'Top Chef' seasons ranked, from cream of the crop to rotten apples
For 14 seasons, Top Chef has entertained with casts of cooks and clowns, charismatic charmers and caustic cutthroats. Some years have been better than others, but the overall meal, taken at once, is nothing short of delicious.
To celebrate Thursday night's finale of Top Chef: Charleston, we've ranked the 14 seasons, from the most rotten apples to the creamiest of the crop. Each was graded on a variety of factors, from challenge design to casting. We start with the absolute worst Top Chef has ever served: Texas.
[Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for all 14 seasons of Top Chef.]
14. Top Chef: Texas (season 9)
Challenge design: Hoo boy. The first major flaw of Top Chef: Texas is its road trip format. Instead of taking place in one city throughout the competition, season nine hops around between Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, each of which could have sustained a whole season. Instead, they barely got a handle on any single city's identity, pushing Texas as a collection of stereotypes (barbecue! chili!) than anything else. Eliminations were done on location instead of at a more traditional judges' table, which always left a bad aftertaste.
Worst of all, this season is where Top Chef's understanding of what constitutes a "win" completely derailed: Eight chefs won the first challenge alone! Yes, it's impressive that eventual champion Paul Qui won eight elimination challenges, but it's less so when you realize three of those were for challenges with multiple winners.
Cast: Unlikable or forgettable from top to bottom. You had bullies like Heather Terhune, whiners like Lindsay Autry and non-entities like Chris Jones. The one truly lovable cast member, Grayson Schmitz, got to sixth place before getting cast off. She then squandered her charm by going on Top Chef: California and being relentlessly bitter.
Winner: Qui is one of the most skilled chefs Top Chef has ever seen. Unfortunately, because Top Chef: Texas is doomed to be terrible on all possible levels, Qui was arrested in March of 2016 for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend after cocaine use. (He denies the assault but admits to abusing drugs.) Four months after his arrest, he closed down his restaurant following a mass staff departure. He's working on a personal and professional comeback, but the messiness makes watching him dominate the season feel sticky.
Watchability: Nearly unwatchable, which is rare for this show. Even its other bad seasons have enjoyable moments. This is the only one we'd recommend skipping entirely.
13. Top Chef: New Orleans (season 11)
Challenge design: The primary problem with the New Orleans season is its size, with 17 elimination challenges and 19 contestants. (Texas, by comparison, had 15 and 16, respectively.) Once the show got down to eight or so, it was better, but it was rough going until then.
Cast: Shirley Chung and Nina Compton are two of Top Chef's most likable contestants, and there were other gems (like Stephanie Cmar, one of the most screwed-over contestants in show history). But a lot of the middle ground was either unpleasant or forgettable.
Winner: Speaking of unpleasant: Nicholas Elmi is probably Top Chef's worst winner ever. He was a temperamental hothead in the kitchen and a terrible team player. His poor performance in the top six challenge sank his teammates, Chung and Cmar, but he had immunity from the Quickfire Challenge. His refusal to surrender his immunity despite being the clear loser resulted in Cmar, who performed well in the challenge, getting sent home. It may have been a good game move, but it made him feel more like a player than a great chef.
Watchability: It's tough to rewatch knowing how it ends, but Compton and Chung almost make it worth the trouble.
12. Top Chef: Boston (season 12)
Challenge design: After New Orleans fixed Texas' too-many-winners problem, Boston started it right up again. That said, this season generally got the New England vibe right. What this season really got wrong was introducing Sudden Death Quickfires, or Quickfire Challenges that lead to one contestant's elimination. It's particularly unfair to send someone home for a 30-minute cooking challenge on Top Chef, but we've been stuck with them since Boston.
Cast: These were mostly decent people cooking their hearts out, particularly in the top five. Katsuji Tanabe was a love-him-or-hate-him bit of spice, but otherwise, this was a pretty bland cast. You need a bit more drama to raise the stakes.
Winner: Mei Lin is a good chef, and it's a thrill that the show finally got its third female winner in its 12th season. But she's not one of the most remarkable winners; she's just solid all around.
Watchability: Boston is pleasant background noise: nice to have, not quite worth your full attention.
11. Top Chef: NYC (season 5)
Challenge design: Long before Texas would overdo it, NYC showed an early hint at the too-many-winners problem. Additionally, the elimination pattern, with multiple double eliminations, a non-elimination and a return to the competition (Jeff McInnis, quickly re-eliminated), was too erratic. The challenges themselves were a mixed bag, with some really unique ones (appearing on a Today Show cooking segment) and some old reliables (cater a holiday party).
Cast: Fabio Viviani and Carla Hall are two of the most charismatic contestants to ever appear on Top Chef. They both returned for All-Stars, and for good reason. Stefan Richter would return in Seattle, where he was far more likable than he was here. But the real bummers this season were Hosea Rosenberg and Leah Cohen, who took up most of the oxygen in the season with their inappropriate hookup. (Both had significant others.) They — and the story editors who focused on them — drained the life out of the season.
Winner: Rosenberg held the worst-winner title for a long time, and he's still a threat for it, up there with Elmi and season seven winner Kevin Sbraga. His cooking wasn't inspiring, and that's not even considering his behavior outside the kitchen.
Watchability: Watch it for Viviani and Hall, who are truly enjoyable even when everything else is unpleasant.
10. Top Chef: D.C. (season 7)
Challenge design: When Top Chef announced they were taking on Washington, D.C., it seemed like a misfire from the start. Color me surprised, then, that the producers used the city really well. The challenge held at the CIA, during which then-director Leon Panetta had to be excused from the table to take care of some official business, was particularly thrilling. Weirdly, this season kept the High-Stakes Quickfires introduced in Las Vegas. There, they made sense because of the Vegas theme; here, they were glorified leftovers.
Cast: This season suffered from a really bland top four. Kevin Sbraga, Ed Cotton and Kelly Liken were all good chefs, but really dull. Meanwhile, Angelo Sosa, who was anything but dull (more of an odd duck than anything), was sick during the finale, leading to a lower-key final few episodes. It's a shame: A well Sosa, plus previous firecrackers like Tiffany Derry, Kenny Gilbert and Amanda Baumgarten would've made for an entertaining finale.
Winner: Again, Sbraga was a solid chef who made his way up from a mediocre pack. He wasn't anywhere near as thrilling as Sosa, Gilbert and Derry.
Watchability: This is basically a next-day meatloaf of a season: still tastes good, but don't expect it to surprise you.
Yummy — with a bitter aftertaste
9. Top Chef: Los Angeles (season 2)
Challenge design: It's easy to forget that season two was even shot in LA. Because the show was still getting its sea legs, it didn't use the city well, but it did craft a lot of the challenges that would become regulars in the following seasons. (A seven-course dinner representing the Seven Deadly Sins is ur-Top Chef.) It's a formative season, particularly because it introduced host Padma Lakshmi, who did not host season one.
Cast: The cast was more like a traditional reality show than a cooking show, with a lot of big personalities that chafed against each other. This all came to a head in the top five episode, where contestant Cliff Crooks was disqualified for trying to forcibly shave fellow contestant Marcel Vigneron's head. The scene was so bad that head judge Tom Colicchio wanted to send everyone but Vigneron home, but Crooks was the only one to be disqualified. The incident, along with the infighting that took place all season, leaves a bit of a bad taste when remembering this cast.
Winner: Ilan Hall, who was involved in the head-shaving incident (filming and egging Crooks on), was a jerk who cooked Spanish food for nearly every challenge. His lack of range would keep him from the win in any modern Top Chef season.
Watchability: The older seasons are harder to watch because they simply look so different — they're technically on a whole different level. But if you can get past that, this season is a fine watch. From top five beyond, however, it's pretty unenjoyable.
8. Top Chef: California (season 13)
Challenge design: God bless California, a big ol' road trip across the state, for fixing the problem with the number of challenges. It also used the Sudden Death Quickfires much more intelligently and sparingly than Boston. Additionally, the season's path felt like a better flow between cities than Texas' did, using each location smartly while they were there. Tasks like coming up with a fast casual restaurant concept challenged these chefs to think about cooking as a modern business in a way Top Chef doesn't often. But the still-too-frequent lack of a formal judges' table stung.
Cast: God, what a great season this could've been with a better cast. Perhaps best known as the Year of the Bro, this season was just way too heavy on very similar kinds of chefs: male, aggressive and, well, bro-y. When only one woman remains in the top six, you know something's gone wrong in casting. That said, Kwame Onwuachi, Karen Akunowicz and Carl Dooley were all delights.
Winner: I still can't quite wrap my head around how Jeremy Ford won this season. He basically took the title with no narrative — no arc to his story on the show. To some extent, that's refreshing; his win feels less manipulated and more a reward for good work. Still, it's frustrating: It feels like this should have been Onwuachi's year.
Watchability: Despite the frustrating casting making this just a decent season, it remains an immensely watchable one, and I'd argue it only gets better on rewatch.
7. Top Chef: Seattle (season 10)
Challenge design: Here's the good: The challenges featured fairly clear winners and used the city of Seattle well. The bad: Last Chance Kitchen. The second-chance competition web series got hawked at every turn, at times seeming more important than the actual competition. Then there's the finale, an unusual Iron Chef-esque format which Last Chance Kitchen winner Kristen Kish won handily over Brooke Williamson. It all felt a little angled toward a Kish win, leaving viewers with a bittersweet feeling.
Cast: This cast is adorable! Easily the best in the post-All-Stars era of Top Chef. Three of these came back for the rookies vs. veterans Charleston season, and all three — Williamson, John Tesar and Sheldon Simeon — made it to the season 14 finale. Williamson, Simeon and Lizzie Binder were all wonderful to watch. Returning chefs Josie Smith-Malave, CJ Jacobson and Stefan Richter weren't as strong as they were in their seasons, but Richter's attitude adjustment since NYC made him a lot more fun to have around. His chemistry with Kish was a particular highlight.
Winner: Though Kish's win condition was a bit tenuous, it's hard to argue with her talent. She's one of the best winners ever — and, as the second woman to win, so overdue.
Watchability: Deeply watchable. Maybe one of the most watchable seasons of all. Skip the finale, though.
6. Top Chef: Charleston (season 14)
Challenge design: Charleston felt remarkably plugged into the host city, making for one of the most satisfying set of challenges of all time. It still feels like classic Top Chef, but used the location for more than just surface-level flourishes.
Cast: The rookies vs. veterans format turned out to be a dud, because the rookies couldn't hang. Only Sylva Senat felt like a real threat to make the finale; instead, he fell out at fifth place. But the alumni were well-picked, from Brooke Williamson to a redeemed John Tesar to a still-prickly Katsuji Tanabe. Only Casey Thompson, a fan favorite back for her third go-around after seasons three and eight, felt like an odd choice.
Winner: To be determined! But whether or not it's Williamson or Shirley Chung, it will be one of the show's all-time great winners. This was the rare year when the entire top three was extraordinary.
Watchability: Obviously we haven't had a chance to rewatch this one with some perspective, but my instinct is that it'll hold up remarkably well over time.
5. Top Chef original recipe (season 1)
Challenge design: It's the original! Certainly there was some early-installment strangeness, but this season introduced standby challenges like Restaurant Wars. Judged by the standard of being the first, it was revolutionary.
Cast: There were lots of big personalities in this season that help it stand out in memory. Tiffani Faison was a brassy villain-type who earned her redemption in All-Stars. Dave Martin coined the iconic "I'm not your bitch, bitch." Stephen Asprinio was the prickly sommelier who performed much better than you likely remember. The cast feels very season one, but not in a bad way.
Winner: Harold Dieterle beating Faison set the stage for the series' alarming preference for male winners over women. That said, Dieterle is a lot better than most of the men who have come since. His win may be the franchise's original sin, but he's not to blame.
Watchability: Like mentioned with season two, the early years make for tougher viewing experiences. But fans who haven't seen it before owe themselves a watch.
Cream of the crop
4. Top Chef: Miami (season 3)
Challenge design: You could argue that the series had some trouble connecting to Miami in its challenge design, and I wouldn't disagree. But in many ways, the Miami season took what worked about the first two seasons and perfected it. (It was also my first season, so I have a sentimental connection to it.)
Cast: This group is just delightful, top to bottom. Some of the series' all-time great personalities (Casey Thompson, Dale Levitski, Tre Wilcox and CJ Jacobson), who would return for many other seasons and specials, came from this season.
Winner: Hung Huynh may not be the most likable winner, and he actually has one of the series' worst records for a winner (winning just one elimination challenge). But rewatching, he's surprisingly fun: He once constructed an entire Smurf village out of cereal for a dessert. He deserves a better reputation.
Watchability: Of those first three seasons, which form something of a trilogy before the show really figured it out, Miami is easily the most watchable. The cast is fun and the arc of the season consistent. Its watchability is actually its greatest asset.
3. Top Chef: All-Stars (season 8)
Challenge design: The first half of Top Chef's one and only pure All-Stars season is filled with the best challenges in show history. Part of what makes them great is how they don't have to worry about matching a city — they're just creative tasks designed to really make these great chefs work. The back half of the season? Not so much. It all really goes downhill during the Target-sponsored challenge and suffers from an overlong, dull finale.
Cast: This is a perfect all-star cast. Bravo honestly couldn't have done this better. Antonia Lofaso, Carla Hall and Dale Talde stand out as chefs who really took the opportunity to grow as both chefs and reality TV personalities.
Winner: Richard Blais' arrogance throughout the season was frustrating, but there's no denying he's an incredibly skilled chef. As a practitioner of molecular gastronomy and innovative cooking techniques, Blais made his mark as someone who really redefined the very idea of cooking. He's a worthy winner, if a smug, frustrating reality TV presence.
Watchability: Stop when you hit the finale and just accept that Blais won. It's all basically perfect until then.
2. Top Chef: Las Vegas (season 6)
Challenge design: Unparalleled. Las Vegas plugged into the city and designed a truly magnificent season of challenges. The addition of High-Stakes Quickfires, which allowed for more risk and more reward upon winning each mini-challenge, was a genius bit of integrating the theme of the season into the format. This is easily the best season, design-wise.
Cast: The top four of Michael Voltaggio, Bryan Voltaggio, Kevin Gillespie and Jennifer Carroll put on a veritable master class in how to win Top Chef. Not a single other contestant won an elimination challenge all season. Moreover, not only were they great cooks, they were also strong reality TV personalities. That said, their strength can only make up so much for how weak the rest of the cast was. In particular, the battle between Eli Kirshtein and Robin Leventhal, in which the former accused the latter of using her battle with cancer to win a Quickfire Challenge, was deeply ugly.
Winner: Unfortunately, the finale turned out to be something of a default battle. Carroll was eliminated in fourth, while Gillespie was going through a divorce during the finale taping and was off his game. As a result, we got a duel between the Voltaggio brothers, leading to Michael — who got some free passes throughout the season, sure — beating out Bryan. Still, Michael is up there with Kish and Blais among the most thoughtful, ambitious winners ever.
Watchability: Because the cast is so weak beyond the top four, it's less watchable than you'd imagine. But there is some joy in watching the top crew steamroll a set of unique, fun challenges.
1. Top Chef: Chicago (season 4)
Challenge design: Such a fun season. The challenges were creative, diverse in premise and compelling. Lots of chefs felt like viable shots at the win, so it became all the more fascinating as it winnowed down to Richard Blais vs. Stephanie Izard. From a story perspective, this season is king.
Cast: Easily the best cast of all time. The top eight is practically unimpeachable from a personality perspective. Wedding Wars set them up in teams against each other, catering a wedding and cooking overnight. The circumstances led to a truly titanic battle of characters, with the villains — Dale Talde, Lisa Fernandes, Spike Mendelsohn — on one side, and the heroes — Antonia Lofaso, Izard and Blais — on the other. (The match was so good, they repeated it for the top six Restaurant Wars.) Even beyond those eight, the cast was great; everyone from 12th place on up is memorable. It's a rare bit of reality TV genius, this casting.
Winner: Personally, Izard is my favorite winner. She's plucky and confident without the overdose of ego so many of these winners have. She's just perfectly assured in her rustic-style cooking. It's a shame the show didn't appreciate her for so long, as they put her down during All-Stars to boost Blais' storyline. But she's a true gem. (Her guest spots in season 10 and the Duels spin-off season indicate they've properly atoned.)
Watchability: This is the single most watchable season, with episodes you can throw on anytime and enjoy. It's basically flawless from top to bottom: well-designed, great location, fun cast and good energy. More recent seasons of Top Chef have worked to tinker with the formula, but Chicago proves that the show was best when it was simple, clean and focused on the food.