Top Chef Season 19 Ushers In New Cast of Cunning Culinary Contestants

Your Super Bowl involves wings, pizza, and the first Sunday in February. You yell at the TV when your team scores a touchdown, you weep when they miss a chance to make the playoffs. Fists raised in the air, you cheer at the end of another great season or drown your sorrows in a tall pint of beer. Your sports season has ended. Mine has just begun. Welcome to Top Chef Season 19.

There is no shortage of cooking competition reality shows on American television. On any given day you can find no less than six episodes of America's Most Incompetent Line Cooks, running on different channels simultaneously, or a certain English chef using screaming as a substitute for thoughtful critique of the work of a chef (who is headed straight to therapy at the end of the episode). Top Chef is different. Executive produced by acclaimed celebrity chef Tom Colicchio and author Padma Lakshmi (who also serves as host), the show is interested in a chef's ability to innovate in the fine dining sphere. Colicchio and Lakshmi are members of the Top Chef head judge trio; Food & Wine editor Gail Simmons is the third. 

TOP CHEF -- Season:18 -- Pictured: (l-r) Gail Simmons, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio --
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

It would've been easy for the producers to create a show that traffics in the same antics that pass for tests of creativity and skill elsewhere. Chef Colicchio was pitched the idea on the show thrice before he reconsidered. What changed his mind, you ask? Watching Project Runway. Magical Elves, the production company responsible for the longrunning fashion competition reality series, wanted to recreate its hit formula in the world of restaurant fine dining. Despite his hesitation about working on television--something he'd never done before--Colicchio agreed

The Beginning

The first four seasons of Top Chef do not in any way resemble the TV gem that it is today. For one thing, the series premiered in 2006, which means all visuals are right above potato quality. Katie Lee Biegel was the show's first co-host and judge, along with Simmons and Colichhio. Even after Bravo replaced Biegel with Lakshmi for Season Two, the show was still rough at the edges. The direction and editing lacked finesse. Lakshmi and Simmons were dressed plainly, styled without glamour. Despite the presence of culinary legends on the show--including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Wylie Dufresne, and the late, great Anthony Bourdain--Top Chef was struggling to define its tone. It is arguable that it wasn't until Season 7, set in Washington D.C., that the show found its sea legs. President Obama had just taken office, and his administration's efforts to create healthy school breakfasts and lunches were woven into the production.

IIan Hall, Winner of Bravo's Top Chef
IIan Hall, Winner of Bravo's Top Chef Season 2, Gail Simmons, Sam Talbot and Tom Colicchio (Photo by John Parra/WireImage for Food & Wine)

There is also a memorable, and in hindsight, hilarious, episode in which then-Congressman Aaron Shock guest-judges a segment on bite-sized foods because lobbyists are forbidden from treating politicians to full meals. Less than a decade later, Shock resigned from Congress, shortly before he was indicted on 24 criminal counts of theft of government funds, making false statements, and filing false tax returns.

So how will Top Chef Season 19 work? The same as it always has. If you've never seen the show, here's a short breakdown of how it works.

How Top Chef Works

Number of Contestants on Top Chef Season 19

12-19--Some seasons are bigger than others, but generally there are always at least a dozen chefs who begin the competition.

Contestant Backgrounds

Anyone--sous chef, cookbook author, chef-owner, executive chef, private chef--is allowed to apply to be on the show. Generally, the show's final contestant pool tends to be full of James Beard Award and F&W Best Chef nominees/winners, not to mention chefs who worked for previous Top Chef winners and finalists. Sous chefs have been on the show before, as have private chefs. Overall, winners tend to be executive chefs and chefs de cuisine.

Format

Progressive elimination--Each week, one or more chefs are eliminated.

Episode Format

The first part of almost every episode is the Quickfire Challenge. Chefs are given anywhere from eight minutes to an hour to make a dish within certain parameters. They could also be asked to take part in a challenge related to the food world taste tests, a relay race for mise en place, taste and recreate mother sauces. Winning the Quickfire Challenge can have several rewards: cash prizes, a year of culinary subscription services (e.g., Blue Apron, Terlato Wine, Hello Fresh), holidays in major cities around the world, and/or that most coveted prize of all, immunity.

The second part of almost every episode is the Elimination Challenge. This is where the show truly shines. Chefs are asked to do a variety of tasks, and their food must be good enough for them to avoid being in the bottom. Potential tasks include cooking for a food festival, cooking for and pitching an individual restaurant concept, or preparing a special occasion meal for a celebrity's party.

What Is Immunity?

If you win a Quickfire Challenge that has immunity up for grabs, that means you cannot be eliminated during that episode, no matter how bad your food was. (You'll still get yelled at, however.) Immunity also disappears as the finale inches closer, so by the end of the series, a Quickfire win may result in a significant advantage during the Elimination Challenge (e.g., extra cook time, better ingredients).

Judges' Table

This is where we face the music. Judges sit at a long table, and in front of them line up the chefs who have the best and worst dishes from each Elimination Challenge. Judges may use this time to compliment the chefs on their cooking, or, if they're on the bottom, ask why they made certain choices about techniques in their dish, and provide criticism. Judges' table is also where the winner of each episode is revealed; it is also the place where one unlucky chef has to hear that haunting, most dreaded phrase: "Please pack your knives and go."

Meet the Cheftestants of Top Chef Season 19

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Stephanie Miller

Stephanie Miller
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Bismarck, ND

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Bismarck, ND

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Chef/Owner, Butterhorn & Owner, Shelter Belt

Stephanie Miller is the Chef and Owner of Butterhorn and Owner of Shelter Belt in Bismarck, ND. Growing up, she fell in love with cooking with her grandmothers and frequently made meals by herself for her large family at a very young age. After attending college at the University of North Dakota for pre-med, Stephanie switched gears and attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis. She spent the next seven years cooking with distinguished James Beard-nominated chefs Lenny Russo and Doug Flicker. Following her work at the James Beard-nominated restaurant Piccolo, she became Executive Chef at Italian Eatery, which was named Minneapolis' Best Italian in 2016 by Mpls St. Paul Magazine. Stephanie then moved back to her hometown of Bismarck and opened two restaurants, Butterhorn and Shelter Belt, with her husband Shane. Each restaurant focuses on the history of North Dakota and her state pride with menu items including lefse, bison and kuchen.

Sarah Welch

Sarah Welch
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Ann Arbor, MI

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Detroit, MI

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Executive Chef, Marrow & Partner, Mink

Sarah Welch is the Executive Chef, Founding Member and Equity Partner at Marrow. She is also the co-Founder of seafood-centric restaurant Mink in Detroit's Corktown. Marrow was voted a semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant in the country by the James Beard Foundation in 2019, and in that same year was named one of the top new restaurants by Eater. The following year, Sarah was named a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist in the Best Chef in the Great Lakes category. Prior to Marrow, she was Executive Chef at Republic and Parks and Recreation for two years. Sarah trained at the renowned International Culinary Center in NYC after getting a business degree at Michigan State University. She credits her childhood experience of growing up partially in Jamaica as an inspiration for becoming a chef.

Ashleigh Shanti

Ashleigh Shanti
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN:?Virginia Beach, VA

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE:?Asheville, NC

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION:? Chef/Owner, Good Hot Fish

Ashleigh Shanti is Chef and Creator of Good Hot Fish, an Asheville, North Carolina-based fish fry pop up. Her cuisine honors Black foodways while also?paying homage to her coastal Virginia upbringing where she stripped collard greens before she could walk.??After earning her Bachelor's in Marketing at Hampton University, Ashleigh studied Culinary Arts at Baltimore International College.? She honed her skills at a variety of restaurants ranging from Northern Italian to Classic French, but Southern Appalachian cuisine is her culinary love language.?Ashleigh was awarded 2019 Eater Young Gun and named a 2020 finalist for James Beard "Rising Star Chef of the Year" award during her tenure as Chef de Cuisine at John Fleer's Benne on Eagle.?When she's not in the kitchen, Ashleigh can be found outdoors, birding, foraging or hiking the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains with her 10-year-old Vizsla, Roux and her lovely partner, Meaghan.

Damarr Brown

Damarr Brown
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Chicago, IL

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Chef de Cuisine, Virtue

Damarr Brown is the Chef de Cuisine at Virtue restaurant located on the south side of Chicago. He fell in love with cooking at a young age while spending time in the kitchen with his grandmother. Damarr formalized his culinary skills at Le Cordon Bleu College of culinary arts in Chicago and continued to train in some of the cities' finest kitchens including MK, the Capital Grille, and one Michelin-starred restaurant Roister. Damarr reunited with his mentor Erick Williams to open Virtue, which was named one of America's Best New Restaurants by Esquire in 2019. His culinary focus at Virtue draws from familiar flavors he grew up with, pairing them with his learnings and takeaways from past kitchens.

Jae Jung

Jae Jung
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Seoul, Korea

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: New York City

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Chef/Owner, KJUN

Chef Jae Jung is the chef and owner of KJUN, a Korean-Cajun pop-up in New York City. Originally from Seoul, Chef Jae left her family to come to the United States in 2009 to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York.? Upon graduation, she moved to New Orleans and fell in love with Cajun food while working in the kitchens of the city's most-decorated restaurants, including August, Domenica, Herbsaint and Dooky Chase.?During these formative years, Jae developed her distinctive Korean-Cajun flavors and techniques, as well as her deep commitment to the spirit of Southern cuisine and hospitality.?In 2014, Jae relocated to New York City to work in some of the city's most prestigious Michelin-starred restaurants, including Oceana, Le Bernardin, the NoMad Restaurant, and most recently as the sous chef of the famed Café Boulud. ? In 2021, she launched her first startup, KJUN, introducing hungry New Yorkers to her distinctive blend of Korean and Cajun flavors, ingredients, and dishes. Her cuisine has been featured in the New York Times, Eater, FOOD & WINE Magazine, Bon Appétit Magazine, the New Yorker, and Bloomberg Pursuits, which recently named KJUN one of the Best New Restaurants in New York.

Jo Chan

Jo Chan
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN:?Palmdale, California

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Austin, Texas

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Executive Chef

Jo Chan graduated from San Diego State University before attending the San Diego Culinary Institute. In 2012, she moved to New York City, where she began her career at Nobu Fifty-Seven. From there she went to work under Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto in the West Village. Her time at Barbuto brought her to the kitchen of fellow Barbuto alumni Justin Smillie, who collaborated with Stephen Starr to create Upland. Chef Jo then went to Scandinavia as the traveling Executive Chef for James Beard winner Marcus Samuelsson. She moved to Austin in 2018, where she became Executive Chef at Eberly. She has found a strong community in this city and hopes to deepen her roots here in the coming years. Her new project will combine her love of Italian food with Austin's unique appetite for high-quality ingredients served in a casual setting. She lives with her beautiful fiancée, who is an English professor at Texas State University, and their two perfect dogs, Blue and Luna.

Nick Wallace

Nick Wallace
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Edwards, MS

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Jackson, MS

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Chef, Nick Wallace Culinary

Nick Wallace is the Founder and Chef of Nick Wallace Culinary, Nick Wallace Catering, Nissan Café by Nick Wallace, and soon to be "CHURN Creameries". Born and raised in Mississippi, he began his culinary training at an early age in his grandmothers' kitchens, where he absorbed the knowledge and guidance that inspired his love for food. Nick has served as Executive Chef for some of the country's largest and most prominent museums and hotels. He has also been featured on notable food television programs. He works closely with local farmers and combines his family's farm origins with a sophisticated French method to create a unique and modern Mississippi cuisine that is as comforting as it is exciting. His non-profit organization, Creativity Kitchen, works with Jackson Public Schools to provide more flavorful and nutritious meals for students as well as educate them about healthy eating and the skills and value of farm-to-table practices. In addition to serving on the Board of Directors for Hunger Free America, Nick has also established partnerships with major food and beverage companies as well as organizations including Share the Gulf, Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi and the American Cancer Society. Recently,?Nick's love for his state and vision for culinary innovation earned him Best Chef of Mississippi honors, which he uses to motivate himself to further grow his understanding of flavor and technique and to better serve his family and community.

Luke Kolpin

Luke Kolpin
Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Seattle, WA

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Seattle, WA

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Chef

Seattle native Luke Kolpin began his cooking journey at Seattle Central College's culinary program. After graduating, Luke went on to work at many Seattle restaurants including Canlis, an upscale fine dining destination. Looking to further his culinary expertise, Luke accepted a job under Chef Rene Redzepi at the three Michelin-starred, world-renowned restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark.?While at Noma, he had the opportunity to work alongside some of the most talented chefs in the culinary industry and earned the role of Sous Chef. After eight years at Noma, Luke decided to head back home to Seattle. When feeding himself, Luke's everyday go-to dish is a sandwich as there are endless possibilities of perfection!

Robert Hernandez

Robert Hernandez
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Downey, CA

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: San Francisco, CA

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Private Chef

Robert Hernandez is a Private Chef in San Francisco, CA. He grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles where his passion for food grew through family gatherings and his mother's cooking. Some of Robert's favorite childhood memories include large gatherings around the kitchen table, eating ceviche, tamales, essentially anything his mother or aunt put on the table. Robert has worked in many notable restaurants in San Francisco, including one Michelin-starred restaurant Octavia. At Octavia, Robert worked his way up to Chef de Cuisine and was recognized as San Francisco's Rising Star Chef in 2019. There, he honed his culinary skills and developed a passion for marrying seasonal ingredients with his inherited flavor profiles. Methodical techniques have shaped his elevated, yet approachable cuisine. Apart from cooking, Robert enjoys binge watching his favorite "The Real Housewives" franchise, traveling and spending time with his family.

Sam Kung

Sam Kang
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Gardena, California

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Brooklyn, NY

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Chef Educator

A Southern California native, Sam Kang headed to New York in 2010 with just $700 in his pocket and the goal of becoming a head chef. His first job was at Chef David Chang's Momofuku Ko, a two Michelin-starred restaurant where he developed his foundation for cooking.?In 2012, Sam?went on to work with Chef Daniel Humm at the three Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park, which laid a foundation of teamwork, organization, and finesse.?In 2016, Sam returned to Momofuku Ko as a Sous Chef and helped open?The Bar at Ko?and Wayo, where he was the Chef de Cuisine.?Since 2020, Chef Sam has focused on a new passion for teaching and educating?kids?about?food.

Buddha Lo

Buddha Lo
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Port Douglas, Australia

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Brooklyn, New York

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Executive Chef, Marky's Caviar & Huso

Buddha Lo is the Executive Chef at Huso, the Michelin plate restaurant inside Marky's Caviar serving an 8-course tasting menu. Buddha learned the foundations of flavor and the rules of the kitchen at a very young age by working for his father at his family's Chinese restaurant in Port Douglas, Australia. At age 14, he pursued his career by working at a 5-star resort on the weekends. After culinary school, Buddha moved to London to work at the three Michelin-starred restaurant Gordon Ramsay, where he met his mentor, Clare Smyth. He then moved to New York City and spent a year at three Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park where he learned to push himself in the world of fine dining. Don't be misled by his formal training, Buddha is obsessed with everything to do with food and cooking whether it is eating street food or working at the best restaurant in the world. Buddha and his wife Rebekah met in the kitchen in Melbourne and have been together for 10 years, she is currently the pastry sous at Eleven Madison Park.

Monique Feybesse

Monique Feybesse
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: San Francisco

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Vallejo, CA

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Chef/Owner of Tarts de Feybesse

A San Francisco native, Chef Monique Feybesse began her career in 2007 when she graduated from the California Culinary Academy and joined the opening team at Madera restaurant at Rosewood Sand Hill and at Masa's in San Francisco. In 2013, she booked a one-way ticket to Copenhagen and earned a position at Geranium Restaurant under Bocuse d'Or Legend, Rasmus Kofoed. She later relocated to Paris as part of the opening team of Chef Yannick Alleno's Pavillon Ledoyen, which earned three Michelin stars within their first year. Her resume also includes Atera in New York and Ninebark in Napa Valley, under Chef Matthew Lightner. After moving back to the Bay Area to start a family in 2016, Monique became Chef de Cuisine of Cavallo Point's Murray Circle restaurant later leading the culinary department at Robert Sinskey Vineyards. She now is focusing solely on building the brand of Tarts de Feybesse with her husband Paul while enjoying watching her two young sons grow up and destroy the house.

Leia Gaccione

Leia Gaccione
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Passaic, NJ

CURRENT CITY OF RESIDENCE: Morristown, NJ

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Chef/Owner, south + pine American eatery

Leia Gaccione is the Chef and Owner of south+pine American eatery in Morristown, NJ.?As a child, Leia was enamored with cooking shows like "Yan Can Cook" and "Julia Child."?As an adult, she studied culinary arts and restaurant management at the New York Restaurant School and has trained in NYC, New Jersey, Connecticut and Las Vegas, before opening south+pine in 2015.?Leia has appeared on "Iron Chef America," "Beat Bobby Flay," "Iron Chef Showdown," "Chopped" and is the host of the documentary film "Her Name Is Chef."?Her mission is to serve seasonal and locally sourced food made with lots of love and to remain a neighborhood staple in the Morristown community.

Jackson Kalb

Jackson Kalb
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN: Los Angeles, CA

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION: Chef/Owner, Jame Enoteca & Ospi; Chef/Partner at Wake & Late

Jackson Kalb is the Chef and Owner of Jame Enoteca and Ospi in Los Angeles, CA along with his wife, Melissa. He also serves as the Chef and Partner of Wake&Late. Jackson's culinary career started at age 13 in the kitchen of Josiah Citrin's Melisse Restaurant, where he worked weekends and holidays throughout middle and high school. Jackson attended Cornell University's school of Hotel Administration and trained at top restaurants including Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas, NV, Chicago's Alinea, Union Square Cafe in New York, and Hillstone Restaurant Group.?In 2022, he plans to open his third restaurant in Los Angeles, Gemma di Mare. He is also developing a line of jarred pasta sauces and producing software to help independent chefs.

Evelyn Garcia

Evelyn Garcia
(Photo by: Emily Shur/Bravo)

HOMETOWN:?Houston, TX

OCCUPATION/PROFESSION:?Chef/Co-Owner, Kin HTX

A Houston native, born to parents from Mexico and El Salvador, Chef Evelyn García is the Chef and Co-Owner of Kin HTX. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Evelyn cooked her way through New York City with stints at Jean George's Spice Market under Chef Anthony Ricco, Masak with Chef Larry Reutens and Kin Shop with "Top Chef" season one winner Harold Dieterle. After 10 years in NYC honing her skills, passion and drive for Southeast Asian food and culture, she decided to move back to her hometown of Houston and open Kin HTX, a Southeast Asian inspired concept. From pop-ups to chef residencies to a restaurant and a product line, Kin HTX continues to evolve and showcase Evelyn's passion for Southeast Asian flavors and local agriculture.

Top Chef Today

Despite its ups and downs, Top Chef has become the most respected food reality show on television. Its style today is fearless, confident, and creative, although perhaps not for the chefs themselves. If the words of previous contestants are anything to go by, competing on Top Chef is nothing short of arduous and traumatic. For example, at night the chefs are not permitted to have their phones in their rooms; alarm clocks and watches are also forbidden. They are awoken by production staff, not entirely aware of how long they've had to sleep. According to one chef, this is designed to make the chefs "crazy." Media of any kind, including music, is not allowed, nor are personal items like keys, wedding rings, or wallets, which chefs fork over to producers when they arrive at their lodging for the season. The chefs are essentially in a Navy SEAL-esque culinary prison for eight weeks (if they last that long). Multiple Top Chef finalists and winners remembered crying daily. It has done wonders for chefs' careers, including chefs who didn't win. What we, the audience, get to see moves at breakneck speed and is inspiring and looks pretty damn cool. But the experiences of chef-contestants show that winning the show requires brute force levels of stamina. With that as a baseline, you also need eight weeks worth of focus, creativity, and energy. Reality shows tend to be a young person's game; no chef over the age of 50 has ever won Top Chef, and Top Chef Season 19 will probably be no different.

Aside from opening doors for its contestants, Top Chef has directly influenced food culture in America. During Season 14 (set in Charleston, SC), an Elimination Challenge was built around the work of acclaimed American chef and author Edna Lewis. Multiple chefs on the show confessed to never having heard of her (thankfully all the Southern chefs did), but by the end of the episode, the producers' efforts to honor Lewis caused her seminal cookbook and memoir, The Taste of Country Cooking, shoot from obscurity to #3 in cookbooks and #5 overall on Amazon's bestseller list. Lakshmi has also shaped the editorial voice of the show, advocating for Pan-African challenges and honoring the cuisine of indigenous groups. And before you go dismissing the series's popularity as a purely coastal phenomenon, it's in the last decade that Top Chef has been open about exploring the vibrant food scenes in cities that are not New York or LA. Seasons 14, 15, and 16 were set in Charleston, Kentucky, and Colorado, respectively. Other seasons have taken place in Texas, Chicago, and New Orleans. The contestant pool has also grown more diverse. The finale of Season 18, set in locked down Portland, was the first time in Top Chef history that all three remaining chefs were people of color: Japanese chef Shota Nakajima and black chef (and Olympic athlete!) Dawn Burrell placed second, and Mexican chef Gabe Erales was declared the winner. 

Top Chef Season 19 is set in the impossibly teeming food scene of Houston, Texas. Top Chef caught flak, last year, for setting up shop in a state that has effectively outlawed abortion. Lakshmi and Simmons joined a Houston march against feckless Governor Greg Abbott, while production was ongoing. Both judges defended the season's location. Depriving Houston-area restaurants, often owned by immigrants and BIPOC, of fame, popularity, and increased business, in a time of rampant restaurant shutdowns, hurts only the communities who could benefit, and not the politicians who should kneel and repent. I am hopeful that the dizzying brilliance of Season 18 will be dimmed only by the spectacular feasts of Top Chef Season 19.

Top Chef Season 19 Weekly Recaps

Each week I'll be covering weekly recaps of the episodes and providing insight on the Texas restaurants and chefs featured.

READ: Tom Colicchio: The Top Chef Judge's Net Worth is Based on Steak and Food Critique

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