide competition along the ‘All Stars” vein, bringing together winners and finalists from various countries’ “Top Chef” iterations to compete together in London. The official title is “Top Chef: World All Stars,” which . . . could’ve used some workshopping? Nevertheless, the consummate cooking competition is back! 

For a little over 20 years, competitive reality TV has been my medium of choice. I hopped on the “Top Chef” train a little late, just before I attended culinary school and then retroactively watched every single episode available, frenetically catching up on all seasons. Since then, I’ve seen every episode as it airs. As the realm of food competition shows chugs along with inane mundanity, “Top Chef” is the crown jewel and the only one that I still keep up with. It has a certain sophistication, an elevated level of cooking and Gail Simmons — what’s not to love?

“Top Chef” has a certain sophistication, an elevated level of cooking and Gail Simmons — what’s not to love?

The premiere opens with Padma‘s iconic intro — this time, complete with a new sponsor in Saratoga water, not “Saaaaan Pellegrino” (read in Padma’s mellifluous tone). Padma welcomes the competitors to a particularly scenic hill overlooking the famous Tower Bridge and we are treated to voiceovers of each cheftestant as they enter the arena, if you will. We find out the finale will take place in France and that “Top Chef” has had 29 international versions over the years, with over 100 winners from around the globe. (This season, though, features 16 chefs representing 11 different countries.)  

They all then hop on a London bus (it’s giving “Austin Powers”), gawk at some landmarks, discuss traveling (Ali and Sara haven’t been to London before), and Padma oddly asks Dawn, “Are you rested?” for some inexplicable reason.

A fishy Quickfire

Buddha Lo and Sylwia Stachyra collaborate in the Quickfire on “Top Chef: World All Stars” Episode 1 (David Moir/Bravo)The Quickfire challenge is intense and very frenzied complete with the cheftestants running amok over the course of three minutes to find five ingredients. Holding their little wire bins, the chestestants watch as Gail and Tom wheel out a cornucopia of seafood to pair with the items they picked up. We are then treated to a lolzy, subtitled Dale confessional in which he discusses his Canadian connection to Gail and his accent. The cheftestants must then pair up for the Quickfire itself, making a dish with their pooled ingredients from the pantry plus a fish component. 

The next five minutes are harried and rushed, but there are both some lovely food and some not-especially-terrific looking dishes: Buddha and Sylwia serve up a classic dish with leek, potato and house-made butter, while Sara and Dale concoct a langoustine dish with seafood broth and gremolata. I also liked the sound of Amar and Ali’s pan-roasted sea bass with kimchi emulsion and roasted eggplant baba ghanoush and feta.

On the flipside, the salmon poached in cabbage juice and kissed with the flame of blowtorch on a plate adorned with a Jackson Pollack-esque splatter doesn’t look especially alluring. Nicole and Victoire’s super-undercooked cacio e pepe risotto with poached oysters and mint doesn’t sound fantastic either. Gabriel and Luciana’s scallop aguachile with raw chayote and a lobster water shot, however, are also a hit with the judges. Charbel and Dawn’s grilled mackerel with zucchini and sauce vierge with balsamic is underseasoned and leaves “something to be desired.” Gail says Samuel and Tom’s salmon dish has a gritty element in the emulsion and the aforementioned risotto is indeed “too al dente.” Buddha/Sylwia, Sara/Dale,and Luciana/Gabriel become our Top 3 and Sara/Dale take home the Quickfire win and the immunity for the first elimination challenge. 

No garden-variety elimination challenge

The elimination challenge must feature a vegetable-forward dish in which the protein is used as a “seasoning or accent.” The cheftestants each have a budget of 250 pounds and only two hours to prepare and cook at Royal Botantic Gardens, Kew, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. Begoña, whose restaurant has a Michelin star, is often vegetable-forward and looks forward to the challenge.

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During the shop at Whole Foods, it feels like deja vu as we are yet again treated to a Dawn confessional to reveal she’s struggling with menu conception, while Charbel outlines his entirely onion-specific dish. The cook for the elimination challenge feels particularly rushed, but there are some interesting moments, such as when Dawn continues to struggle, complete with a super awkward moment when Gabriel spills water directly into Dawn’s pot (?), which causes her to go into a lil’ spiral for a moment before pivoting, draining the excess water and adding some coconut milk to help rehydrate and flavor that component of her dish.

Sara is light and loose, making quips throughout the cooking process, while others seem very overwhelmed and/or overheated. Germany’s Tom (the cheftestant, not Colicchio) has trouble getting his carrot mousse to set up due to the hot kitchen. We’re also treated to our only “flashback”/personal confessional of the episode, with a quick Dale story complete with some photos about how he started in a Gordon Ramsay kitchen at the beginning of his career.

Angela Harnett, Tom Colicchio, Ali Al Ghzawi, Charbel Hayek, Dale MacKay, Buddha Lo in “Top Chef: World All Stars” Episode 1 (David Mohr/Bravo)

During the shop at Whole Foods, it feels like deja vu as we are yet again treated to a Dawn confessional in which she notes that she’s struggling with menu conception.

The guest judges are an incredibly impressive array of international national chefs, some with Michelin stars, and the backdrop of the challenge is an aesthetic gem, with arching, glass ceilings and sky-high, verdant plants. The presented dishes are a bit of a blur because — again — the pacing seems rushed (this episode would’ve really benefited from an additional 15-20 minutes to help round this issue out), but there are some clear favorites and some obvious letdowns.

Charbel’s dish is immediately striking, featuring onions with an onion soubise between each layer, as well as an onion mousse, sumac tuile and chicken jus, with an elegance that is juxtaposed by the boyish energy of his confessionals. Begoña’s dish, a beautifully constructed ring of pumpkin “pasta” with duxelle and raw milk cream in the middle is a unique offering. And even better, German Tom’s carrot mousse sets up! 

Charbel’s dish is immediately striking, featuring onions with an onion soubise between each layer, as well as an onion mousse …

We get a lovely moment from Victoire and Luciana — the “queens of cassava,” as dubbed by another cheftestant — who speak about the importance of the vegetable in their personal lives and upbringing. (I love how Luciana just holds a cassava as she presents.)

Tom Colicchio is clearly not fond of the fact that many of the dishes are essentially a hodgepodge of vegetables complete with a large piece of protein: some lamb, some shrimp or some fish, for the most part. I find it interesting that so many cheftestants go this route — the challenge parameters are clearly to focus on the vegetables with the protein as an afterthought, which automatically makes me think of a vegetable-centric dish with a lighter protein component such as a jus, a crumble or a lighter touch of sorts. It’s a bit clunky that some of them make a ton of vegetables and then just plop some meat alongside. Clearly, as shown by Tom’s repeated comments, the protein often winds up being superfluous. At the same time, though, the judges also note that while the first challenge of the season usually tends to have some real misses, the overall level of cookery displayed here is much more elevated than typical – which of course makes sense and sets the stage for a particularly competitive season. 

Some of the dishes that seem to be fall flat are Samuel’s tiger prawn carpaccio with a prawn cracker, Dawn’s West Indian-flavored filled pastry with coconut and Gabriel’s mextalpique-inspired, messy-looking dish — in which he forgets his chicken emulsion which would’ve helped tie it all together. 

The chopping block

Angela Harnett, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons at the judges’ table in “Top Chef: World All Stars” Episode 1 (David Mohr/Bravo)Fast-forward to judges’ table, in which the Top 3 are German Tom, Charbel and Begoña, all of whom are clearly shown as having some of the standout dishes. German Tom’s dish is highlighted for his chutneys and his carrot focus, Charbel’s for his unique onion stacking and the soubise layer of detail in between each layer, while Begoña’s lovely presentation and deep flavor clearly resonates. Angela Harnett announces that the winner is Charbel. Once upon a time in “Top Chef” lore, the first elimination challenge winner would almost always end up as a finalist, but that’s changed in recent years. It’ll be interesting to follow Charbel’s journey; I’m intrigued by the way the show edits him. His confessionals repeatedly let us know he’s 25, highlight his slight showboat-ing and the fact that he — like Buddha — is a very recent winner. 

(Also, how cool is the judging room/kitchen?I especially love the half-clock door entrance reminiscent of “Alice in Wonderland.”)

The bottom group, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, is Samuel’s flaccid, uncleaned prawns, Dawn’s patty and Gabriel’s charred mess. Tom notes that Samuel’s lack of removal of the shrimp’s gastrointestinal tract severely distracts from the quality of his dish (this has also become one of my biggest culinary pet peeves lately, too, and has resulted in my consuming much less shrimp in recent years). Gabriel says that he couldn’t make the mextalpique because of the limited offerings at Whole Foods and acknowledges that he didn’t pivot well, while Harnett notes again that his charred ingredients overpowered the dish and the missing espuma affected the overall flavor. Dawn says she had a tough time, clumsily referencing Gabriel’s mistake with a cringy shoulder rub. She’s commended for her plating and seasoning, but Tom deems it “the right dish at the wrong time.” Dawn seems defeated in the stew room, waving and saying “good to meet you” to her competitors, but carrot mousse Tom is encouraging and positive, gassing her up a bit. 

The judges discuss, ultimately landing on the fact that Dawn’s dish, while not ideal, is clearly better than the other two. Samuel’s lack of deveining his prawns is a much bigger issue, but given the challenge, it’s noted that his vegetables are seemingly stronger than Gabriel’s. In the end, though, there’s clearly one mistake that can’t be overlooked, so Padma tells Samuel to pack your knives and go, and he heads off to “Last Chance Kitchen,” saying “bye bye, La France!”

The season promo that follows is an exciting jumble of a pub crawl, multiple impressive judges and chefs (Clare Smyth! Alain Ducasse!), a fun quip about how the “risotto spell has been broken,” a new Restaurant Wars format complete with “existing infrastructure,” lots of drama, a medic visit and — of course — some very elevated cuisine. 

My two pence

Sylvia Stachyra, Begoña Rodrigo, Amar Santana, Tom Goetter are ready to cook on “Top Chef: World All Stars” Episode 1 (David Mohr/Bravo)Generally, “Top Chef” tends to have a slower start. I also find that it can be very rushed and frenzied in the opening episodes. Once it gets into the meat and potatoes (pun intended), though, there’s a quality to “Top Chef” that isn’t seen in many other shows: there’s gravitas, there’s pathos, there’s real emotional connectivity and there’s superb food. The midseason to finale run of most “Top Chef” seasons is a veritable treasure trove of storylines and heft, which is one of the many reasons it’s remained in rotation for me for so long. 

There’s a quality to “Top Chef” that isn’t seen in many other shows: there’s gravitas, there’s pathos, there’s real emotional connectivity and there’s superb food.

I will also remark that I find it fascinating that multiple international contestants (primarily Gabriel and Samuel) seem hamstrung or otherwise affected in competition, alluding to their lack of familiarity with some of the standard U.S. “Top Chef” rules and regulations, which isn’t the case in their local version of the franchise. This seems especially focused on the Quickfire times and cooking outside of the kitchen. I wonder, then, if this season’s leaning on the U.S. format may give an advantage to the likes of Sara, Amar, Buddha and Dawn?

While the show’s editing does a pretty good job of covering everyone, I do feel that May is the most under-exposed cheftestant, so I look forward to learning more about her. Her confessional states that she was affected by being named as the runner-up, and the reason she’s a part of this season is to go a step further and win, so I’m intrigued to see how that may turn out. Sylwia seems like potential comic relief, so I’m also looking forward to seeing more of her. Victoire is another interesting cheftestant who I’d like to see develop on the show; the combination of Italian and Congolese cuisine sounds incredible. 

Two of the most compelling stories this season . . . will be if Dawn is able to get out of her own way and if Sara Bradley may also be making her first trip to France . . . as a finalist.

Two of the most compelling stories this season, I predict, will be if Dawn is able to get out of her own way and if Sara Bradley — who’s now crossed London off of her bucket list — may also be making her first trip to France . . . as a finalist. We’ve watched both of these women go through the trials and tribulations of “Top Chef” before, and I am invested in their journeys, especially after seeing Dawn have yet another rough start.

We’ll see! Either way, it’s so good to have “Top Chef” back. 

“Top Chef: World All Stars” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Bravo and streams next day on Peacock.

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