The “No Reservations” host’s regular presence is just one of the many bonuses “Top Chef” fans can expect for this eighth season, in addition to the return of favorite culinary competitors: Season 1 – Stephen Asprinio, Tiffani Faison; Season 2 – Elia Aboumrad, Marcel Vigneron; Season 3 – Dale Levitski, Casey Thompson, Tre Wilcox; Season 4 – Richard Blais, Antonia Lofaso, Spike Mendelsohn, Dale Talde; Season 5 – Carla Hall, Jamie Lauren, Fabio Viviani; Season 6 – Jennifer Carroll, Mike Isabella; and Season 7 – Tiffany Derry and Angelo Sosa.
Will Fabio feel bereft without his European union buddy Stefan Richter? Will Marcel stay out of fights this time around? Has Carla learned her costly sous vide lesson? We’ve seen the premiere, and after talking to Bourdain and Tom Colicchio, here’s a preview and a teaser of what to expect during the all-star season:
The eloquent judge claims he’ll be perkier and less acerbic than we’ve seen him, but we have our doubts. A sampling of his signature wry and colorful turn of phrase from the press call:
“I’m trying to be you know, cuddlier. In fact, right after this I’m putting on my jammies and watching ‘Dora the Explorer.’“
“I went into a gym for 20 minutes once. My wife bought me some training sessions and I decided that there was nothing attractive about laying on the floor trying not to vomit in front of total strangers. I basically Google Keith Richards every day, if he is still alive I figure there is hope for me.”
“Yes, sweet gyros, those really nasty, sinister like, it doesn’t even look like meat. It’s on a stick kind of a thing, twirling around under a light bulb. I can’t resist those things. I know it’s like an extra hour on the thunder bucket but I got to have it.”
The chef’testants will be haunted by the ghosts of dishes past. The premiere’s first elimination challenge will be to re-prepare the dish that sent them home, but you know, make it better this time. The prospect of getting sent home twice for the same dish is too horrifying to contemplate.
They’ve also come a long way emotionally, including Dale Talde.
“He was kind of arrogant, kind of a bad boy,” says Colicchio. “In fact I think he and Anthony got into a little bit. He seems to have matured a lot since the Chicago season.”
Bourdain adds, “I think he’d come to realize he served me what is really the single worst dishes I’ve ever tasted. It was a scallop and butterscotch dish. It was just, you know, I don’t know what happened that led he to that place but he’s capable clearly of much, much better. I mean he is a very talented guy.”
“They all seemed to have grown,” Colicchio continues. “Spike has obviously done a lot since his season aired. Professionally I think he’s doing really well. They all seemed to have matured a bit. I think they are more cognizant that now they are on TV. I think before they knew they were [before], but I think once you get the chance to see yourself, it kind of reins in a little bit. I think they’re all more on top of their game.”
Here’s the chefs’ own take on how they’ve changed:
An Empire State of Mind
“It seemed to there was a real attempt to get New York right this time,” says Bourdain. “Most of the challenges are very and uniquely New York. And I think they made it an extra effort — and it shows — to really capture typically the uniquely and specialty New York things. So I think there is going to be a lot of New Yorkers will be happy for sure, and anybody who is interested in New York. You know, it’s the big leagues and I think the show plays to that strength.”
Food aside, Bourdain knows which of the chef’testants he’d prefer to have a drink with after a long day working in the kitchen.
“I find I think as most people do I find Fabio, you know, very loveable,” he admits. “Come on, he’s an enormously likeable guy. You can’t help he’s charming, he’s Italian. I love Italian food, my wife is Italian. If I’m bitter about anything in my life it’s that I’m not Italian American. So you know, he is a very charming guy.”
As we can see from the clips and photos, Fabio’s hair has grown out, so there’s more of him to love.
No Favoritism, No Quarter
Although the judges know the chefs’ personalities by already, they won’t be swaywed by who they like personally when it comes to the Judges Table.
“It’s all about the food,” states Bourdain. “There is a lot of back and forth at Judges Table. You know, some pretty passionate arguments. The end of the day it doesn’t matter, you know, how likable the guy.. I mean if you serve me bad food, I will cheerfully drag a rusty butter knife across the throat of the [guy].
“It’s also the ‘What have you done for me lately?’ rule. It doesn’t matter whether you the most talented person, it doesn’t matter what you did last week, if you suck the worse this week you go home this week.”
“Yes. Or the old saying in our industry is: ‘You’re only as good as your last dish,'” Colicchio adds, conceding, “It’s much easier to judge someone if you don’t know them at all, but then you get to know them and you actually start to consider them your peers. Yes, yes so it is hard to judge them. I think if anything, the judging this season is a little more constructive.”
Colicchio: “I think it’s like any all-star game whether it’s the NBA, you’re playing with the best of the best. You want to bring your A game because not only do you want to win this competition, but I think there is one-upmanship.
“You want your competitors to think highly of you as well. I always get a sense on the show that beside winning, you want to walk away with the other contestants going, ‘Hey, that person can really cook.’ That is as important as winning the show, the respect from your peers. So I think there is a lot of friendly banter that goes on because they all know each other a little bit, and they’ve seen each other in various events and things like that. And some of them may know each other from TV.”
Unfortunately, neither judge is able to dish on whether that competitive spirit gets played out in behind-the-scenes dramas.
“We don’t see it, because we only see the food really,” says Bourdain. “All of the backstage stuff we don’t see that until later, we see it when you see it.
Says Colicchio, “Yes, we’re not privileged to anything that goes on behind the scenes. You know, when Hosea had his make out session with — I’m forgetting her name — we had no idea that was happening, absolutely no idea. Nor do we care.”
Even though no former champions were invited back, we were still hoping for a taste of the sibling rivalry that arguably led to “Top Chef’s” most exciting and Emmy-winning season. On the Las Vegas season, the tattooed Michael Voltaggio schooled his big brother Bryan, who would have been a natural fit for the all-star cast.
“It would have great to have Bryan Voltaggio back,” acknowledges Colicchio, “but I’m sure he is busy with the restaurant right now. I don’t know, I think we have a great lineup.”
Bourdain isn’t wringing his hands either. “I had no idea who was going to be on. When I saw who it was my first episode, I was really pleased with the lineup. Some of my favorites were on.”