Star judges share their favorite tasting memories from the last two decades.
After 20 seasons, the thousands of dishes throughout Top Chef history have largely melded together in the judges’ minds. But between the Quickfires, Elimination Challenges, Restaurant Wars, and finales, there have been a handful of plates that have stuck with them after a winner has been named — dishes that blew their minds with creative flavors or thoughtful techniques, even ones that evolved how they thought about food entirely. Judges Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons share the dishes from Top Chef history that have made a lasting impact on their palate and American cooking culture as a whole.
Poached Lamb Loin, Sherry-Glazed Golden Beets, and Asparagus in Sunchoke Cream
By Kevin Gillespie, Season 6, Episode 12
Channeling the high-end French cooking competition, the Bocuse D’Or, Gillespie’s stunning trio was one of the first times that Simmons’ recalls a chef successfully defying their personal style. “He pushed himself in a way we had not seen, and created a platter that could have competed at the Bocuse d’Or alongside any other.”
Banana Fritters with Red Chili Paste
By Ed Cotton, Season 7, Episode 13
For the first time, Top Chef traveled across international waters and competed in Singapore. “The Season 7 finale was a thrilling adventure for the show and opened up an enormous array of new ingredients, cultures, and flavors for us,” says Simmons. Chef Ed Cotton learned from this new environment to create these sweet and savory, hawker-style banana fritters.
African Groundnut Soup with Baked Sweet Potatoes, Adzuki Beans, and Peanuts
By Carla Hall, Season 8, Episode 4
In a cooking tournament inspired by the U.S. Open, chef Carla Hall prepared a spicy groundnut soup, marking the first time West African cuisine was introduced to the competition. “I was riveted,” says Simmons. “Carla is a master storyteller and her passion for this soup was contagious.”
Chicken Pot Pie with Carrots, Celery, Pea Salt, and Herbs
By Carla Hall, Season 8, Episode 9
When Carla Hall was assigned chicken pot pie (determined by a game on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon), she could hardly contain her excitement. “Carla knows her way around many types of pie,” says Lakshmi. Guest judge Jimmy Fallon was even more excited after he had the chance to taste her pie, sharing Hall’s love for savory pies with both a top and bottom crust.
Related: 13 Tempting Pot Pie Recipes
Black Drum with Zhenjiang Vinegar Butter Sauce, Braised Celery, and Mushrooms
By Shirley Chung, Season 11, Episode 13
Using ingredients local to the season’s New Orleans location, Chung stepped outside of her European cooking style to a savory, complex dish that embraced her Chinese heritage. “She proudly cooked us a very personal plate of food, full of flavors from her childhood,” says Simmons. “I like to think this was the dish that inspired [Chung] to focus on her Chinese roots moving forward.”
Roasted Parsnips, Green Beans, and Zucchini with Ramp and Onion Vinaigrette
By Melissa King, Season 12, Episode 6
“This was one of my favorite challenges because the chefs could only cook with what European colonizers would have found when they landed at Plymouth Rock,” says Lakshmi. Chef Melissa King, who went on to win Season 17, prepared a wow-worthy dish with simple vegetables. “It was Melissa’s stellar technique that gave so much depth to such humble ingredients.”
Red Mole with Short Ribs and Agave Sweet Potato
By Gregory Gourdet, Season 12, Episode 15
During the six weeks prior to the Season 12 finale in Mexico, chef Gregory Gourdet prepared by studying Mexican cuisine, and learned how to make an ancho-tamarind mole from Portland, Oregon, chef Kusuma Rao. It paid off — he impressed the judges with that very mole, paired with short rib and sweet potato. “Gregory’s dish was a love letter to some of the beautiful and deeply layered moles of Mexico,” says Lakshmi. “The dish was so rich and nuanced at the same time.”
Salmon Wellington with Shrimp Pâté, Beurre Blanc with Salmon Caviar, and Robuchon Potato Purée
By Buddha Lo and Gabri Rodriguez, Season 20, Episode 11
Simmons couldn’t wait to eat a Wellington during the World All-Stars season in London. “It's a dish that is often underestimated, striking in presentation, and extremely difficult to execute,” she says. The salmon version of the British staple from chefs Buddha Lo and Gabri Rodriguez was well worth the anticipation. “I loved the layers of texture: the soft salmon and potato puree, pops of caviar and golden, crisp pastry. It was comforting, playful, sophisticated, and it could not have been done by someone who hadn't studied the technique well in advance.”
Nopal Relleno with Shrimp Purée, Raw Nopal, and Marigold
By Evelyn Garcia, Season 19, Episode 13
“This wasn't the first time we had challenged our chefs to cook with indigenous ingredients,” says Simmons. “But it was an instance where most of our chefs were not familiar with them.” However, chef Evelyn Garcia jumped in head first, creating a confident, complex dish that highlighted chiltepin and nopal in a natural way.
Roasted Onion, Onion Purée, Chicken Jus, and Sumac Tuile
By Charbel Hayek, Season 20, Episode 1
Tasked with creating a dish that spotlighted vegetables as the main component and meat as an accompaniment, Charbel Hayek served an onion-forward dish that was deceptively complex. “The caramelization of the onions — each petal separated and gently charred, the development of the chicken jus, and the tartness of the sumac were each prepared to perfection,” says Simmons. “How they all came together to create a breathtaking plate of food felt incredibly modern in plating and style, but still so classic in technique and inspiration.”
English Pea Cake with Pistachio Butter, Lemon Curd, and Buttermilk Sorbet
By Sara Bradley, Season 20, Episode 14
In the season 20 finale, chef Sara Bradley shocked and delighted the judges with this innovative, bright green pea cake — something that home cooks rushed to make themselves. “This whimsical dessert charmed us all,” says Lakshmi. “It was moist, delicate, and had just a touch of sweetness.
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