It's that time of year again, kids! Top Chef’s 14th season, set in the South Carolina food paradise of Charleston, is slated to premiere Thursday, December 1st. I know I’m not the only one that's been anxiously marking off the days until Padma and the rest of her motley culinary crew finally get back to where they belong: our televisions.
In honor of this most joyous occasion, let's take a look-see at all 13 illustrious seasons, recounting the good, the bad, and the downright disgusting as we figure out which deserves the title of top Top Chef and which, as they say, needs to pack its knives and GTFO.
13. Season 11: New Orleans
Winner: Nicholas Elmi
That a show so heavily based on culinary prowess and heavy-hitting chefs could bomb in a city as culturally rich as New Orleans is, frankly, confounding. And it wasn't even that the chefs were overwhelmingly uncreative, overly combative, or tediously boring, or that the challenges were uninteresting or poorly executed. No, this time, unfortunately, the epic failure falls on Top Chef's royal court, the quirky, opinionated experts we all know and love: the judges.
After a fairly eventful season that saw a group of legitimately skilled chefs giving their all to each competition, New Orleans finished with the chop heard around the world: the unfriendly, technically troubled, and uninspired Nicholas Elmi beating out fan-favorite Nina Compton, despite a resoundingly flawless final meal and a consistently killer performance. Those of us who stood by Elmi's lame attempt at heightening bad boy-dom were rewarded by seeing a classically trained white boy from Philly prevail over a highly inventive female cook with a knack for marrying unlikely flavors and a limitless ability to think outside the box. USA Today went so far as to liken the incident to, "The disappearing pea puree, near head-shaving and Kristen-sent-home-for-Josie controversies all rolled into one," and the AV Club immediately put out a 1,400-plus-word thinkpiece on how Bravo had finally tarnished its brand. More than a few dedicated viewers fell off the wagon after that wretched excuse for a finale, and really, who could blame them?
12. Season 7: DC
Winner: Kevin Sbraga
In a stunning turn of events, Bravo decided to roll out some of the show’s lamest challenges and worst chef lineups ever, smack dab in the middle of a 12-plus-year run. Aside from future all-stars Tiffany Derry, who maintained a sneakily quiet excellence through her 12 episodes, and the bizarrely endearing Angelo Sosa, I doubt any faithful viewer would be able to name a single cast member. Even Season champ Kevin Sbraga was a blip on the radar compared to past season winners. Sure, his rise to prominence was wholly unexpected -- the guy won just one elimination round, and wound up on the bottom a whopping five times -- but the finale was no upset. It was just... inexplicably weird, disheartening, and, worst of all, an utter waste of screen time.
Adding Eric Ripert to the judges table was a smart move, and that’s a fact. It’s just too bad it was the only one TC made all season.
11. Season 1: San Francisco
Winner: Harold Dieterle
Top Chef’s first season was pretty terrible. First off, there was no Padma -- full stop. Secondly, there were some genuinely terrible cooks in the mix, including snooty-pants sommelier Steven (aka the worst person in the history of time), Andrea, some sort of at-home cooking class instructor, and fake model Candice, who was just a year into culinary school. Ninety percent of the remaining cheftestants were completely forgettable and one particularly miserable quickfire featured garbage gas station food creations.
Even though world's first Top Chef Harold Dieterle was undeniably talented, he must have made a deal with the devil because that dude had no personality whatsoever. Like, at all. But what Dieterle lacked in soul, runner-up Tiffani Faison overcompensated for with a boatload of snark -- though, if we were going off skills alone, she probably should have won. But despite its obvious failings, the season was basically a pilot and the kinks were far from worked out, so we can't really justify dissing it too much.
10. Season 5: New York
Winner: Hosea Rosenberg
Ask any Top Chef-head and they’'l be sure to tell you that Season 5 sucked. It might not have qualified as Bravo’s all-time worst, but with its crew of certifiably awful, unjustifiably cocky bald white dudes -- one of which somehow managed to win -- and unsettling series of technical difficulties, the whole thing was pretty frustrating to watch. The infectiously adorable Carla Hall and Fabio Viviani helped bump Season 5 up from last place, but even they couldn't save this season from the depths of dumb.
It didn't help that Hosea, the season's eventual champ, decided it was a great idea to cheat on his girlfriend with fellow castmate Leah Cohen, subsequently going down as the biggest sleazebag in TC history. Any cooking show where the most memorable moment had nothing to do with food is missing the point. No bravo, Bravo.
9. Season 2: Los Angeles
Winner: Ilan Hall
There are two main reasons Season 2 placed as high as it did: Padma... and Padma. Oh, and Bravo also managed to recruit some legitimately talented chefs, some being the key word here (shout-out to Michael the line cook -- hope you opened that sports bar you always wanted, buddy!). Beyond their knife skills, though, the cast was a total nightmare. At 24 years old, winning cheftestant Ilan had a lethal combination of a Kanye-sized ego and an Adam Levine haircut, and watching that guy take it all was one of the saddest scenes in TC history. And, speaking of bad hair, we'd be remiss not to mention the infamous Marcel, a weasel of a man and self-described molecular gastronomist. Oh, brother. The clashing personalities led to a ton of drama, none of which was terribly compelling (see: Marisa ratted Otto out for stealing a box of lychees).
On the positive end of things, Elia, a Las Vegas room-service chef with a take-no-shit 'tude, was a surprisingly strong and interesting character. And resident tall guy Sam Talbot was a joy to watch, and though he only won one elimination challenge, his creativity, ingenuity, and dashing good looks (probably) landed him in the winner's circle more often than not. Call me, Sam.
8. Season 13: California
Winner: Jeremy Ford
Unlike the one before it (more on that later), Season 13 was plain "meh." Nothing new happened here. The cast was good, not great, with an equal split of "kinda annoying" and "kinda cool" personalities, and scenery that echoed both LA and San Francisco in just about every way possible. There were a few memorable cast members, like the young (very, very young) Angelina Bastidas and Kwame Onwuachi, whose ambition ultimately outweighed their skills, and the ever-animated Amar Santana and Isaac Toups. But for all their charisma, there was Grayson Schmitz over there whining about nothing and the insufferable Phillip Lee telling you just how amazing he was at every turn. And winner Jeremy Ford? He was OK. I guess.
For those of us who had been there all along, somehow even managing to recover from Season 11's excruciating finale blunder, these relatively spiritless and formulaic 15 episodes were by no means must-watch TV. I don't even think I watched in real time. Fingers crossed that Season 14 recaptures the gold.
7. Season 9: Texas
Winner: Paul Qui
When I heard Top Chef was coming to Texas, I was excited. But despite all the BBQ and down-home Southern cooking that followed, Season 9 was far too unfocused for my liking. There were too many team challenges, unexplained elimination calls, and running around to keep viewers engaged, and the unprecedentedly enormous cast was a whirlwind of names, faces, and questionable talent. Product placement was also over the top in this one, with Padma attempting to interject a never-ending list of corporate sponsors into nearly all of her intro speeches.
On the upside, the right guy won, and that kind of resolution does a lot to right the season’s indisputable wrongs. Paul is a great chef and warranted the W, and Kentucky’s amiable Edward Lee’s "Last Chance Kitchen" victory was also well-deserved. But in the end, with all its multitudes of people, places, and things, Top Chef's foray into the Lone Star State only proved that even though everything's bigger in Texas, that doesn't mean it's better.
6. Season 3: Miami
Winner: Hung Huynh
It took three whole years for Top Chef to truly hit its stride, and Miami was the one to seal the deal. Padma was back, thank goodness, and the cast was both uniformly skilled and refreshingly devoid of outright jerk-faces. South Florida itself wasn't exactly the most exciting backdrop, but the quality of the match-ups and general cheftestant likability sufficiently balanced out any location-based disappointment. It's not that Season 3 was the definition of good television, but it also wasn't a total waste of pixels either. It was simply fine, an enjoyable, palatable 55 minutes of programming.
In terms of interpersonal drama, there really wasn't much. One highlight was Tammy Taylor look-alike Casey being the best (except for that time she served Tom a pair of inedible chicken feet), and Dale’s "I'm a big gay chef and I'm going to kick your ass!" quip lives on as one of TC’s all-time greatest moments. And later, when Hung was crowned Top Chef, not a single soul could possibly complain.
5. Season 12: Boston
Winner: Mei Lin
New England's Top Chef debut brought some distinguished and entertaining chefs to the table, enough to land a fifth-spot rating despite several lackluster episodes. There was Portland's bubbly, challenge-crushing Gregory Gourdet, cute 'n cuddly Douggie Adams, sprightly Melissa King, and the take-no-shit, ball-busting beast in the kitchen, winner Mei Lin, each of which turned an otherwise mundane tromp through Beantown into a pretty fun watch.
Maybe it's my NYC-born predilection towards hating on Boston, but a Tea Party-themed quickfire strikes me as less than thrilling, as does whipping up a couple of bar snacks at the uber-touristy bar from Cheers or putting an original spin on clam chowder. Even the trip to the cranberry bog, as pretty as it was, felt like a desperate attempt to make the season's host city seem relevant. Sorry, Boston, but I think we all know your culinary landscape peaked back in the 18th century. On to the next one.
4. Season 6: Las Vegas
Winner: Michael Voltaggio
Controversial opinion warning: Season 6 is not the greatest season of Top Chef, and Las Vegas is not, in fact, the culinary capital of America. There, I said it.
Now that that's been established, let's move on to why Season 6 is pretty freakin' good (just not the best ever). In light of the previous season's general lack of significant kitchen talent and its overall smarminess, Bravo thankfully upped the ante with this cast. Some seriously accomplished chefs entered the competition, namely Jen Carroll, a badass with a chef's knife who was admirably confident, if somewhat callous, when dealing with the show's pervasive boys-club climate. And who could forget the rival brothers, winner Michael and runner-up (aka first loser) Bryan Voltaggio, with their fierce good boy-bad boy vibe? Not to mention the insanely, undeniably lovable finalist/house teddy bear Kevin Gillespie, and his goofier, Jersey-boy counterpart, Mike Isabella? Golden.
On the flip side, Jen's unrelenting hard-ass demeanor was occasionally tough to stomach, and the brothers' squabbles, while definitely adding heat, sometimes distracted from the tasks at hand. And, lastly, this might have been the most impressive cast to date, but with just a handful of chefs dominating every elimination challenge, the final four was pretty clear from the get. Upsets make for interesting TV, and sadly, there was surprisingly little unpredictability to be found in Vegas.
3. Season 4: Chicago
Winner: Stephanie Izard
I can't speak for everyone, but, as the person in charge of this ranking, Season 4 is the shit. In terms of quality, Chicago's cheftestants rose leaps and bounds above those in Seasons 1-3, and many of them, namely superstars Stephanie Izard, Antonia Lofaso, Spike Mendelsohn, Richie Blais, and snuggly stoner Dale Talde, went on to open killer restaurants all over the country. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
Another highlight: Season 4 was the first ever to feature a female champ. It only took four years, but Stephanie managed to crash through Bravo's -- not to mention the restaurant industry's -- double-paned glass ceiling, coming from behind for a sneak-attack win with the utmost determination, capability, and poise. So why doesn't this season top the list? Even though the level of talent was high, TC was still trying to establish itself as a reputable show and it still had a way to go before reaching celebrity chef-magnet status. It was also the most location-specific season to date, and even as someone who loves the Windy City, I'm not sure cooking dinner for a group of 2nd City improvers comes across as a worthwhile challenge. And swapping "Restaurant Wars" -- without a doubt, every fan's favorite episode -- for "Wedding Wars" proved to be a total, disappointing fail. If it ain't broke, Bravo…
2. Season 8: New York
Winner: Richard Blais
Blaisie's back, bishes! It's common knowledge that pitting any run-of-the-mill cast of characters up against a hand-picked collection of literal all-stars is almost a guaranteed win for the OGs. It's like the Memphis Grizzlies facing off against the 1994 Olympic Dream Team -- sure the Grizzlies have a few big-name standouts, but the majority of their players hover somewhere between average and bench-worthy. Who would the average Joe rather spend 90 minutes watching? For Top Chef devotees, Season 8 was like pure, unadulterated culinary crack.
The season rewarded longtime viewers with plenty of throwback competitions, even forcing the chefs to remake the exact dishes that sent them packing their knives and going home the first time around. The best of the best (of the best) included fan-favorites Casey Thompson and Carla "Hootie-Hoo" Hall's exuberant returns, both Marcel and Steven choking before anyone even noticed they were there (though, it has to be said that their mere presence was a definite drawback), and Tony Bourdain's hilarious, shit-talking cameo. Also, pretty much every word that came out of Fabio's completely ridiculous yet endlessly charming mouth. And how cool was that quickfire where Colicchio strapped on an apron and battled it out? Honestly, if it weren't for some of the cash-driven, super-annoying product placement challenges -- ahem, $25,000 for cooking a meal only comprised of ingredients found at a certain giant national box store -- this might just have slipped into the No. 1 spot.
1. Season 10: Seattle
Winner: Kristen Kish
The 10th season was, hands down, the most exciting in the history of Bravo TV. First off, we were once again given "Last Chance Kitchen," a cutthroat supplemental series where recently eliminated cheftestants fought for the opportunity to return to compete in the finale special. And, over on the regular show, three former competitors were reintroduced in the second episode, significantly adding to the season's vast talent pool. These were both definite risks, and they ended up working -- not an easy feat after 10 years of successful programming.
Serene, seaside Seattle added a much-needed sense of calm to an otherwise extremely intense 17-episode lineup. Until Sheldon started his three-game winning streak in Episode 12, each trip to the judges table was a bona fide edge-of-your-seat experience. It was anyone's game right up to the end, with America's sweetheart, former model, and "Last Chance Kitchen" champ Kristen Kish bouncing back from a devastating (and arguably undeserved) "Restaurant Wars" elimination to win it all. There's nothing more satisfying than a comeback kid, and Kristen, with her youth, drive, and the sting of an unjust loss still ringing in viewers' ears, made a hell of a comeback. I'd be a bold-faced liar if I said I didn't cry my eyes out when it all went down.
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