Season 18 of “Top Chef” marked a new, more enjoyable version of the series.

The first season of Excellent chef to quarantined air happened on its impact by accident. Shot in late 2019 before being released in March of the following year, the episodes were an unexpected snapshot of a culture on the brink of crisis. As real-world restaurants scrambled to adapt, the gathered stars sampled LA vigils; as Italy suffered a traumatic first wave, the finalists flew to Tuscany. Thanks to esteemed guest judges and the CVs of its competitors, Excellent chef had long underlined its genuine link with the industry. Last year, I wrote at the time, that same authenticity made the show “the de facto cultural ambassador of a nation in disarray.”

The second season of Excellent chef to the quarantined air is well aware of the world to which it responds. The first words we hear when arriving in Portland for season 18 are ‘the pandemic’, as in, ‘The pandemic has impacted the restaurant industry in a way no one could have predicted. As the contestants introduced themselves, we learned not only their culinary specialties and places of origin, but also how the lockdown had turned their careers upside down. “I had to call everyone and put them on leave,” said Houston boss Sasha Grumman. “When I closed my restaurants and bars, I had to give up 30 of my favorite humans in my life,” recalls Shota Nakajima, now a finalist.

On his way to his final on Thursday night, Excellent chefThe final chapter of stands out as a unique entry into the franchise’s 15-year history. Against the backdrop of not only the pandemic, but also protests that erupted months before production resumed last fall, with Portland one particular Flashpoint, this season’s episodes appeared and ended. felt different from all the previous ones. But as part of Excellent chef Traditionally, the pandemic season is not as steep as it seems. Containment may have forced Excellent chef changing course, but in the end the show only steered more in the direction it was already taking: away from the cutthroat competition, toward camaraderie and celebration of the craft. Parts of Excellent chef-the Restaurant Wars elimination challenge; the setting up relay race; beyond aggressive product placement – are eternal. Others have changed over time, the adjustments of the last 16 months are now particularly clear.

No reality show reaches 18 seasons, not to mention multiple Emmy Awards and a multitude of spinoffs, without pushing itself to evolve. In his early years, Excellent chef took after a more traditional and sensational model of reality competition. There were villains like Marcel Vigneron, John Tesar, and Stefan Richter – often arrogant and macho men who fit the broader stereotype of the chef as the misfit genius. Two contestants, Leah Cohen and Hosea Rosenberg from season 5 in New York, even had an affair on camera. Such fireworks may have amplified the drama, but they could also distract from feats of skill that were very impressive in themselves.

Little by little, almost imperceptibly, Excellent chef exceeded this model and put it aside. The types of chefs who were successful on the show began to diversify, and while the conflict never went away, it was also balanced by mutual respect. The show’s accidental pandemic first season was a perfect example, illustrating the almost unstoppable rise of eventual winner Melissa King, a queer American Chinese chef who grew up in nearby Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley. There are also negative examples. Season 11, which takes place in New Orleans, gave the title to Nicholas Elmi, a Philadelphia chef who reached the finals by refusing to cede immunity after preparing what the judges considered the worst dish of the challenge. As a result, the most deserving Stéphanie Cmar packed her knives. Elmi then defeated finalist Nina Compton after having a kitchen meltdown within earshot of the judges. A fan favorite Compton is now a member of the All-Star Jury for Season 18; Elmi is not. If a more recent finalist repeated Elmi’s stunt, it’s hard to imagine diners would look away.

The New Orleans incident is particularly striking when confronted with a momentous scene on the Portland home stretch. After the contestants prepared dishes with ingredients sent in a care package from their families, the judges chose to eliminate Maria Mazon, a James Beard contestant from Tucson, Ariz., Only for Jamie Tran, who had already returned. from a previous elimination, to beg to be sent home in place of Mazon. The panel of judges ultimately dissuaded Tran from leaving the ledge, but not before a tearful show of solidarity from two women with an obvious connection. Tran’s ploy was the opposite of throwing her rival under the bus, and a testament to how much Excellent chefstandards have changed over the years.

This year, Excellent chef wasn’t just a chance to win a six-figure cash prize; it was an opportunity for candidates to collaborate with their peers for the first time in months. “There couldn’t be a better time to compete on Excellent chefcontender Kiki Louya argued in the opening fixture. “We can come together and support each other.” Some of the structural adjustments made primarily as security measures enabled this effort. alumni as guest judges instead of outside experts allowed the show to build a closed bubble, but also to give serious advice (“Cooking with passion”; “Stay true to yourself”) for avoid harsh criticism. Former stars like King, Kwame Onwuachi and Gregory Gourdet are both statesmen and older peers; in a cleverly crafted challenge, this group served as recipe testers for their successors. For Restaurant Wars, a notorious glove, the teams were asked to develop a more intimate chef’s table concept instead of serving strangers. The result maintained the level of difficulty while innovating a format that has become somewhat small. u staid and facilitating a more friendly and mellow atmosphere than the typical challenge assault.

Not all Excellent chefpandemic measures taken for better viewing at home; writing a shopping list on an iPad, for example, is a poor substitute for a frantic sprint through Whole Foods. (That may explain why the season pretty much ditched the gadget after the premiere.) Not all of the notable picks this season were a direct result of the production bubble, either. As with all reality shows, it’s impossible to tell how much story considerations affect wins and losses, if at all. But the actor closest to a true villain – Gabriel Pascuzzi, a Portland native who was a vocally painful loser in the first Quickfire Challenge – has been knocked out less than half the competition. His early exit contributed to a season that has been particularly short in friction, even in the last few days. Excellent chef standards.

COVID-19 is not the only outside influence on some of the Excellent chefthe most recent developments. The biggest success in televised food competitions since, well, Excellent chef is The Great British Cake, the sweet series in every sense of the word whose sweet positivity has spread to a multitude of copiers. Pastry is an ode to the amateur, while Excellent chef feeds on hard-earned experience. Still, it’s easy to draw a line from Pastry‘s rise (no pun on yeast) to Excellent chefis more and more sweet, even if the link is not one Excellent chef explicitly recognized.

But if the pandemic did not usher in this last era of Excellent chef, 2020 has at least catalyzed its continued transformation. When restaurants have just left a one-year period of existential peril, it feels like everyone invested in their continued survival is ultimately part of the same team. This unit might undermine the fun of watching big egos go up in their heads, but in Season 18, Excellent chef throw personalities that don’t need sparks to ignite. Take the finalists: Nakajima, whose easy laugh belies a subtle and restrained style; Dawn Burrell, a former Olympic athlete with an intense desire to match; and Gabe Erales, a father of three who aspires to be the series’ first Mexican-American winner. In the penultimate episode, the judges refused to eliminate a single count, keeping all three vying for the title. They can’t all be winners, but Excellent chef never felt less about who technically wins.

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