Top Chef was created by Magical Elves Productions, the same company behind the show Project Runway. Like Project Runway did for designers, Top Chef features a panel of experts judging up-and-coming chefs in a series of challenges to determine a winner, who is named Top Chef.
Top Chef's head judge for all seven seasons has been chef Tom Colicchio, owner of the Craft restaurants. The host of Top Chef, as she has been since season two, is Padma Lakshmi.
Each episode generally consists of two challenges: the Quickfire Challenge, and the Elimination Challenge. The Quickfire gives the chefs a limited amount of time to work, usually 30-60 minutes, to complete a given task. The winner receives either a physical prize of some sort (money, trip, car), an advantage in the coming elimination challenge, or immunity from elimination in the coming challenge.
The elimination challenge is more complex, and requires more thought and cooking from the contestants. Chefs will receive hours of time to conceive and craft their dishes, which in many cases must meet a certain theme or fit a certain restriction. At the end of the elimination challenge, a winner is chosen, occasionally receiving a prize for their victory, and a loser is eliminated, told to "pack their knives and go."
Each season of Top Chef is set in a different U.S. city up until the finale, at which point the venue shifts to another city for the final challenges. Season 3 took this idea to another level; the chefs began in Miami for most of the season, went to New York for the last few challenges prior to the finale, and finished in Aspen, Colorado, for the finale.
The winner of Top Chef has received a variety of prizes over the years, but the winner has consistently won a sum of money (starting with $100,000 and increasing to $125,000 in recent years) and a feature in Food and Wine Magazine, as well as an appearance at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado.
The first season, set in San Francisco, started with 12 chefs. It was hosted by Katie Lee Joel, the only season of the show thusfar not hosted by Lakshmi. Colicchio and Gail Simmons served as permanent judges.
Season 2 stayed in California, taking place in Los Angeles. The field expanded from 12 chefs to 15. This season was also Lakshmi's first as host. Colicchio and Simmons returned as judges.
The second season saw the introduction of "Restaurant Wars," perhaps the most popular of Top Chef challenges. Two teams were asked to conceive a menu and design a restaurant in a short period of time. The Restaurant Wars challenge has been a part of every season since this one.
The finale was also expanded, as four chefs took place in the final rounds, held in Hawaii. Ilan Hall defeated Marcel Vigneron to win the title. For the first time, a fan-voted Fan Favorite was named; the title was won by Sam Talbot.
Season 3 was held first in Miami before moving to New York and, for the finale, Aspen, CO.
The third season saw another change to the format of the finale; three chefs, instead of the standard two, competed in the final challenge. Additionally, the winner was named during a live segment held after the airing of the pre-taped portion of the last episode. Hung Huynh bested Dale Levitski and Casey Thompson to take the title. Thompson was named Fan Favorite.
Ted Allen joined the cast as a permanent judge, alternating duties with Gail Simmons.
The fourth season saw the number of chefs expand yet again, from 15 to 16. Season 4 started in Chicago, with the finale held in Puerto Rico.
Stephanie Izard won the title this season to become the first, and thusfar only, female Top Chef. Lisa Fernandes and Richard Blais were runners-up. Izard also became the only contestant to win both Top Chef and Fan Favorite.
Season 5, held in New York, saw the field expand to 17 chefs, as has been the size of all seasons which have followed. However, the extra chef did not spend much time on the show. The first Quickfire of the season was the show's first Elimination Quickfire, where the worst performing chef was sent home.
The finale for Season 5 was held in New Orleans. Hosea Rosenberg beat out Stefan Richter and Carla Hall to win Top Chef honors. Fabio Viviani was named Fan Favorite.
Toby Young joined the cast as a judge for this season, replacing Ted Allen.
Perhaps the most competitive and talented season of Top Chef to date, season 6 took place in Las Vegas and featured 17 chefs. Playing off of the theme of gambling, many of the season's challenges were "High-Stakes" challenges, where chefs could win large sums of cash or prizes for winning. Additionally, many challenges were determined through random methods, such as dice rolls or slot machines.
Napa, California, played host to the sixth season finale. Michael Voltaggio won the title of Top Chef over his brother, Bryan Voltaggio, and Kevin Gillespie, who was named Fan Favorite.
Season 6 of Top Chef was awarded in 2010 with an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Program.
The most recent season of Top Chef, which is still currently airing, began in Washington, DC. Once again, 17 chefs began the season. The finale was held in Singapore, the first time the final episodes have taken place outside of the United States or its territories.
The eventual winner was Kevin Sbraga, who defeated Angelo Sosa and Ed Cotton for the title. Tiffany Derry was named Fan Favorite.
After appearing numerous times as a guest judge on the show, Eric Ripert joined the cast this season on a permanent basis, replacing Toby Young.