I’ve been a “Top Chef” fan since season 1, not missing an episode of professional chefs from all around the country battle it out to see who’s the best. And when Bravo launched “Top Chef All-Stars,” I was right there, watching some of the most talented chefs in the country cook it out for charity and bragging rights. But now, Bravo has brought both concepts together in the most fun season yet: “Top Chef All-Stars Season 8.” Instead of chefs we’ve never heard of, 18 past contestants from seasons 1 through 7 who almost clinched the “Top Chef” title are back to try to win it all once more. Three episodes in, and I’m definitely hooked.
I’ve always enjoyed watching “Top Chef,” but I never felt like I got fully vested in the seasons until about halfway through, when I finally learned who the chefs were and found my favorites. But with season 8, I already know the whole cast, so I’ve had my favorites picked from episode 1. And since “Top Chef” has been on the air for almost 5 years now, it’s like reuniting with old friends and finding out what they’ve been up to. And unlike a reunion show, where we only get brief snapshots of each person, this competition allows the audience to really see who’s improved and who’s the same.
Though “Top Chef” is billed as reality TV, the producers were smart in their casting, choosing a mix of personalities and talents to capture interest from the audience and spark some good, old-fashioned drama, which always drives up ratings. There are the strong chefs like Richard Blais, who’s still carrying on his love affair with liquid nitrogen, FYI, Dale T., Angelo, and Trey. These men are a joy to watch in the kitchen, and you can count on them week after week to turn out strong dishes and take the lead in group challenges.
Carla and Spike are back, adding humor to the episodes, as well as great chef skills. You can’t help but like these two; they’re quirky enough to hold our interest and cut the tension with comic relief. Casey and Tiffany are the sweethearts you want to root for-they may not be the strongest, but you don’t want to see them lose, they’re just too nice. Mike ad Fabio are back, adding their offbeat spice to the mix. Both can be completely off-the-wall, especially Fabio, whose thick Italian accent and charm make him a real-life character I never tire of watching. He can stir the pot in the most gentlemanly way, which can add to tension and fights that lure audiences in.
But no strong cast would be complete without a villain, and this season has two: Stephen and Marcel. Both the “Omarosas” of their seasons, these arrogant, stuck-up boys seemed to have learned nothing from their experiences or years away from the show in the real world. Both still believe that they’re the best chefs to grace the planet, and that everyone else just can’t live up to them or fully get to their level. At least Marcel can cook, but the human in me wants to watch him fail again, since no one that pompous should be allowed to succeed. As for Stephen, I have to believe he’s purely been cast for ratings. The man is a sommelier, not a chef. He may be able to list thousands of wines, but he just doesn’t have what it takes to produce the foods to accompany them. And, if it’s possible, the stick has only gotten further up his butt since season 1, something that’s just too off-putting to want to watch. Thank goodness (spoiler alert!) he gets axed by episode 3.
Despite the two of them, there has been a surprising bright spot in mean chef territory, Tiffani from season 1. The “I’m not your bitch, bitch” chef who was one away from the title has come back humbler, calmer, nicer, and more composed and ready to cook than ever before. She’s been quick to admit that she had growing to do and was mean the first time around, and now she’s much more of a team player, yet just as determined to win. It’s this kind of a growth story that makes watching a sequel of sorts like this one so gratifying.
While “Top Chef All-Stars Season 8” is fun for anyone to watch, devoted fans will get the most out of it. Its combination of competition, seasoned chefs, reunion, and familiar faces makes it an original to reality TV programming and interesting to tune into week after week. The best will be to see who takes the title this time around, since they’ll get double the prize money of $200,000. Take that, former “Top Chefs.”