“Top Chef” is simply the best cooking show on TV

Editor’s note: This is part of The Know’s series, Staff Favorites. Each week, we offer our opinions on the best that Colorado has to offer for dining, shopping, entertainment, outdoor activities and more. (We’ll also let you in on some hidden gems).

Remember when Julia Child’s “The French Chef” was the only cooking show around?

Maybe you don’t, since it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

What about “The Frugal Gourmet” (1983 to 1997); “Cookin’ Cheap,” (1981-2002); “Gourmet Cooking” (1977-1995); or “Yan Can Cook” (1982-present!)? Or “The Happy Homemaker”? (OK, that’s a trick question; that was the title of Sue Ann Nivens’ — Betty White’s — cooking show on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”)

Up until the early ’90s, that was about it; there wasn’t much more in the way of televised culinary arts.

Then, in 1993, the Food Network was launched and the number of cooking, baking and restaurant shows exploded like eggs in the microwave.

There are now more than 550 food-related shows listed on the Food Network’s website alone. Five hundred and fifty. Julia would be so proud.

Today,  across broadcast, cable and streaming platforms, you can watch episodes of:

• “America’s Test Kitchen” (the science behind cooking plus product reviews? fab);

• “Barefoot Contessa” (elegant and foolproof recipes — and, yes, I stole the title from one of her cookbooks);

• “Hell’s Kitchen” (too harsh for my taste);

• “Iron Chef America” (lighten up, people);

• “The Rachael Ray Show” (a bit too talky and perky);

• “Chopped” (fun, but who would really eat that stuff?);

• “Worst Cooks in America” (Ugh! Why would you want to watch such unappetizing food, people?);

• “MasterChef” (I’m so over Gordon Ramsay); and

• “The Great British Bake-Off” (fun, and so veddy British).

Want more? How about the ego-driven “Beat Bobby Flay”; the flamboyant “Cake Wars”; the saccharine “Cupcake Wars”; and the most recent entry, Gordon Ramsay’s “Next Level Chef” (see above for my opinion of him).

The message: LOTS of us love to watch cooking shows. Confession: I binge-watched all nine seasons of “Holiday Baking Championship” in January. (Don’t judge me; it was a bad month.)

Note that I’m only talking about cooking shows here, not restaurant shows. Big diff. So no “Restaurant Wars,” “Restaurant Impossible” or “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” And no “No Reservations,” either, but that show featuring the late, great Anthony Bourdain is in a category all its own.

If you have been paying attention, you by now may have noticed the one biggie that’s not yet been mentioned. It’s the whole reason I’m writing this, to offer up persuasive arguments as to why this one reality cooking show is better than all others in the genre.

Since “Top Chef” debuted on Bravo in 2006, it’s been seen by millions of viewers and has been nominated five times for a Primetime Emmy, winning twice. (The Season 2 finale alone had 3.9 million viewers.) In 19 seasons, it’s been set in cities across the country from Boston to Los Angeles with finales in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Singapore, China and Italy, among other locales.

The 20th season, an all-stars competition filmed in England, premieres on March 9.

When the show came to Denver for Season 15 in 2017, it boosted Denver’s reputation by taking viewers to Telluride, Boulder and Aspen and made Colorado’s own Carrie Baird a household name. Fancy toast? Baird’s. Baking mug cakes in a snowbank? (Who does that? Carrie!) Oh, and Baird has had a hand in Denver restaurants Bar Dough, Rose’s Classic Americana and the upcoming Fox and the Hen.

OK, so assuming you’ve never seen it, here’s the premise:

Each season, between 12 and 19 contestants compete for the title of Top Chef, getting a cash prize (now up to $250,000) and a serious boost in culinary cred. In two cooking trials per show, each chef’s work is critiqued by constants Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, as well as a guest judge, among them foodie giants like Bourdain, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Hugh Acheson, Jacques Pépin, Eric Ripert, Hubert Keller, Graham Elliot and Ted Allen.

And each season of “Top Chef” is like a good novel, boasting everything you might want out of any TV show: heroes (Fatima Ali, Fabio Viviani) and antagonists (Stefan Richter, Marcel Vigneron); a fascinating plot; a high degree of suspense; twists and turns; and a satisfying conclusion — even if you don’t always agree with the judges.

Plus, many of the contestants have gone on to culinary glory: Carla Hall, Michael Voltaggio, Richard Blais, and Brooke Williamson among them. Colorado’s own Hosea Rosenberg (Blackbelly and Santo in Boulder) won Season 5. James Beard Award-winner Jennifer Jasinski (Rioja, Ultreia, Bistro Vendome and Stoic & Genuine) was a finalist in “Top Chef Masters” in 2013.

And how many other cooking shows have had quite as many spinoffs? (I counted 12.)  In addition to “Top Chef Masters” and “Top Chef Junior,” Bravo has extended the brand to just desserts; brought chefs back for all-star duels; launched a Spanish-language version; and even followed the chefs after their time on the show.

Oh, and there is also a “Top Chef” computer game, a cooking school, plus a variety of cookbooks.

The television show has a devoted core following: 39% of viewers who watched Season 16 also tuned in to Season 17, according to inscape.tv.

But beyond all of the inherent drama and the dynamic personalities lies the main reason to love “Top Chef”: the food. You will be in awe over how these chefs create such glorious dishes under such duress, in some extreme conditions, in such a short amount of time. Even the failures look better than anything I can do.

Confession No. 2: At the height of COVID-19 isolation, when I was tired of crossword and jigsaw puzzles, I watched 18 seasons of “Top Chef.” Night after night after night.

It was a rough pandemic, but I’m grateful to “Top Chef” for helping me through.

(Hey, Hubert? Call me.)

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