‘Top Chef: World All-Stars’ review: Satisfying, but lacking in acid

The cast of ‘Top Chef: World All-Stars’ in front of London’s Tower Bridge: (lr) Padma Lakshmi, Sylwia Stachyra, Buddha Lo, Luciana Berry, Dawn Burrell, Sara Bradley, Samuel Albert, Charbel Hayek, Begoña Rodrigo, Nicole Gomez, Gabriel Rodriguez, May Phattanant String. David Moir/Bravo

In my household, best boss is the only television show that unites the family. My wife and I will drift in and out of each other’s favorite shows (I devour intense narrative TV for work and pleasure; she prefers “background TV” which she can half turn off), but none of us would dare to look best boss without the other.

Where other cooking contests may rely too much on the typical melodrama of a reality show or, on the contrary, be so soft and comfortable that it undermines any sense of the stakes, best boss is as much about craftsmanship as it is personality. We tune in to watch competitors with remarkable skills compete against their peers in a professional environment. Sure, there’s still the occasional bitter rivalry or the rare on-set romance, but it’s been a decade since anyone (allegedly) stole someone else’s pea mash. best boss bills itself as the big leagues, where good TV is just a fortuitous byproduct of great food.

That may be truer than ever this year, because best boss celebrates the occasion of its 20th season with Top Chef: World All-Stars, bringing together winners and runners-up from the main US series and the franchise’s many international spinoffs. All 16 contestants (I refuse to use the word “cheftestants”) have already proven their mettle on one stage or another, which means less inflated egos, less bickering, and arguably inferior reality TV. As skill porn, however, best boss is still satisfying.

No major spoilers ahead for the first two episodes of Top Chef: world stars.

Located in London, which does not have its own best boss varietal and is therefore a neutral territory, World All-Stars adheres to the show’s tried-and-true format: Chefs compete for immunity in a brief, fast-paced skills challenge on the best boss together before traveling offsite to serve the judges – chef/restaurateur Tom Colicchio, critic Gail Simmons and host Padma Lakshmi – a meal highlighting a particular ingredient, theme or technique. The best dish wins the prestige of its creator or some sort of prize, while the chef behind the weakest dish has to “pack their knives and go”. Once the cast is reduced to four, the survivors (plus the season gauntlet winner Last chance kitchen) will travel to Paris to crown a champion of champions. The challenges require a lot of creativity and dexterity, and because there isn’t a single scrub in the cast, no one can settle for a mediocre dish.

Panel of judges: (lr) Angela Harnett, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons David Moir/Bravo

Unlike previous seasons of best boss, all of the contestants seem to have arrived with their egos in check. Nobody gives the impression of seeing the 15 rounds of the competition as a mere formality between them and the much-vaunted title, even the Spaniard Begoña Rodrigo, winner of a Michelin star. It lends an air of respect and legitimacy, but it also robs the show of an important narrative ingredient: a villain. That in itself has been a trend on best boss over the past few seasons, which have largely eliminated your classic reality TV villains who “aren’t here to make friends.” (See: Season 7’s smug manipulator, Angelo Sosa, or Season 9’s bully, Heather Terhune.)

Instead, we have a mix of kind, calm, and knowledgeable chefs like May Phattanant Thongthong from Thailand and Charbel Hayek from Lebanon, and loud but benign personalities like Luciana Berry from Brazil and Sara Bradley from Kentucky. The characters that appear the most in the first two episodes are the bosses who cave under the pressure, which might be enough to root you against them out of sheer frustration. Dawn Burrell’s considerable talent brought her to the USA Season 18 finale, but two years later she’s still racing against the clock and exuding a constant energy of dread. Top Chef: Mexico Winner Gabri Rodriguez is a fountain of positivity, but he’s also a walking disaster, so enthralled by his culinary creations that he forgets to share the kitchen or follow the rules.

Luciana Berry (l) and Ali Al Ghzawi prepare food on ‘Top Chef: World All-Stars’. David Moir/Bravo

The rules actually play an unusual role as a kind of antagonist for World All-Stars, as they have an inevitably unequal relationship with international distribution. Each of the competitors is a best boss veteran, but those best boss not all franchises follow exactly the same format. Top Chef: Francefor example, takes place entirely within the confines of his home kitchen, so French winner Samuel Albert struggles to adjust to working on site for the first elimination challenge. Top Chef: Mexico doesn’t have a shopping component, which led Gabri Rodriguez to load up his cart at Whole Foods with nearly double his allotted budget. And, as cosmopolitan as a foodie city like London is, not everyone will find the ingredients they are used to working with in the official supermarket chain of best boss. A challenge in the second episode is built around rice, one of the most ubiquitous staple foods on Earth, but relatively foreign to two of the chefs. It adds some texture to the game not provided by the players themselves, and a built-in underdog dynamic that could potentially pay off down the road.

Yet if you still look best boss after 20 seasons, it’s probably not because you crave the gossip and drama, it’s because you want to see immense culinary talent compete at the highest level and get a taste of the fine dining that the most of us will never taste for ourselves. In this regard, best boss is still the gold standard, a reality show that makes you feel classy and educated to watch it, whether or not it is.

'Top Chef: World All-Stars' review: Satisfying, but lacking in acid