This one feels a little different.
After seven seasons of Top Chef, two seasons of Top Chef Masters and right on the heels of Top Chef: Just Desserts, I think it is safe to say I have met my share of new cheftestants. By this point, I have the whole thing down to a science. I know exactly what to expect from our first day of shooting, I have a time-tested system for remembering all their names at the first Elimination Challenge, I know more or less how well (or sometimes how poorly) each chef will do, having never anticipated how hard it is to cook under these conditions, and perhaps most of all, I realize how nervous and full of optimism they are as they stand before us at that first Judges’ Table.
All that said, within minutes of entering the Russian Tea Room for the start of Top Chef All-Stars, I tossed my assumptions and usual routine right out the door. For the first time on our show, I experienced a feeling that caught me completely off guard: nerves! I felt anxious and excited, as well as ill-prepared for what we were about to do. I could sense it before I even saw our returning chefs in person. It was palpable, but subtle, as slight as a change in barometric pressure, as certain as Tom’s shiny head. This season was going to be very different.
My angst was confirmed as soon as we were seated at the dinner table, surrounded by many of our strongest eliminated competitors from seasons past. I remembered them all well, partially because I have had the opportunity to get to know most of them personally since they last stood in front of us. I have shared meals and attended events with them, and have been lucky enough to eat at some of their restaurants across the country. But what shocked me was how clearly I remembered their food, their cooking styles, and their personalities in the kitchen. My first instinct was to smile, reach out and welcome them back, like I would a long-lost friend. But I could sense as they stared at us across the table that a friendly reunion was not in the cards. If I remembered so much about each of them, they surely had crystal clear memories of me in this circumstance too.
I know what you are thinking. At that moment I was thinking it too: How will this intimate knowledge affect our judging? Will it give some an advantage? How will they react? More is at stake this season, in both prize money and reputation, with all 18 seeking either retribution or redemption. It is hard not to consider all of this from the start. So, as we begin our next great adventure together, let me assure you of a few ground rules:
1) I have never regretted a decision I have made on this show and am not about to start second-guessing now. Rest assured, our judging is as impartial and balanced as ever. After all, that is why we are a panel of four. We keep each other in check and base our decisions on honest and thorough discussion, including all sides of an argument for both winning and losing chefs. We do not see what goes on in the house, in their private interviews, or most of what happens in the kitchen before we eat. As always, we judge each challenge in isolation, on the food put in front of us that specific day. It is the only way the challenges work. A chef cannot win by resting on his or her laurels, or on how well (or poorly) we suspect they can cook. They still need to prove it every time. That is also why we usually have a guest judge, who does not have our history with the chefs, does not know what they cooked last week or last season — or what they cook in their restaurants back home.