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 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.
As Top Chef Kentucky kicks off this week, it enters its 16th season of pitting the restaurant industry’s rising stars against each other in a grueling test of their creativity and skill. Judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Graham Elliot will be joined by Gail Simmons and Nilou Motamed to critique cooks as they face challenges across the Bluegrass state. As we tune in to see who will be crowned the 16th winner, we wanted to check in on what the previous 15 champions were up to now.
Harold Dieterle (Season 1: San Francisco)
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 closed in June of 2018. Dieterle now has a restaurant consulting business.
Ilan Hall (Season 2: Los Angeles)
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, Ilan 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)
Huynh, who had cooked at Per Se and Guy Savoy before competing on the show, beat fan favorite 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 Hilton Resorts World Bimini in the Bahamas. Since this past August, he’s been a chef partner at Earl Enterprises, which owns properties including Buca di Beppo and Planet Hollywood.
Stephanie Izard (Season 4: Chicago)
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 and the Goat, where she serves delicious, creative, and globally inspired dishes like 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. She’s recently announced that she’s working on a tasting menu project in Chicago and plans to open in LA’s Arts District.
Hosea Rosenberg (Season 5: New York)
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 like Navajo fry bread, and green chile pork and potato stew.
Michael Voltaggio (Season 6: Los Angeles)
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 final that showed their contrasting styles of cooking. Voltaggio recently hosted the Travel Channel show Breaking Borders, where 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 of this year. 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.
Kevin Sbraga (Season 7: Washington D.C.)
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.
The Philly-based chef has hit a rough patch of late. 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. He’s now going to run the kitchen at Fitler Club, which is slated to open in 2019.
Richard Blais (Season 8: New York)
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 locations in San Diego, Encinitas, Costa Mesa, and now Los Angeles.
Paul Qui (Season 9: Texas)
Few contestants have been as dominant as Paul 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 just 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 two-Michelin-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, and announced a few days ago that it too would close, serving its last dinner on December 23.
Kristen Kish (Season 10: Seattle)
Kish benefited from being on for 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 dominated 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 she finally opened a new restaurant, Arlo Grey in Austin at the Line Hotel.
Nicholas Elmi (Season 11: New Orleans)
Defeating Nina Compton, who has gone on to create the outstanding restaurant Compere 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 Elmi, he opened the bar ITV and currently has plans to open another bar in Philadelphia. This season, Elmi’s sous chef at Laurel, Eddie Konrad, will be competing to see if he can bring a victory back to the City of Brotherly Love like his boss did.
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, that 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 is one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in the country right now. 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)
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 recently opening the Stubborn Seed on South Beach, which one of Robb Report’s best new restaurants this year. He’s currently working on a more casual seafood restaurant in the Miami area as well, projected to open in 2019.
Brooke Williamson (Season 14: Charleston)
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’s not trying to chase Michelin stars with a bunch of fine dining spots. Instead, along with her husband Nick Roberts, she has been opening great neighborhood spots that serve delicious, crowd-pleasing food. She has her gastropub Hudson House, Hawaiian-inspired restaurant Da Kikokiko, multi-part concept Playa Provisions, and an ice cream shop, Small Batch.
Joe Flamm (Season 15: Colorado)
The loveable 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. He’s stayed on at Spiaggia, but Flamm told us after his win that he’d like to open his own Italian restaurant in the Windy City in the near future.