By the time the ninth Wellington is served, an audible sigh of relief emerges from the six remaining Top Chef: World All-Stars contestants. The chefs, divided into three teams for the purpose of today’s elimination challenge, look exhausted, and deservedly so. Each team has just prepped, cooked, and delivered three different Wellington dishes — a fish Wellington, a meat Wellington, and a dessert Wellington — which require an incredible amount of technical precision, particularly when serving them to four judges and 20 diners.
It’s late in the season, which marks the 20th edition of Top Chef, so there’s a lot on the line. Two of the remaining chefs — Ali Al Ghzawi, Amar Santana, Buddha Lo, Gabriel Rodriguez, Sara Bradley, and Tom Goetter — are about to pack their knives and go. And it’s fairly clear after tasting the dishes who those two chefs will be.
“It’s never, quite frankly, [too hard] to judge,” Tom Colicchio says, sitting in the green room after the diners have departed. The makeshift dining room, built on the terrace of London’s Tobacco Dock, is in the process of being replaced by the judges’ table where he, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons will soon hand down that judgement.
“You just had all three — was it difficult to figure out who was best?” Colicchio asks. It was not. Among the 20 diners, of which I was one, there was almost no disagreement that Lo and Rodriguez had won the day. “The going home, maybe there’s some debate there,” Colicchio adds. “But who won was clear and easy. And that’s often the case.”
Top Chef: World All-Stars, which has assembled previous contestants from international editions of the series, marks the first time Top Chef has ventured outside the U.S. for the entirety of a season. While many seasons have traveled to foreign destinations for the finale, this time the battle is being fought in London and then Paris. So far, the chefs have cooked at Kew Gardens, Alexandra Palace, Highclere Castle and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, as well as Core by Clare Smyth, which hosted “Restaurant Wars.” Today’s location of Tobacco Dock, a former warehouse now used as an events space, is less iconic, but across the Thames something unexpected has formed.
As addressed in the previous episode, “Thali Time,” Queen Elizabeth II died in the midst of production on Top Chef: World All-Stars. It hasn’t really impacted today’s filming, although we are only about a mile away from the infamous queue, which starts in Southwark Park. Watching the episode now, months later, you’d have no idea of the historic moment unfolding simultaneously to the Wellington challenge.
“Being here when the queen died has been really interesting,” Colicchio says. “The queue is insane. And it’s not going to play on the show at all.”
In fact, there’s a lot the viewers at home don’t see that takes place on and around the Top Chef set. Today’s episode, titled “Battle of the Wellingtons” in reference to the dish’s namesake, the 1st Duke of Wellington, who prevailed over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, is a prime example. Prior to our arrival at Tobacco Dock, the chefs have already drawn knives in the studio-built Top Chef Kitchen, shopped at the Whole Foods in Kensington, and started their three-hour cook time. And while they scramble to prepare and roll the Wellingtons, the diners have assembled in a tent outside.
The dress code is “polished” but not cocktail. Logos and all-white attire are prohibited, as is clothing with “busy patterns.” Everyone is required to take a Covid test and then sit in the tent to wait for the results. I’ve been grouped with a British food writer and two publicists, but everyone else is here thanks to casting calls. Two of the diners — who feature prominently in the episode — have already attended prior tapings thanks to a post they saw on Lakshmi’s social media. My group, thanks to our status as press, gets to go into Tobacco Dock early and peek into the kitchen. It’s shockingly small.
A producer shows us where our table is located, but we can’t sit down yet. Instead, all of the diners are lined up in a hallway behind the judges and we parade slowly into the dining area. The first time it’s not quite right, so everyone lines up again and comes back in. The judges, joined by guest judge and JAAN chef Kirk Westaway, sit front and center.
On some tables are small flowerpots, which we poke because they look out of place. “It’s a hidden microphone,” explains one of the crew. Throughout the meal, the crew move the flowerpots from table to table, hoping to capture interesting commentary from the diners. There are seven cameras, which move constantly. Everyone sits upright and tries to pretend they aren’t being filmed.
Once everyone is settled — and we’re served glasses of the sponsor wine despite it barely being noon — the Wellingtons start to appear. The tables receive one dish for every two diners. As a long-time viewer of cooking competition shows, I assumed the food would arrive cold. But the fish Wellingtons are piping hot and the judges start eating, in rapid bites, before the chefs can even explain their dishes. Later, when we get to the dessert round, the raspberry sorbet is still frozen.
“We want to eat food when it’s hot,” Lakshmi explains afterward. “Food is organic matter. So, if it’’ too long, sauces congeal, soufflés deflate, lettuces get soggy, ice creams melt. The sorbet would have melted today. We want to honor all the hard work and heart that the chefs have put into their dishes and eat right away. The least we can do is eat something when it’s hot.”
“One thing I get upset about is if anyone tries to stop the food, like, ‘Should we put the cameras right there?’ Colicchio adds. “No. We’re going to eat the food. The chefs are working too hard to let the food just sit there.”
According to Colicchio, it’s been this way since the first-ever episode of Top Chef. While some shows have lags that cause dishes to cool and ice cream to melt, this one veers as far toward authenticity as possible. The hope is to convey that what these chefs are doing is real.
“It’s not being cooked by somebody else,” Colicchio affirms. “It’s not sitting around for half an hour to get cameras ready. We are eating the food as soon as it’s done.”
That sense of truth goes for the judging, as well. “My feeling is we have to be as honest as possible because the chefs are working so hard,” Colicchio says. “So, for me, it’s never been about personalities. I don’t care who it is. It’s completely detached from even what they did yesterday. We’re looking at what they did today. You can win five in a row and then you can give us the worst dish and you’re going home.”
While an enormous amount of footage is filmed for a given elimination challenge, not much makes the final cut. For instance, you can see my arm twice despite cameras hovering around our table for the hour-plus meal (giving us constant anxiety about being filmed while eating). One thing you rarely see is the extent of Colicchio’s interaction with the chefs throughout the challenge. In the final cut, it looks like he and Westaway only pop in the kitchen for a few minutes, but Colicchio is in conversation with the chefs throughout. He feels it’s important to ask a lot about their process in order to best judge the eventual dish. If they tell him the beef will be medium-rare, it better be medium-rare. “There’s a question of intention,” he notes. “What are they trying to do?”
Celebrating 20 seasons of Top Chef is a milestone, certainly, and the judges all say they have good reasons to keep doing it. It’s sustained its popularity for several reasons, one of which is that it’s about the chefs, not the judges. Most importantly, though, it’s never mean for the sake of being mean.
“All of our criticism is always geared toward being constructive and only about the food,” Lakshmi says. “If you think about when Top Chef started and what reality television was like, in those days we never went down that path. Yes, it can get you more viewers in the short term. But I don’t think I would be into staying with Top Chef for so many years if we started degrading people or being nasty or mean and trying to incite that kind of drama. There are plenty of other shows that do that. This is not one of them.”
She continues, “I also think when we choose who we choose as the winner or the one to go home, the audience can tell that’s a sincere decision. I know for a fact on some other shows they reverse-engineer it where they just pick a winner. [On Top Chef] sometimes the more boring guy wins because his food is great. The integrity of the show is something that Gail and Tom and I take very seriously.”
Today, it’s Santana and Bradley who get the boot. Their lamb Wellington, while genuinely delicious and a good concept, wasn’t cooked properly. Their apple dessert Wellington used filo dough instead of puff pastry, which Colicchio says was allowed but a mistake (“If you’re going to make a Wellington there’s a certain thing you have to make,” he quips backstage). They’ll move on to “Last Chance Kitchen,” where chef Charbel Hayek has been holding court for several weeks, and then who knows. Maybe there are more Wellingtons in their future.