Please pack your knives and go.
How many times has Padma Lakshmi, the ever-chic host and judge of Bravo’s reality institution “Top Chef,” uttered those words to eager, hungry chefs competing for a cash prize and culinary glory?
At least a few hundred at this point, as the cooking competition series begins its 20th season (Thursdays, 9 EST/PST). Since its debut in 2006, “Chef” has made Lakshmi a household name, launched the careers of dozens of chefs, weathered a pandemic that brought the restaurant industry to its knees and created entertaining controversy out of pea soup and risotto. And in some ways, it feels like “Chef” is just getting started.
As it heads to London for a first-time “World All-Stars” competition in Season 20, we look back on how “Chef” has cooked up a recipe for reality longevity.
What to know about ‘Top Chef’ Season 20
For its new season, Bravo sent the series overseas to London for a “World All Stars” competition among alumni from the original American edition of the show and many of its international counterparts. And unlike past all-stars seasons, this new group of contestants includes some previous winners in the mix.
Some of the notable American chefs include Season 19 winner Buddha Lo, Season 16 finalist Sara Bradley and Season 18 finalist Dawn Burrell.
Why ‘Top Chef’ still simmers
Some reality shows come and go without a whisper in our collective memories to let us know they were there (do you remember “Joe Millionaire”? “Skating with the Stars”? “Mr. Personality”?). A select few become pop-culture institutions that last for decades. Seventeen years in, “Chef” not only marches on commercially but creatively, adapting to the changing world far better than almost any other long-running series, in ways both subtle and foundational.
Over its first 10 seasons, “Chef” slowly dropped its cattiness, housemates drama and juvenile antics, which were a reality-TV prerequisite in the early 2000s. Somewhere along the way, the show transitioned from merely dropping its negativity to being a force for creative prowess, a showcase for competence and greatness. As fun as it is to watch judge Tom Colicchio roast a contestant who under-seasoned his dish, it’s far more enjoyable to watch the hardened chef’s face light up with joy when he tastes something incredible. That is a far cry from the time in Season 2 when one of the contestants tried to forcibly shave another’s head.
As the series gained in popularity and acclaim within the food industry, the caliber of chefs entering the competition increased dramatically. It started with sous chefs, line cooks and other young whippersnappers ready to get their hands dirty in pursuit of prize money and fame. But recent seasons have been populated by executive chefs, many of whom already own their own restaurants. The better the chefs, the better the food, and they have created some truly delectable, mouth-watering creations over the years.
“Chef” has also responded to changes in the food world and the greater zeitgeist. The series has gotten far better at not exoticizing foods from non-white cultures and developed a greater respect for them. A high point was the quarantined Season 18 in Portland, Oregon, which celebrated Pan-African cuisine – a notable blind spot in past seasons – and indigenous foods, with a dinner attended by members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. Bringing chefs together from around the world in Season 20 is a culmination of this effort to recognize more than just the French and Italian staples that make up so many cookbooks.
In 2023, “Chef” is a well-oiled machine. The producers and judges – including Lakshmi, Colicchio and Gail Simmons – know their beats and their barbs. The contestants have all done this before. All that’s left is to see who can come out on top for the 20th time.
Please, “Chef,” don’t pack those knives or go anywhere.
More on ‘Top Chef’ and culinary TV
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Top Chef’: Why it’s still cooking after 20 seasons