Who Will Win Pandemic ‘Top Chef’?

We lay the odds

Each season of Top Chef is a fascinating window into the culinary zeitgeist of its time, as fads come and go and food trends become fashionably dated. (Remember “Top Scallops,” or the year of foams, or the year they put ras al hanout on everything?) If there was a broader topic dominating the conversation around restaurants–before COVID-19, anyway–it was the #MeToo movement and the drive to hold chefs accountable for their behavior. 

So while COVID is the elephant in the room, devastating the restaurant industry and posing enormous logistical challenges for cooking shows, this is the first real crop of new Top Chef contestants that we’ve seen since then. Season 17, filmed pre-pandemic, was an All-Stars season that debuted in March 2020, and they filmed the season before that in 2018, right as the movement was beginning to crest.

Perhaps for this reason, this is the first time in 18 seasons where Top Chef features an entire cast of executive chefs and restaurant owners. Presumably, these people know how to manage, and they’re also aware of their roles and responsibilities as the public faces of successful restaurants in a trying time. Why is that worth bringing up? Because Top Chef, more or less alone among shows of its ilk, tends to not actively encourage drama and infighting at the expense of the actual technical competition at its core. 

This is not to say that it’s as painfully twee as The Great British Baking Show. Season 9, filmed in Texas, featured some of the best cooking in the history of the show as well as some of the most artlessly bad behavior among Top Chef contestants. The head-shaving incident in season 2 might as well have qualified as an actual physical assault. Examples like these are probably ancient history, and those seasons are hard to watch in hindsight, but they underline a basic premise of Top Chef: serious villainy is usually unrewarded.

So who’s likeliest to come out of Portland with the $250,000 and the adulation of their peers? Though the show has given us an incomplete set of information, we attempt to lay some odds, as of episode 2.

Shota Nakajima +110
Top Chef
TOP CHEF — Season:18’s Top Seed, Shota Nakajima — (Photo by: Stephanie Diani/Bravo)

Top Chef tends to reveal its cards early; the chefs who succeed in the early challenges generally stick around for a while. Two episodes in, Shota has finished in the top twice and won episode 2, the win coming with a beautifully forward-thinking lobster sunomono. Connecting diverse components including a coffee/stout reduction and apple pickles, his dish made it clear that he’s capable of a playful insouciance within the restrained context of his Japanese training, and he seems like a pleasure to work with. To put it another way: in a Top Chef pool in which I’m playing, Shota wound up as the first choice of 17 of the 18 participants.

Sara Hauman +180
Sara Hauman, are you ‘Top Chef’?

Sara’s food seems as superb as her self-confidence is lacking. Her quail dish wowed judges in episode 1, and the pork tenderloin she made with Gabe landed her in the top three in episode 2, but she seemed genuinely surprised that the judges liked them. This is not necessarily a fatal flaw (hubris goes over about as well at the judges’ table as undercooked chicken), but it may not serve her at the end, when confidence in one’s vision comes into play. Her food is clearly there.

Gabriel Pascuzzi +300

Then again, Gabriel may be good enough and brash enough to upend one’s assumptions about hubris entirely. A former protégé of Tom Colicchio and winner of Eater’s 2017 Portland Chef of the Year (as he repeatedly informed his fellow contestants during the premiere), Pascuzzi has fine dining experience in New York and Europe and runs an award-winning sandwich shop in Portland: in other words, he’s versatile, familiar with local purveyors, and likely to connect with diners if this season features any sort of extensive public interaction. Despite that, he’s now clashed with two straight women in pairs competitions, with Dawn accusing him of the ultimate sin: “chefsplaining.”

Dawn Burrell +400

A former Olympic long jumper, Dawn has the most fascinating backstory of this season’s contestants. She’s clearly being positioned for a long run in the competition, and in clashing with Gabriel (and winning) during episode 2, seems to be on track to become one of this season’s fan favorites. In a difficult episode 2 Elimination Challenge that required the dishes to highlight local beer and coffee, her ribs were a thoughtful choice.

Maria Mazon +600
Gabe Erales +700

Back to that note about “Top Chef” and the culinary zeitgeist: regional Mexican food is having a moment right now, and Maria and Gabe are well-positioned to capitalize on it. Maria may identify as a humble taqueria owner, but a glance at her menu reveals some serious creativity, as well as a familiarity with game and unusual proteins that’ll clearly be relevant later. 

On his merits, Gabe would be higher on this list, but a well-publicized scandal at his Austin restaurant that ultimately led to his firing in December may not bode well for his chances. Padma made a point of noting how well he worked with Sara during episode 2’s Elimination Challenge, but remember: villainy is usually unrewarded.

Avishar Barua +800

Avishar is a total mystery at this point – hampered by an unfamiliar ingredient (a partridge-like game bird called “chukar”), he struggled in the premiere, only to survive and provide crucial modernist techniques that won the episode 2 Elimination Challenge for himself and Shota. There’s clearly much more potential beneath the surface of the hapless goofball who came prepared with his mom’s chutney.

Jamie Tran +1000

Jamie gets nervous, and when Jamie gets nervous, she beeps and makes sound effects, not unlike Michael Winslow from Police Academy. This is supremely annoying. That said, Jamie can clearly cook; her cheddar polenta with gochujang shrimp was a delicious-sounding spin on shrimp and grits during a dumb diner-themed Quickfire.

Kiki Louya +1200

Kiki has a warm, effusive personality and a commendable career as a food activist in Detroit, working to spotlight the cuisine of her Congolese heritage. I haven’t really seen enough to render a decision yet, but episode 3 seems center around restaurants in Portland of the African diaspora. Clearly, this is her moment to shine.

Sasha Grumman +1500
TOP CHEF — Season:18’s troubled underdog, Sasha Grumman- (Photo by: Stephanie Diani/Bravo)

Something is up with Sasha. After good performances in two straight Quickfires, including a win, she wound up on the bottom of the Elimination Challenge in episode 1 and then they eliminated her in episode 2 for an unpleasant pork loin dish. However, she got a lot of face time, generally made coherent points in her interviews, spoke frankly and bravely about substance abuse, and confidently dispatched Roscoe during “Last Chance Kitchen.” This is usually the way “Top Chef” highlights its contenders, not its early losers. The last few incarnations of “Last Chance Kitchen” have led to early eliminations coming back midway through the season, and if this season follows suit, you shouldn’t count out Sasha just yet. 

Nelson German +1800
Chris Viaud +2000
Byron Gomez +2000

These chefs have done little to distinguish themselves so far. Nelson seems like the better overall chef, working well with Maria on a bold version of chiles rellenos, while Chris and Byron wound up on the bottom in episode 2 with an ill-conceived duck dish. Of the trio, Chris is mostly notable for requesting butter as the “one ingredient he can’t live without.” Say what you will about plebeian tastes, but not all butter is created equal.

Brittanny Anderson +2500

Brittanny seems to be struggling: struggling to communicate with her fellow cheftestants, struggling to articulate whatever the hell “modern Alpine cuisine” is, and generally doing little to distinguish herself so far. Presumptive cannon fodder unless a fondue challenge comes out of nowhere.

Roscoe Hall OUT

Poor Roscoe had a pleasant personality that was just too laidback for a competitive cooking show, and a series of technical errors led to his early departure. Ironically enough, he’s a pitmaster at Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston, SC, one of the best barbecue restaurants in the country, and probably one of the most physically demanding food service jobs there is. Hall was sanguine about his departure, admitting that he wasn’t “following his instinct” and would have been better served cooking within his comfort zone. 

Can’t wait until the pandemic is over so we can all dine al fresco with Padma again on ‘Top Chef.’

 

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Daniel Cohen

Daniel Cohen is a software developer who lives in Syracuse, New York. He has written for Yard Work, The Guardian, and Maura Magazine.

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