Top Chef, thankfully, continues to stand out from its reality TV competition. Unlike other cooking shows where you may see home cooks try to make opulent desserts, precocious child chefs get yelled at by Gordon Ramsay or industry pros forced to cook a meal from baskets filled with marmite and goat’s brains, the Emmy Award winner is actually trying to suss out who is a great chef.
Last year, for Top Chef All Stars LA, there was a bit of a cognitive dissonance. The season had been filmed the fall before, when Covid-19 virus didn’t even exist in humans. It was strange, yet at times comforting, to see a world not in lockdown unspooling before us. It offered a brief reprieve from the wrath the pandemic was exacting upon the restaurant industry that the show celebrates. This year, it’ll be different. The hosts, cheftestants, crew and rotating panel of guests judges bubbled together in Portland, Ore. like the NBA did in Orlando, to film the show’s 18th season, which kicks off this week. Though the industry is shaken and the show format altered, Top Chef will hopefully still provide a platform for rising stars to compete against each other in a grueling test of their creativity and skill. As we tune in to see who will be crowned the 18th winner, we wanted to check in on what the previous 17 champions are up to now.
Harold Dieterle (Season 1: San Francisco)
Photo: Courtesy Harold Dieterle
That first season was still ironing out the wrinkles a little bit, with no Padma Lakshmi to be seen yet (Katie Lee, Billy Joel’s now ex-wife, was the host). In the finale, which was held in Las Vegas, Dieterle defeated Tiffani Faison with a menu that included olive oil poached bass and pan-roasted quail. After winning, Dieterle ran three restaurants in New York’s West Village: Perilla, Kin Shop and the Marrow. Despite solid reviews for each of the trio, he eventually closed them all, shuttering Perilla in 2015. He returned to New York in 2017 as the consulting chef at the gluten-free Italian restaurant Tali, but it closed in June of 2018. Dieterle now has a restaurant consulting business.
Ilan Hall (Season 2: Los Angeles)
Photo: Courtesy Eater NY
In a season that had some controversy, with a hazing incident of one of the contestants and Bravo not actually producing a reunion show because viewers didn’t like the chefs, Hall prevailed. After winning, Hall opened the Gorbals in LA, where he mashed up his Scottish and Jewish heritage with dishes like bacon-wrapped matzo balls. He expanded the concept to hipster enclave Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but he has since closed both locations. In 2015 Hall opened the vegan Ramen Hood in LA’s Grand Central Market. He also hosted a cooking competition show of his own, the testosterone-filled Knife Fight on the now-defunct Esquire Network.
Hung Huynh (Season 3: Miami)
Photo: Courtesy Hung Huynh
Huynh, who had cooked at Per Se and Guy Savoy before competing on the show, beat fan favorites Casey Thompson and Dale Levitski in the three-way final. After leaving the show Huynh worked for the restaurant and nightlife company EMM Group for four years, helping it grow the seafood restaurant Catch around the world, from New York to LA to Dubai to Mexico City. Upon departing EMM, Huynh worked private events and in 2016 took a job as the culinary consultant for Hilton at Resorts World Bimini in the Bahamas. In late 2019 he opened the Asian fusion restaurant Warrior on LA’s Sunset Strip.
Stephanie Izard (Season 4: Chicago)
Photo: courtesy Stephanie Izard, Inc.
Izard won the season held in her own backyard of the Windy City, defeating Richard Blais in the finale. Since then, she’s gone on to build an empire in Chicago’s thriving West Loop restaurant scene. In 2010, she opened the perpetually packed Girl & the Goat, where she serves delicious, creative and globally inspired dishes such as wood oven roasted pig face, grilled butter chicken and duck tartare. Soon after she opened the Little Goat Diner and her Chinese restaurant Duck Duck Goat. In 2019 at Chicago’s new Hoxton Hotel she opened her Peruvian-influenced Cabra, and last year she opened Sugargoat bakery and expanding her offering with meal kits delivered nationwide through Goldbelly. She’s long planned a restaurant in Los Angeles, which the pandemic had delayed, but she’s back working on the project again.
Hosea Rosenberg (Season 5: New York)
Photo: Courtesy Eater Denver
Season 5 was filled with chefs who would become fan favorites for years to come, including Fabio Viviani and Carla Hall. However, Rosenberg beat them all. The New Mexico-born chef returned to Colorado and has opened Blackbelly in Boulder, later expanding it to a butcher shop as well. In November 2017, Rosenberg opened Santo in Boulder, a restaurant devoted to the food of his home state, serving dishes such as Navajo fry bread and green chile pork and potato stew. In April of 2020, Rosenberg shared on Instagram that his daughter Sophie was suffering from a rare genetic disorder. He and his wife started a foundation to raise funds and awareness around MCTO.
Michael Voltaggio (Season 6: Los Angeles)
Photo: courtesy Ink
The LA-based chef with a fondness for molecular gastronomy squared off all season against his brother Bryan, edging out his older sibling in a finale that showed their contrasting styles of cooking. Voltaggio recently hosted the Travel Channel show Breaking Borders, where he went to conflict areas around the world to see how food could bring people together. He recently closed his flagship restaurant, Ink, and quickly reopened in a space nearby, but with a more relaxed, convivial environment and menu. However, he shuttered that restaurant in April 2018. He also joined forces with his brother to open a fast-casual fish sandwich concept called Strfsh and the Voltaggio Brothers Steak House at MGM National Harbor in their home state of Maryland. They also have the modern seafood restaurant Estuary in D.C.
Kevin Sbraga (Season 7: Washington D.C.)
Photo: Courtesy Kevin Sbraga
Sbraga was a bit of a surprise winner during the D.C. season, considering he only won one elimination challenge during the whole competition. The drama of the finale was slightly tempered with Bravo accidentally posting a video on its site the day of the episode that revealed the winner before the show had aired. After winning he opened multiple restaurants in Philly and one in Jacksonville, Florida, but he has eventually shuttered them all, closing the last one, the Fat Ham, in July 2017. In the summer of 2018 he opened his hot chicken spot Sonny & Sons near Purdue University in Indiana.
Richard Blais (Season 8: New York)
Photo: Courtesy Richard Blais
After losing to Stephanie Izard in the finale of Season 4, Blais came back to the show in its All Stars season, where every chef was a contestant who had lost in previous years. Using his love of molecular gastronomy, and sporting a bad fauxhawk haircut, he prevailed his second time around. He continues to hang around the show, regularly appearing as a judge. In 2014, he opened modern American restaurant Juniper & Ivy in San Diego, while being the creative director of Flip Burger Boutique, with outposts in Atlanta and Birmingham. He currently has an expanding fast-casual fried chicken restaurant called the Crack Shack, which has six locations around Southern California and Las Vegas. And in March he opened Ember & Rye, a modern steakhouse inside the Park Hyatt Aviara north of San Diego.
Paul Qui (Season 9: Texas)
Photo: Coutresy Nicolai McCrary/EATX
Few contestants have been as dominant as Qui was when he won nine of 17 challenges during the season that took place across the Lone Star State. And this wasn’t weak competition here. He defeated Sarah Grueneberg, who a few years ago won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest; Edward Lee, who hosted his own season of Mind of a Chef; and Nyesha Arrington, who worked for Michelin two-starred Melisse before opening her own acclaimed restaurants in LA. Qui went on to earn accolades with his eponymous restaurant in Austin, but a disturbing 2016 domestic violence incident led him to close Qui, and then reopen it as Kuneho. In November, he announced he would be closing that restaurant as well. In Houston, he opened Aqui in 2017, but it also closed.
Kristen Kish (Season 10: Seattle)
Photo: courtesy Timothy Patrick Clancy
Kish benefited from being on the first season in which Bravo deployed the web series Last Chance Kitchen, where eliminated chefs faced off in a tournament to gain re-entry to the competition at the finale. Kish, having performed very well early in the season with four wins, was eliminated five episodes before the finale. But she battled back to defeat Brooke Williamson, who until Kish had returned, dominated the field, winning three straight challenges. For a few years, you mainly found Kish roving to different events, hosting Travel Channel’s 36 Hours with former soccer player Kyle Martino, and in 2017 she published her first cookbook: Kristen Kish Cooking. In June 2018 she finally opened a new restaurant called Arlo Grey in Austin at the Line Hotel. And this year she cohosts a competition cooking show with fellow Top Chef alums Justin Sutherland and Jeremy Ford on Tru.Tv called Fast Foodies, where the trio compete to remake a celebrity guest’s favorite food.
Nicholas Elmi (Season 11: New Orleans)
Photo: Courtesy Gotham Magazine
Defeating Nina Compton, who has gone on to create the outstanding restaurant Compère Lapin in New Orleans, Elmi wasn’t exactly a fan favorite when he scored the upset victory. However, since his win, Elmi has returned to Philadelphia to make his mark on the city’s dining scene. Elmi’s modern French-slash-American restaurant Laurel has earned him accolades both in the City of Brotherly Love and nationwide. With the success of Laurel, he opened the bar ITV and Royal Boucherie. Late 2019 he released his first cookbook, Laurel: Modern American Flavors in Philadelphia. Now Elmi is heading out to the Philly burbs to open the all-day café The Landing Kitchen and the Mediterranean spot Lark.
Mei Lin (Season 12: Boston)
A protégé of Season 6 winner Michael Voltaggio, Lin defeated Gregory Gourdet of Departure in Portland, with a menu that included the rice porridge congee, which was topped with carnitas. Since her victory she’s traveled the world hosting pop-up dinners with fellow chefs, tests recipes for her forthcoming restaurant in Los Angeles, and has even been spotted hanging out with Oprah. Her restaurant, Nightshade in LA’s Arts District opened in January 2019 and was one of our Best of the Best winners that year. Now she has another hit on her hands, with her fast casual Szechuan hot chicken spot Daybird, which has seen consistent lines since it opened earlier this year. Also, a totally unrelated fun fact about her season: one of the people she beat went on to lose their restaurant after some alleged arborcide.
Jeremy Ford (Season 13: California)
Photo: courtesy Grove Bay Hospitality
One of the many Jean-Georges Vongerichten protégés to compete on Top Chef, the bro-ish Ford brought a cockiness and a modernist touch to the season that spanned locations up and down the Golden State. He started out hot, winning two of the first four challenges, but cooled slightly down the stretch before righting the ship and defeating Charlie Palmer disciple Amar Santana in the finale. After his victory he started planning his own restaurant in Miami, leaving Jean-Georges’ Matador Room to opening Stubborn Seed on South Beach, which one of Robb Report’s best new restaurants a couple years ago. In late 2018 he first discussed plans for a more casual seafood restaurant in the Miami area that had a scheduled opening of 2020, and then 2021, but an updated timeline hasn’t been released during the pandemic. As mentioned earlier, he’s co-hosting a cooking competition show with previous winner Kristen Kish.
Brooke Williamson (Season 14: Charleston)
Photo: Courtesy Ryan Tanaka
After the bitter sting of defeat in Season 10, Williamson returned to the competition in 2016 to avenge her loss in the final. Her experience paid off as she was a strong competitor throughout and eventually notched the overall win. Back home in LA, she hasn’t tried to chase Michelin stars with a bunch of fine-dining spots. Instead, along with her husband, Nick Roberts, she focused on neighborhood spots like her bar and restaurant Hudson House, gastropub Tripel, Hawaiian-inspired restaurant Da Kikokiko and multi-part concept Playa Provisions. However, the pandemic was brutal to her business, with her shuttering two restaurants, selling a third and holding on to Playa Provisions with a smaller staff.
Joe Flamm (Season 15: Colorado)
Photo: courtesy Rose Mary
The lovable former executive chef at Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Spiaggia in Chicago defeated Le Bernardin alum Adrienne Cheatham in the final to become the 15th Top Chef. Flamm took a circuitous route to the Colorado season finale. He won the coveted “Restaurant Wars” challenge only to be bounced immediately after during a sudden death Quickfire when he cooked subpar cauliflower risotto for the great David Kinch of Manresa. Through the cooking competition Last Chance Kitchen, where eliminated contestants compete in mini-challenges for the chance to reenter the competition, Flamm proved victorious, returning to take on the four remaining contestants. Though he stayed on at Spiaggia for a time, he had a foot out the door; Flamm told us after his win that he’d like to open his own Italian restaurant in the Windy City. He’s on the verge of doing so with Rose Mary, a wood-fired Croatian-Italian restaurant that’s opening in Chicago’s Fulton Market area this spring.
Kelsey Barnard Clark (Season 16: Kentucky)
Photo: courtesy Bravo
The chef-owner of the restaurant and catering company KBC in Dothan, Alabama, made her mark on Top Chef‘s 16th season by cooking southern fare combined with the skills she learned cutting her teeth under Gavin Kaysen at Cafe Boulud in New York. She returned to her home state to open her own restaurant and came into the competition with her infant son, Monroe, cheering for her at home. In the finale held in Macau, she defeated chefs Eric Adjepong and Sara Bradley to take home the title. After winning, she returned home $125,000 richer to keep running KBC. During Covid-19, the catering arm of her company has taken a hit with people canceling big events. She’s discussed how PPP money helped keep her staff paid when takeout was the only option for KBC. She’s since reopened for in-person dining and in October welcomed her second child.
Melissa King (Season 17: Los Angeles)
Photo: courtesy Bravo
“The term fusion has a bad wrap,” Melissa King said last season. “I really want to change that.” In the finale in Tuscany she made her point the best way possible, bringing together China and her surroundings in Italy for a four-course meal that wowed the judges with its skill and elegance. She defeated Bryan Voltaggio and Stephanie Cmar in the end to claim the title of Top Chef. However, the excitement had to have been tamped down a bit as her victory was revealed at a time when restaurants were crushed under the weight of the pandemic. Since winning she has been able to build up her collection of virtual cooking classes she’s had on offer and she also went into the Portland bubble to be one of the rotating judges. So you’ll see a lot more of King this season.