Toppest Top Chef: My Inevitable Ranking of All the Seasons

As I mentioned a few weeks ago: I thoroughly enjoy watching Bravo’s Top Chef. It’s available on Hulu, which I’m already paying for (mostly because of these reality competition shows and a few others). I originally started this binge because Season 18 had just dropped on there, and I got so hooked I decided I’d watch every Top Chef episode I could.

Now, just a few notes about my ranking. First, this is my opinion: what I like in a season may not be what others like. For example, the food doesn’t rank quite as highly for me as personalities and challenges. I like looking about pretty food and obviously I like food competitions, but it’s not like I get to actually eat the stuff.

Second, I do not technically watch these seasons to completion. I usually bow out a few episodes short of the finale, because I already know who won (the drawback of watching these years later), and I often don’t find the lead up to the end as enjoyable as the early bits or the middle. I make it a point to at least reach Restaurant Wars in each season.

Now, onto the ranking!

Season 9: Texas

not my fault there’s not great images of it; likely they wanna forget it happened.

There’s very little redeemable about this season. It started out rough, given that it came directly after the first All Stars, a season that many deem to be the best that Top Chef has ever put it (it’s going to rank high here). They tried to this whole “it’s bigger in Texas” theme, with a lot of contestants and setup and everything. And on some level, I should like it: it’s very female dominated and that’s one of my big gripes about the series (18 seasons, 8 white guy winners).

But there’s just some outright bullies in the kitchen. Lindsay, Sarah, and especially Heather just outright bully several contestants, particularly Beverly, who’s this sweet little Asian lady. The various other personalities don’t really get much time to shine, and that leaves this whole season feeling very negative (I think it’s telling that we never see contestants from this show again, except Grayson, who is the worst part of the next season she shows up in). The winner is kind of weak (sorry Paul), any other good personality worth rooting for suffers an earlier elimination, and it’s just not fun to watch. I literally quite before Restaurant Wars on my most recent watch.

Season 2: L.A.

They are just trying so hard

This is one of those seasons that a lot of people bring up as the absolute worst. I think that Season 9 just beats it out, but boy, is it a narrow one.

They dedicate way too much time to Marcel’s antics in this .He comes off a puerile, and in modern parlance, a real troll, constantly getting on people’s nerves and giggling about it like a little goblin the whole time. The show also had just gotten its footing after Season 1 and feels almost surprised at its own success. They lean just a bit too much into the reality drama, and not in a fun way like Season 1 does.

The winner is also one of the weakest, with Ilan coming in almost like he won by default (he had to go against Marcel after all). And if all that wasn’t enough, what people most remember from this season is the “hair incident,” where several contestants worked together to literally pin Marcel down and attempt to shave his head. It’s ridiculous, and it was very poorly handled all around. You want a cooking show to be remembered for fun challenges, good food, and engaging contestants, not a scandal.

Season 7: Washington D.C.

Enjoy the blur: I am a slave to what the internet can provide

For some reason, this season always seems to drag for me. It’s not helped by the presence of Angelo, who’s filling in the villain role for this particular season. The cast just isn’t all that great, with only Tiffany and Arnold being huge saving graces (and Arnold goes way too early). The location’s a bit of an odd one, and the chefs seem to almost struggle with that on top of everything else.

Too much time is taken up with this Angelo x Kenny feud, with the two being alpha-holes throughout their entire tenure on the show (and this apparently pleased the casting so much they bring Angelo back two times!?). The food’s alright, I suppose. There’s not a whole lot of stand out challenges.

I seriously can’t remember the winner. I have to constantly look them up. I barely remembered it when I first put together my notes for this, which was only a few seasons after I finished watching 7. That’s how memorable he is.

Season 3: Miami

back when their promos were kitchy and fun, apparently

My initial notes on this read “better 2, which isn’t saying much,” which kind of sums up a lot of my feelings on the situation. I obviously think it’s better than a few others, and clearly someone agreed, as at least four of the chefs from this season come back. I find them to be more engaging in their returns than they are in this first run around (and that goes for literally all of them: Dale, Casey, CJ, and Malarky).

I’m not a huge fan of the very competitive attitude this season establishes for itself, starting with Hyung, who would go on to become the winner (and one of the few “jerk” contestants to actually win the whole show… a sad trend for the first few seasons here). There were also a few weird moments and challenges that just sort of take me out of the whole thing. Honestly, looking back, of the seven seasons that are before the glorious first All Stars, this is the one I remember the least.

Season 15: Colorado

well someone had fun with photoshop

The Bears kinda drag this season down a good deal. This whole weird focus on this group of guys and the whole culture they bring with them just harshs the entire vibe of the show. It feels like that nonsense back in Season 7, only amplified. They even got blowback from how very male oriented and almost sexist they were coming off.

But there are so many other great contestants here! I rooted for Chris and Fatima throughout most of their duration: both came off as great people and pretty good cooks on top of it (I honestly misremembered and thought Chris was the first black winner; I was that into him). Carrie’s also here and they sure do love bringing her around. There’s some fun competitions and some good challenges to be had here.

Shame those bears bring it down. And even bigger shame that one of them wins, adding another white guy to the pack (though he’s among the nicest of the white guy winners).

Season 1: San Francisco

yeah, it’s a bit blurry again; I’m trying here!

The OG season actually has a lot going for it. There’s a few really good lines, and there’s a lot of fun personalities involved. I’m finishing up my watch, and I can still remember Stephen, Tiffany, Cynthea, and weirdly enough, Ken, the first boot ever from Top Chef. They’ve got some really strong personalities, and you can feel the show trying to figure out what it was doing.

The challenges are kind of wacky and fun too: there’s one where they serve at a sex shop and have to make appropriate food, another where they’re literally just working the line in a kitchen. It’s the realest, rawest season, and I Kind of wish more elements from it had lingered beyond this run (probably didn’t help that too much of that rawness got us season 2…)

The winner’s boring though: Harold’s not interesting and he sets a bad precedent for the kind of winners the show prefers.

Season 11: New Orleans

at least it’s got most of the cast in it

This show has the first real appearance of Stephanie Cmar, probably my favorite contestant of all time (definitely the best “Eeyore” contestant; the kind who think they’re always worse than they are and who think they will always lose). It’s set in New Orleans, which makes for some interesting challenges and food to dig into (I love me some Cajun).

There’s several other contestants that I enjoyed, like Nina and Travis. There’s clearly some fun to be had with these season, and it helps that a lot of the jerkwad chefs are kicked off early, which is a new thing.

But remember that unfortunate precedent I just mentioned? Yeah, this has one of the most controversial winners in Nick, who really shouldn’t have beaten Nina in the finale (ironically they bring Nina back way more than Nick). It kind of sours the whole experience, particularly on a rewatch.

Season 13: California

thank God for whomever uploaded these title cards

Why, on Earth, did they decide to bring Grayson back? She wasn’t that impressive of a contestant earlier, and she just sort of slides into the cast without explanation, when usually the returning chefs get some level of fanfare. It’s bizarre, and it feels like such a weird move.

Grayson does bring down the early seasons as she’s just this rain cloud wherever she goes. But once you move past that, there’s some decent contestants here. Kwame is introduced and the show loves him (should’ve brought him back for the next All Stars instead of Angelo). Karen’s solid and is another enjoyable character. There’s a few memorable challenges.

One of my most hated reality chefs of all time is here too: Phillip. It’s awesome watching him get torn down and made into the butt of a joke (he’s been on several reality competitions, where he had this annoying tendency to win). Unfortunately, the winner is yet another boring white guy who I barely remember a few seasons later.

Season 6: Las Vegas

fun image, no?

I know I’m gonna get flack for this one ,as many consider it one of the best seasons, if not the outright best season ever. I will preface it with this: it has some of the strongest cooks in the entirety of the show. The food being produced in this season seems leagues above several other seasons, and that’s often a major part of this show.

However, with that food came some characters that aren’t quite so fun to root for. Many of the great contestants are eliminated early on. Robin sticks around for quite a while and picks up an unfair amount of flack for that. Nearly every female is eliminated in this burst, save for Jen (who the show will hold onto forever).

They also play up the sibling rivalry of the Voltaggio brothers. I admit they’re actually pretty good characters, and it helps that both are high caliber chefs. That definitely puts them way up there in terms of what they can do and the show.

But I just can’t stand Mike Isabella, nearly at all. On top of that, there’s also Eli, which just piles on the dislike for me. It’s still a good season ,but middle of the pack for me.

Season 10: Seattle

fear the glorious logo floating in black

I’m not going to lie, these middle ones almost feel like I could roll a dice and place them based on that instead of my opinions. But this one does feel like it should be above the last several, for a variety of reasons.

They actually tried something different with the opening, and it worked pretty well. I really want the alternate universe where Stephanie Cmar gets on this season with Kristen instead of showing up in 11. There’s several great contestants all the same, particularly John and Brooke, who would both come back later and absolutely dominate (Sheldon’s a good guy too).

It’s intriguing who they brought back for this. Stefan makes sense: It was weird he wasn’t in All Stars, seeing as he placed so high (they probably didn’t want to overload it with Season 5 vets), and he’s enjoyable yet again. I’m not sure why they brought Josie back at all. She’s obnoxious throughout most of her tenure, unbearable for most of it. CJ’s not so bad, but he’s also barely in this competition.

But hey, the first female winner since, like, season 4! And Kristen’s one of the better winners overall!

Season 16: Kentucky

because nothing screams “Kentucky” like a red barn door

Fun fact: this was the first season I hadn’t just watched on Hulu, but got through… less than legal means and watched as it was airing. You’d think that would give it tilt, but not particularly?

Here we’ve got a great winner in Kelsey, which is always a plus. On top of that, there’s loads of great competitors: Eric, Bryan, and Eddie all stand out to me later (Eric comes back immediately in the next season). Eddie is just an utter delight and probably the second best Eeyore contestant to ever grace the show. They got some genuine comedy out of him, and, better yet, he seems to be in on the jokes at his expense.

Eric’s take on African cuisine makes for unique watching, and there’s a few others with good takes too. The cast here clearly like each other and work together pretty well. There are some genuinely fun challenges too: cooking on a boat, basketball competitions, and of course, restaurant wars. It’s just a good later season all in all.

Season 18: Portland

no chefs, only sexy judges

This is the season that roped me into rewatching the whole thing. There’s a reason for that: this season seemed really focused on celebrating all the glories of Top Chefs past for some reason. All sorts of past contestants came back to help with the judging, and the current contestants were a lot of fun.

There were just so many people to root for: Shota, Avishar, Jamie, and Kiki are all standouts in my book, and I seriously hope we see several of those again. There are some interesting challenges here, some that are obviously a result of this being the first season shot during the pandemic (the Restaurant Wars episode feels anemic).

The food’s interesting though: you’ve got several different ethnic varieties here, with two Latin chefs, a Japanese chef, and several others tossed in the mix. It makes for interesting watching and good competition. Plus, the whole season just feels incredibly upbeat, like everyone’s glad to be there.

Shame the winner is spoiled with a MeToo scandal almost immediately (and it’s another guy… yay).

Season 12: Boston

they all look so amused

Let’s see… Gregory, Melissa, Katsugi, and Adam, who is my favorite male contestant of all time. They all make their appearance in this particular season, and it makes things quite enjoyable.

There’s some competition thrown into the mix, and the various events are fun. I’m always a fan of the whole “split them into two teams and pit them against one another” thing. You can tell this was good because a lot of these contestants get brought back: three return in various facilities.

It also has this bizarre move where the first chef eliminated actually makes his way back and then sticks around for a few episodes (on my rewatch, I was convinced he was the actual winner, as I couldn’t remember who it was).

I originally called this one more middling though: Mei is a boring winner with almost no personality. Again, I forgot about it. Having a bunch of good guys around doesn’t help matters either.

Season 4: Chicago

I mean, look at it: I couldn’t not use it

This is one of my personal favorites of the old seasons. I love Richard Blaise; he’s probably my second favorite male contestant ever and my favorite of the male winners… though he doesn’t win this season. It’s also almost surreal to watch him and Antonia duke it out here, as both would go on to be major players at the Food Network and elsewhere (Blaise is far and away the most successful Top Chef alum, at least as near as I can see).

There are several other likeable personalities, from early boots like Zoi, to longstanding favorites like Spike and Dale. No less than 5 of this seasons’ contestants come back at various points (four for the all-stars alone! Where they would dominate).

It does suffer a bit as it feels like they’re trying to come back from their off-seasons. Plus there’s the fact that Stephanie, while a great cook, is a kinda lackluster winner compared to the rest of the cast (ironically she’s still going strong; the show brings her back and she’s an Iron Chef with a great record). I still think it’s a great one though.

Season 5: New York

I’ve got nothing, and apparently neither does the Internet for images

This has to be my favorite of the original cast seasons, and I think many would agree. It has some of the best characters from the show, period, like Carla, Stefan, and Fabio, all of whom would get brought back. Carla often competes with Stephanie for my favorite contestant of all time. There’s joy in her, and she always seems to be positive, save for when she doubts herself.

There’s almost too many great personalities here: casting knocked it out of the park. However, I still can’t find myself ranking this much higher. That mostly comes down to the fact that they opted to focus entirely too much on the literal affair between Hosea and Lea. Lea herself is just a downer, an Eeyore without the redeeming qualities that make those fun to root for. On top of that, showcasing a literal affair just feels tacky and distracts from the point of the show.

If Carla had won instead of Hosea, this would probably rank above the various returning seasons. Stefan might have even boosted it: he deserved it more too. But, alas, we get boring white guy #3 (out of five at this point, mind).

Season 17: All Stars-LA

and that’s how they all became the cooking bunch!

I admit that I’m watching this one almost literally as I type this up. There’s a lot here that really works in their favor. For starters, they don’t seem shy about reaching back: we’ve got contestants here from pre-first All Stars (the usual cut off point for the era) to literally the last season that aired before this one (hello again, Eric). They’re all pretty good personalities, with the only real “jerk” being Angelo, who’s meddled considerably at this point.

The various competitions are fun, and you know I’m all about Stephanie Cmar at this point. But this also brings back the more enjoyable Voltaggio, here to do his semi-stoic, dry humor bit throughout, as well as Gregory, Melissa (who would go on to win), and other fun ones. Malarky really jumps out despite being from a very old season.

I do question some choices though. I can see why they brought Lee Anne back for a third run: she had to quite due to baby related health reasons last time. Jen’s a stretch: she left harsh on her second run (and was apparently a possibility in Comeback Kitchen). But why is Angelo here again? Really there could have been better picks than these three, and it brings this down slightly.

Season 8: All-Stars

now THAT’S a promo image

This is often considered to be one of the best seasons, period, and for good reason. They really dug into the whole All-Stars thing, bringing in every runner up (except Stefan), and every amazing contestant from the past several seasons. All the great personalities are here, from Carla to Richard to Carla to both Dales to Fabio to Marcel to Carla again. It has some amazing competitions too: from the cook the dish that booted you starter to cooking all night to the famous pot pie event.

Stephen came back with some growth; the Season 4 crew sticks around strong, and there’s just a lot of good cooking. Blaise wins his rightful crown, and you can tell the show was thrilled at this, as he makes for an amazing, engaging host and personality.

What hampers this for me is Mike Isabella, who’s crass, rude, and just not fun to watch. I wanted to keep watching further than I did, with Blaise, Antonia, and Carla still around, but i could not stomach more episodes of Isabella doing his thing.

Season 14: Charleston

yay for blurred images with eyes closed for my top pick!

This is by far my favorite of all the seasons I’ve watched. They picked almost literally the best returning chefs they could for this, with Katsugi (most enjoyable jerk ever), John (a cool old guy), Sheldon (mellow and chill), and of course Brooke, who’s pretty, a pretty good cook, and a pretty good winner on the whole.

As if that weren’t enough, we have some new people to mix in as well! True, the “rookies” get some early beat downs, but they also introduce Jim and Jamie, two great personalities that would end up coming back. Jim’s one of my favorite male contestants, with his sort of “aw shucks” personality (he’s called cute in episode one, in an endearing, wanna hug him, sort of way).

The winner feels earned, with Brooke really coming back strong. It does feel a bit like they were stacking the deck for her to win. She’s another of those Last Chance comebacks (there’s at least three), which does seem to prove that is a good move on their part.

I do wish a few of the rookies had stuck around longer. I’m also not a huge fan of Sam or Casey, who felt like they just wanted deep cuts (though Sam is hot). I also went “who” at the intro of Amanda, and I still don’t recall her from the first time around. Still, this is probably my favorite of them all, and I’d argue one of the best (though if someone wanted to push the All-Stars over this, I’d totally understand).

There we go, my comprehensive ranking that took me way longer to put together than expected (this was the most time intensive post ever, and that’s not counting the hundreds of hours of cooking show I watched). Still, I wanted to weigh in on something i watch a lot of, and these sort of lists are fun to put together!

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