This article contains spoilers about Bravo's Top Chef Season 17 finale.
The Top Chef judges certainly had their work cut out for them during each deliberation as they decided who among the 15 finalists, frontrunners, and fan favorites competing in the all-star-studded Season 17 would win the elimination challenge and who Padma Lakshmi would tell to "pack your knives and go" each episode.
It wasn't easy, but Padma, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons, along with the special guest judges in every episode, narrowed the field down to three finalists. Stephanie Cmar, Melissa King, and Bryan Voltaggio each cooked the best progressive four-course meal of their lives in the final challenge in Italy. But of course, only one All Star could be crowned the winner of Season 17.
Melissa earned the title of Top Chef in the Season 17 finale, leaving Stephanie and Bryan once again so close to victory.
Stephanie first competed in Season 11 of Top Chef where she came in seventh place after being eliminated on a technicality when her teammate for that challenge, Nicholas Elmi, landed her team in the bottom. Because Nicholas had immunity, the judges asked Stephanie to leave the competition. "Nothing’s more glamorous than getting kicked off for somebody else’s food. I felt like a champ," Stephanie recalled of that elimination during an interview with The Daily Dish prior to the Top Chef Season 17 finale airing. "I made up stories after that. I was like, 'I might be the best, we just didn’t get to see.' There was no animosity. I was pretty upset. Personally, I was pretty OK with it. It stunk at the time because I was having so much fun, but in hindsight, what a good way to go."
Still, finally making it to the finale in Season 17 felt like "an incredible accomplishment" for Stephanie. "To make it to the finale with people who are as beloved as the final three, that is definitely one of the highlights of not only my career but my life," she said. "I was incredibly proud of myself and proud to be there with them because [they're] such amazing people."
Season 17 marked Bryan's third time in the competition and third time making it to the finals, having come in as a runner-up in both Season 6, where his younger brother, Michael Voltaggio, took home the title of Top Chef, and in Season 5 of Top Chef Masters, where Douglas Keane reigned supreme. "With Top Chef, I’ve gotten to do incredible things. [I'm] so fortunate to be able to go back and compete again. Would I have been disappointed if I would have gone home early and I would have been the one watching that on the couch [laughs]? Yeah, I would have been mad," Bryan told The Daily Dish in a separate phone interview in advance of the Top Chef Season 17 finale airing. "So I’m happy I did get to experience the whole thing all the way through. Am I disappointed I didn’t win? Of course I am. I mean, I thought for sure this was gonna be my time."
But making Top Chef history like Bryan has is also a huge accomplishment. "I’ve still competed in more challenges than anybody’s ever competed in. I’ve gone all the way to the end three times. Nobody can ever claim that. 17 people can say they’re Top Chef, but 17 people can’t say they’ve been there three times. I’m happy with what I did," Bryan said. "It’s been an incredible ride, it was a lot of fun, and I don’t regret a moment."
Even though they had both been through the Top Chef experience before, the runners-up agreed that the competition was next level this season, with Stephanie calling it "a thousand times more competitive, more intense" and Bryan dubbing it "by far the hardest season of the competition ever in the history of the show."
With that in mind, Bryan said that he approached this season differently than before. "I went into it relying on my repertoire and the dishes and things that I feel really comfortable with that are dishes I feel like represent me as a chef. I wanted to make sure that my plates — my dishes and the food that I was cooking — as much as possible were adapted to the challenge, versus just trying to make up dishes on the fly," he explained. "I wanted to make sure I was gonna be cooking smart, that I was gonna be able to finish within the time limits, that I was gonna give myself the ample amount of time to taste and try things and not just do things quickly."
Stephanie, on the other hand, said, just like when she entered the competition for the first time in Season 11, she was just focused on not getting eliminated. "Honestly, no, I kind of went in with the same frame of mind that was like, well, just do not get kicked off 'cause that’s bad," she said. "So when it came down to the actual challenges and stuff, it was just the scope of talent was insane. So I kind of had to approach it like, breathe through it, get your ideas straight, because you know that there isn’t a bad one in the bunch."
Luckily, a couple of Top Chef winners were on hand to give Stephanie and Bryan a little pep talk via video chat the night before their last cook of the season. Stephanie called Season 10 winner Kristen Kish, her longtime friend who even officiated her wedding to David Cavilla in 2018, while Bryan got some words of encouragement from his little brother Michael, who said he was "so proud" of him. "It’s great to hear that from my little brother," Bryan told The Daily Dish. "He really wanted me to get the win."
Both finalists said that they were nervous heading into the final challenge. Stephanie noted that she "was definitely overwhelmed" trying to make sure she got the correct ingredients since all of the packages were in Italian. But once she got to the actual cooking of the meal, she said she "had an absolute blast." "I knew that it was the end," she said. "I knew how important it was, and that was really emotional."
Bryan said he also felt the pressure going into the finale. "I felt like I owed it to not only myself but my family, going away for a third time to do this, to try to get this, there was a lot of added pressure. But also having Kevin [Gillespie] cook to be with me [as sous chef]... It was up to us and me to try to help win this for the two of us," Bryan shared. "The night before, just like all the planning, all the thinking, all of the sleepless nights and things that make you worry, all of those things are going through my head, for sure. But when it came time to cook, I had a great time in the last cook. I was really proud of the food that I did."
Stephanie admitted that she didn't think she had won the competition as the judges gave their critiques. "I did my damnedest. If there were things that I could do differently, I absolutely would," she said. "I went in there just being really excited to have the opportunity and to do my best. I really think that I did. Again, there’s things that I would absolutely do differently. I would have changed the veal course 100 percent 'cause that went awry. But I really love the food that I put out. And more than that I loved the faith that it took to come up with the food."
Bryan said that he felt like he "definitely had a chance" at taking home the title of Top Chef going into the final Judges' Table. "But it was still unclear. You know the Judges’ Table, there’s always critiques on all sides because there has to be. So it’s really tough to figure out what’s going through their head," he said. "Slowly towards the end, it seemed like Melissa was going to be taking it. But I still thought that I put forward a really good menu, and I was pretty happy with what I did."
Of course, Stephanie and Bryan couldn't have been happier to see Melissa crowned Top Chef. "Melissa’s food is f--king incredible... and it’s very consistent. And I knew that going up against Melissa was going to be incredibly difficult, which it was," Stephanie said. "When she won, I was just as happy had I won — except I’m so not rich as she is."
"I was very happy for her because she did an amazing job. She’s a great cook, she’s a talented chef, and she was a great competitor," Bryan said. "She competed with grace and is an amazing friend now and someone I’ve gotten to respect. And so, I was really happy for her. She fought for it, and she did a great job."
Looking back, there are some things the runners-up would have done differently during this season of Top Chef, such as the elimination challenge where they had to create a signature specialty product and dish to highlight it for Stephanie and Bryan's finale dessert. But overall, both Stephanie and Bryan are happy with how their Top Chef seasons turned out.
"Everything that I did, I was proud of. I wish I would have won a couple more challenges, obviously, throughout the season. I think I would maybe feel a little bit better," Bryan said. "But I made it all the way to the last challenge, and so I don’t regret going. I had an amazing time. I don’t regret not, not winning. I wish I would have, but I got to do some incredible things. Going to Italy and being able to experience all the things we got to experience there was certainly rewarding and worth the time."
Stephanie noted, "If I changed anything, I don’t know if I would have gotten to the finale. So, I don’t really have any regrets, just in hindsight, you know, maybe a few things."
Bryan said during the Season 17 finale that this would be his "last time" competing on the show, and he still felt that way while speaking with The Daily Dish. "I don’t know if there’ll ever be a fourth [laughs]. I can tell you that right now, there will not be. This will be it," Bryan said, later noting, "maybe I would" and "maybe I am such a glutton for punishment." "It’s been an incredible ride. It was a lot of fun. I don’t regret a moment."
Stephanie agreed that Season 17 would be her last time competing on Top Chef, although she admitted she said the same thing after her first time on the show. "It would have to mean that I would have to get even more than I did out of this season, and I don’t know if that’s possible," she said. "But what the show also does is it gives you a real cool position in your career, and I’m so grateful for that. But now it’s sort of like, I don’t know, I’ve got a lot of goals that I want to see through that are probably less social isolation competing, more, you know, social [laughs]."
Reflecting on his Top Chef journey that began more than 10 years ago, Bryan said that the experience has changed his life in many ways. "I think everybody who’s ever competed on the show has definitely had a huge influence on their career and what they’ve been able to accomplish," he said. "I mean for me, I’ve been able to touch so many people with food."
Bryan especially appreciates Top Chef giving him the opportunity to support charitable organizations like Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, for which he works to raise money through Chefs Cycle every year. "Especially during these times, even more so, I have so many people, that are unemployed, and everything that’s going on with COVID, there’s not a more important time than now to get children connected with food," Bryan said. "I think Top Chef has helped to touch a lot of people not only through food and my restaurant but also helping my community."
She may not have won that $250,000 cash prize, but Stephanie said that she came away from this season of Top Chef with something even more valuable. "I went into this season really pretty miserable, really, really unhappy with myself, where I’d let my little world take myself, the effect that it had on my family and my husband and whatnot, I wasn’t bringing much to the table," she shared. "And since Top Chef, it’s changed who I am for the better. It’s made me much more confident, much happier, more comfortable with the sense that I can do anything. And to get that out of any experience is greater than a win."
Stephanie said that she had entered the competition with "a debilitating depression," which "is basically gone" today. "I still have my anxious days, which are kind of a fiasco, but [this season of Top Chef] really taught me that no matter what life throws at you, whether it’s a competition or just your regular life, you can get through it. And that was important," Stephanie said. "I’ve gotten a lot of really incredible messages from people, people that have also lost siblings or dealt with depression and stuff. And I didn’t really anticipate the effect that my story would have for them. It’s made me really happy that I can also show people that you might think your world’s ending, but there’s a lot to live for and to get through and experiences you can have if you just take a chance."
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