Let me start with a quick story.
Back in March 2020, my family started a Top Chef fantasy league as another way to stay in touch during Covid. We’re also big sports fans, and it filled the void of watching March Madness or the NBA playoffs.
We quickly fell in love with it.
The premise is simple. Think of it like any of the other fantasy sports leagues, but you’re drafting culinary wizards instead of running backs or point guards. Throughout the Top Chef season, you either earn or lose points depending on your chef’s performance, with some bonuses for winning the whole show, coming out on top in the infamous Restaurant Wars, or sweeping the challenges in a given episode. Some die-hards will deduct points for inside jokes of the show – never cook Indian food for Padma Lakshmi, for example.
Now, fast forward to the summer of 2022, and I heard a few members of the Water & Wall team talking about the Top Chef: Portland season during my first week at the agency. I threw out the idea of doing the same fantasy league for our office (plus a few W&W friends and family), and one of our agency traditions – in addition to my “Chef Kevin” nickname – was born.
(I feel obliged to give my brother, James, a shoutout. We worked at the same deli growing up, but he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, so safe to say he’s a little more talented in the kitchen.)
Anyway, let’s get down to what this blog is really about: As much as it pains me to admit, Matt took home our office (chef coat) trophy this year. It was a landslide. He finished with 152 points, and just two of our eight teams cracked 50.
But being the gracious boss he is, Matt elected to give the award to our second-place team. With that, Audrey and Violet Healy – who are talented beyond their age and could probably kick our butts in field hockey or a music competition, too – have become our real champions.
While this may be a bit of a stretch, I think our agency tradition is worth digging a little deeper into. Here is the Top Chef: World All-Stars cookbook to strategic communications with lessons I personally took away from each finalist of the show’s 20th season.
Buddha Lo: For those of you who haven’t watched, Buddha served some of the most visually compelling dishes of the entire season. At one point, Padma mentioned that he literally packed a series of molds in his suitcase, anticipating that he’d use them at the right times throughout the competition. One of those moments came in the finale, which he won. That being said, the food needs to taste as good as it looks, and if it didn’t, he’d still be packing his knives.
Gabri Rodriguez: Gabri earned the nickname “Gato” in Season 20, as a nod to his “nine lives.” He was in the bottom three six times, flirting with elimination during plenty of episodes. At the same time, he always seemed to respond with a winning dish, finishing with five top-three appearances and ultimately cooking his way into the finale of the show’s first global competition.
Sara Bradley: Sara is a Kentucky native who entered the competition with a newborn at home. She spoke a lot, including in the finale, about proving you can come from a small town and build a big name as a chef, all while being a good mom, too. She was a fantastic chef with phenomenal techniques. But taking part in a season where there were some over-the-top presentations and dishes, what really stood out to me was that she made it to the finale by simply cooking a perfect mushroom soup.
Ultimately, I could pull lessons from the other 13 chefs that competed during this season, but what they all really taught me is that we should all push ourselves to take inspiration from sources outside our typical professional sphere. Maybe that comes from the kitchen, maybe that comes from someplace else. Regardless, it’s what any great chef would do.