Note: This is my FINAL Top Chef Power Rankings post for Uproxx. Follow me on Twitter and/or Patreon for updates on how to find them after that! I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.
Top Chef World All-Stars was back this week, and so was the three-act structure. Unlike last week, this week’s episode (following a recap of Last Chance Kitchen, which confusingly hosted the conclusion of last week’s episode) had a quickfire at the beginning, an elimination challenge in the middle, and an actual elimination at the end. Hooray for structure!
We even had the same guest judge for both challenges: Gaggan Anand, who arrived for the occasion dressed like this:
While my instinct is to make fun of anyone who shows up on national TV in printed pajama bottoms with no socks and sportcoat with mismatched sleeves, I don’t feel nearly the same public school-kid instinct with Anand as I did with, say, our old friend Graham Eliot. Anand is giving “eccentric professor” vibes, which are distinct from “I’m trying desperately to make white frames my personality” vibes.
Plus, how can I dislike anyone who looks this much like a human Paddington Bear? Get this man a marmalade sandwich.
Sadly, Anand was not there to judge a marmalade-making contest (which in any case Chef May already won in episode two, with her Marmite-infused jam), but rather an emoji-based challenge. Each chef was to rush to the board (foot speed and boxing-out abilities are underrated in Top Chef handicapping), grab an emoji, and cook a dish meant to express that emoji.
Considering the hundreds of emojis on the emoji keyboard, these 20 or so seemed somewhat… peculiarly chosen. The octopus? A little stinker devil? Elon Musk’s desperately overused cry-laugh emoji? Uh, sure, why not. No eggplant? No pile of poop? No Italian hands? COME ON.
I would’ve liked to see someone take the Elon emoji and try to make a dish that expressed “cringe billionaire with intense divorced guy energy” but that admittedly seems pretty conceptual for a 30-minute meal. Nonetheless, this challenge, which Anand had introduced by saying that seeing the emoji keyboard for the first time had inspired him because of its possibility to create a “truly global menu,” turned out to be interesting precisely for all the culture clashes it produced.
Ali, for instance, chose the four-leaf clover emoji, which he referred to as “the green leaf emoji” and used it to make a nice green salad, apparently having no idea it was related to the concepts of luck or Irishness. Victoire inexplicably chose the sushi emoji and… well, we’ll get to that below.
After that was over, Anand stuck around to serve the chefs, and I’m not embellishing anything here, some sort of rainbow-colored cream lick in the shape of a world map. It was a dish Padma said came directly from Anand’s 25-course (!!!) tasting menu. Anand called it “Rainbow World” and introduced it by saying “During pandemic times there was a lot of hate on social media.”
It all felt like something Mugatu would’ve explained to Zoolander while he furrowed his brow. Anand said he hoped the dish, which was served deliberately without utensils, would send a message of inclusion to the LGBT community. He asked the chefs to dig in by saying “I want you to lick my plate.”
Personally, if I’m going to be licking dehydrated hibiscus dust off a pile of sour cream shaped like New Foundland I better either be under the influence of some powerful psychedelics or using the sour cream as a vehicle for them. The whole sequence landed halfway between Julian Slowik degrading his customers in The Menu (“lick my plates for scraps like the dogs you are!”) and that clip of David Guetta dedicating a bass drop to George Floyd (“this map-shaped lick of colored cream is dedicated to my friends in the gay community. Love is love”).
Which is to say… Top Chef perfection.
This dish was meant to introduce the ensuing challenge. Which was to “create a dish that sends a message, is visually stunning, and can be eaten without utensils.” (Worst set up for a “DEEZ NUTS” I’ve ever heard).
On the face of it, it was a visual, concept-first contest that seemed to favor the Tweezer Toffs — those fussy fine-dining chefs who specialize in white tablecloth fart huffery. And yet the finger food nature of it also empowered the Spoon Greasers — those Comfort Food Charlies who prefer to sling finger-lickin’ rib stickers rather than dainty conversation fodder. The chefs all assumed that Buddha and Tom, perceived as the show’s foremost Tweezer Toffs (coming from a caviar tasting room and a luxury cruise line, respectively) would be the challenge favorites. It didn’t turn out quite that way. (Foreshadowing!)
- Quickfire Top: Nicole, Buddha*, Amar.
- Quickfire Bottom: Ali, Dale, Victoire.
- Elimination Top: Amar, Ali*, Charbel.
- Elimination Bottom: Dale**, Victoire, Tom.
10. (-5) Dale MacKaye
AKA: Johnnycakes. Lance Farmstrong. Minor Threat. Deviled Egg Dale.
Ah, Dale. Seems like it was just one episode ago when he made his triumphant return to the show, thanks to his genuinely impressive ability to make two sandwiches, a scone, and a pastry in one hour. He even showed some veteran smarts in that episode, choosing to make deviled eggs for a picnic. Which is a food that’s relatively easy to make and impossible to argue against in that situation.
Alas, that was then. In this episode, Dale choose to prepare a mole, despite the inescapable fact that he’s Canadian, not to mention there being an actual Mexican in the competition who had given the judges a mole frame of reference multiple times already. “Never join a mole competition against an actual Mexican” is one of life’s evergreen truisms up there with “never fight a guy with a cauliflower ear.”
He did this, Dale said, as a way to illustrate that he’d once been ignorant about Mexican food, but, through actually eating Mexican food, had since learned the error of his ways. “So the message of this dish is ‘don’t be ignorant,’ I guess,” he told the judges.
Not that most fire cover letter, if we’re being honest, but if we’re comparing it to a guy’s message of acceptance to the gay community delivered through map-shaped flower cream, it was probably apt enough. The real problem, and the clever Dale of the previous episode would’ve spotted this problem from six blocks away, was that Dale didn’t cook his chicken thigh, which was the vehicle for his mole, in the actual mole.
How many times does a contestant have to get dinged to this before you guys learn?
The judges actually liked Dale’s mole, with Tom calling it “perfectly fine” and Anand noting “this is probably the least spicy mole I’ve ever had” (they actually did say some nicer things about it, but it was still hilarious hearing these comments delivered in the shape of a compliment), but no one liked the chicken, with Padma saying it had “a weird, flabby, floppy texture” (the world’s second worst set up for a DEEZ NUTS joke).
You knew Dale was sunk when Tom asked about a sauce and then made this face:
I understand a chef’s natural reticence to just serve a piece of bread or tortilla and some sauce and think they have to throw a chicken or a scallop or a mackerel loin in there to be fancy, but if these last few episodes have proved anything, it’s that these judges LOVE a celery stick or a piece of bread with some sauce as an entrée. Charbel did it the last two weeks in a row and landed in the top both times! If he would’ve just made them scoop the mole on three fingers, Ron DeSantis -tyle, they would’ve named him Top Chef on the spot and called off the rest of the competition.
And so, Dale goes home. Again. For the last time. Only maybe not because there still seems to be more Last Chance Kitchen left? I hope they bring him back and then send him home for a third time, like Top Chef‘s answer to Kilgore Trout who exists solely to be tortured.
9. (+1) Victoire Gouloubi
AKA: Al Dente. Minute Rice. Steven Seagal. Three’s Company. Pulp Fiction. Backstory.
It’s incredible that Victoire is still on the show because she spent this entire episode making inexplicable decisions. In the quickfire, she explained that she actually wanted the fire emoji, which Gabri got (no one outruns The Mongoose!), because, as she explained, “I think I was the loser in the running competition.”
Bummer, but then, even with at least five other emoji possibilities to choose from, Victoire choose the sushi one, despite not having any real affinity for or interest in preparing sushi. She couldn’t explain it herself. It’s like there’s something in her that’s inexorably drawn to rice dishes she doesn’t have the time to prepare (I gave her the nickname “minute rice” after episode one, when she made risotto in seven minutes and tried to pass it off as “al dente”).
Then she made the above riff on “akara,” a fried black-eyed pea fritter that she, again completely inexplicably, made with boiled potatoes. It was a pretty dish that she said “expressed the colors of my emotion for Africa” (lot more poetic than “don’t be ignorant,” you gotta admit) but still landed her in the bottom three for the second straight time. I actually thought they were going to send her home, and I have to assume that she stayed on the show as part of some secret settlement deal with the producers for almost getting her killed with walnut dust.
8. (-1) Tom Goetter
AKA: Meekus. Sprockets. F-Boy Tom. Spotted Ox Hostel.
Speaking of chefs who seem to be on downward trajectory, there’s Tom, whose undying love of edible gels and complex solidifying agents bit him in the ass yet again.
It looked like he was back on track at first, choosing the crown emoji and reminiscing about “King’s Day,” when his father would take him and his brother fishing, only realizing later that it was actually “Queen’s Day,” designed to give their mother some free time. For that, he made creamy sauerkraut with smoked trout and amaranth puffs, which the judges seemed to enjoy, despite “amaranth” being possibly the only word that sounds more painful in a German accent than “agar-agar.” Guttural language, that German.
That knack for coherent messaging seemed to desert him in the elimination round, when he made a dish that I believe he called “The Mentor, The Pumpkin.”
I rewound it three times and I’m still not entirely clear on what he said or what the message was supposed to be. Or how it was meant to be conveyed with a pumpkin-shaped ball of stabilized chutney served in a clear plastic cube.
Incredibly, the judges seemed to love everything about it except for the fact that his mousse didn’t set enough for them to pick up. Heartbreaking! And so relatable. I hate when the mousse mattress I’ve made for my chutney pumpkin doesn’t set in time. We’ve all been there.
7. (+2) Gabri Rodriguez
AKA: The Black Pearl. The Mongoose. Wile Y. Coyote.
The Mongoose! He was too fast for Victoire in the quickfire, and the judges seemed to love his chileatole, which is even more fun to hear Gabri say in a Mexican accent than “amaranth” is disgusting to hear Tom say in a German one. The Mongoose didn’t quite crack the top three, even with what should’ve been a gimme concept for him.
He also had what I thought was a pretty good message in the elimination round, about trying to preserve organic, heirloom, and non-GMO varieties of corn, which the Top Chef producers sandbagged by treating Gabri to the ol’ Bubba edit from Forrest Gump when he was talking about it.
Fair enough, I guess, even Victoire seemed to be annoyed with Gabri’s bloviating. But what if I actually wanted to know more about the transgenic corn, huh? What then?? Does that make me a nerd??? I will not be silenced! Corn cobbed by Big Corn, you hate to see it.
To illustrate his message, Gabri cooked up some multi-colored tortillas (the colors representing different varieties of corn) with al pastor made with seabass for some reason, with some kind of sauce (mole??) presented in a spiral.
I’m not sure how the spiral pattern underlined the dish’s message, but it does remind me of sixth grade, when for current events Jon Prince said “some guy got hypnotized by the Trix box and killed his whole family.”
Gabri’s tacos landed him in the middle of the pack, but same rules apply to him as to Dale: I bet if he would’ve just served sauce and tortillas he would’ve fared better. Never throw in some fancy protein with no justification, these snoots are sticklers for optics.
6. (+2) Nicole Gomes
AKA: Clawhoser. The Contessa. Kindergarten Cop.
I’m still a little hung up on everyone calling the Groucho Glasses emoji the “disguise emoji.” Apparently, this is what it’s actually called, “used if you want to convey that you are hiding something.”
What the hell? I thought this was the emoji for telling awesomely corny jokes! Has my whole life been a lie?
Nicole ended up in the top three in that challenge, for this meatball disguised as… uh… a pile of granola? I was never entirely clear on what the disguise was, but apparently, the meatball was tasty and hey, everyone loves a meatball.
Later she made this chicken pancake roll-up that was meant to convey the idea of three. To represent the three generations, her mom, her, and the daughter she’s adopting from Vietnam.
I don’t entirely understand how this little burrito thingy is meant to convey “three,” but it does look fun to eat. The judges said it was a little dry.
5. (+1) Charbel Hayek
AKA: Soup Nazi. Sir Davos. Mr. Literal.
Charbel, man, he understands these judges perfectly. Give them a fancy dip with a humble vehicle and you’re sitting pretty. Charbel arguably took this challenge the most literally of all, taking inspiration from a map of the world made from cream to make a flag of Lebanon made of dips.
(not pictured: the filo cracker shaped like a tree)
Charbel’s dish was meant to send a message to the world, that Lebanon is going through some tough times. The judges loved it, saying “I only wish there were two trees on your flag,” (Tom) and “Basically we’re just eating sauce with a cracker, but it packed so much flavor.” (Padma)
Charbel bravely said “Let them eat dips!” and landed in the top three. He seems to be on a hot streak.
Before all that, Mr. Literal chose the duck emoji and made “slow-cooked duck with fennel-braised in orange juice.”
My question is, how the hell does one make “slow-cooked duck” in 30 minutes? If Charbel has the ability to manipulate the fourth dimension it could be the X-factor in this competition.
4. (-2) Sara Bradley
AKA: Party Mom. Reebok. Sassparilla.
Party Mom this week became the first Top Chef contestant, to my memory, to ever be depicted removing a breast from her shirt to pump milk in the car on the way to a competition. “What do you think it’s going be like?” Nicole asked.
“Probably pretty tits out,” Sara answered.
Nothing but respect for that zinger, stop trying to take my job.
After that, Sara chose the sun emoji and made a dish out of all nightshade plants, or so she thought, before learning that zucchini are not actually nightshades. “What an IDIOT,” I thought, while surreptitiously googling “plants in the nightshade family.”
Then for the second week in a row, Sara made the dish that easily would’ve been my first order if Top Chef was a restaurant, this “pecan pork with cocoa buttermilk.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen those four words together before, but I’m so happy they are. Sara’s message? “Slow down, enjoy all the sweet things in life.”
It’s no pumpkin mentor, but it tracks well enough. Said the judges: “this is so delicious.” (Padma) “I think you could turn this into a fast food chain,” (Aaaaaaand, clearly missing the “slow down” message).
It seemed like Sara crushed it this week, so I was shocked when she didn’t end up in the top three. The problem with her dish? Clearly not enough dips.
3. (+1) Amar Santana
AKA: Big Sleazy. Laughtrack. Hibbert. Flava Flav.
Big Sleazy is on a roll! From the win in episode five through to this episode (episode six was all team challenges), that’s three top finishes in a row. In the quickfire, Amar chose the banana emoji, probably because the producers had deliberately excluded the eggplant emoji. Eggplant may be the official dick fruit™, but luckily there’s no shortage of dick-shaped foods.
Only in Amar’s case, he was (allegedly) interpreting the banana more literally, for a plantain-based dish. That dish, combining butterscotch, blue cheese, and bacon, made Buddha roll his eyes but thrilled Gaggan Anand who apparently loves alliteration.
After that, Amar made a deconstructed papaya salad as an ode to travel, in honor of his first big trip, to Thailand.
What is a “deconstructed papaya salad,” you ask? Why, it’s a seafood sausage disc with a hundred tiny dots of sauce, of course. He made a dish to honor travel that you eat by making it “travel” across the plate, you know the judges loved that.
Amar keeps putting together contenders but only seems to get wins when Buddha and Ali have a bad day, which makes him a logical number three.
2. (+1) Ali Ghzawi
AKA: RRR. Maui Wowie. The Strain. The Ghizza. Muhammara Ali.
I’m really proud of nicknaming Ali “Muhammara Ali,” and I just want you all to recognize that on my second-to-last day as an Uproxx employee. I’m trying to joke through this, is it going okay??
Sorry about that, I had to chop up some cucumbers into very narrow slivers to help myself calm down. Right, Ali.
After last week’s rankings, someone gave me grief for ranking Sara above Ali after the judges seemed to like his dish so much. What can I say, it looked like he made a dip with a lettuce wrap, I was slightly underwhelmed! I couldn’t have known at the time how much these judges love minimally garnished dips.
Being unswayed by last week’s Ali performance was looking like the right decision at the beginning of this week, when Ali didn’t know clovers were lucky and used “the green leaf emoji” for a green gazpacho that underwhelmed enough to land him in the bottom three.
But then he made a vegan kubbeh, to send the message that eating less meat is important for the environment (one of the few actually coherent messages this week), taking home the win and giving me no choice but to bump him up a few slots.
Not even the fact that he stole some plant clippings from the stew room and all the other chefs clowning on him for it could take away from a successful dish with cromulent messaging. “For him to come out and say that meat is not important is a very bold statement,” raved Anand.
You know it’s a good dish when no one even nitpicks the inedible garnishes. These judges normally hate inedible garnishes more than my dog hates squirrels and are just as loud about it. And yet this guy serves a kubbeh ensconced in an entire plastic fern and nothing? That must’ve been some good kubbeh.
1. (even) Buddha Lo
AKA: Moneyball. Double Down. Big Data. Buddha.
Another week of Buddha not winning the final challenge, and another week of me leaving him at number one. All I can say in defense of my logic here is that Buddha seems like he’s completely coasting at this point and he’s still winning challenges. For his quickfire dish, Buddha chose the freezing emoji and made some coconut cold stuff served in the skull mold he had apparently had with him this entire time. “The skull is going to represent that ‘freezing to death’ element,” Buddha explained in a confessional, and you could practically hear the editors rolling their eyes.
In this episode’s first symbolic moment of “literal is good,” Buddha took home the win for that. For his elimination challenge dish, Buddha titled his dish “From the hands of Mother Nature,” and served up some vegetable puree in yet another mold that he had apparently had with him this entire time.
“You just happened to bring the hand mold?” Gail Simmons asked, finally seeming to catch onto the fact that Buddha is doing the chef equivalent of bringing along the essays he wrote for a previous class and retitling them.
Tom also negged him a bit, saying “For a dish supposedly representing nature’s bounty, I want to see more bounty in there.”
But you could tell his heart wasn’t entirely in it. The judges are as powerless before Buddha’s bullshit as my fellow other arts majors and I are before Wes Anderson’s movies. We can’t help but like them even when we want to hate them, they just know our weaknesses too well.
In the end, Buddha, who had immunity anyway, stayed out of the bottom three, and I imagine will emerge rested and reenergized for the next challenge. If anyone would be aware enough to realize that the judges had caught on to his bullshit and switch things up, it’s Buddha. He always seems to be one step ahead, like The Greeks on The Wire.
Yes, this was a shameless plug for my Wire podcast. That’s all for me, guys. It’s been real. Shoot, is someone chopping onions in here?