Top Chef: “When You Cook Happy, Your Food Tastes Better”

TOP CHEF -- "Parma" Episode 1713 -- Pictured: (l-r) Kevin Gillespie, Bryan Voltaggio, Melissa King, Stephanie Cmar -- (Photo by: Ernesto Ruscio/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- "Parma" Episode 1713 -- Pictured: (l-r) Kevin Gillespie, Bryan Voltaggio, Melissa King, Stephanie Cmar -- (Photo by: Ernesto Ruscio/Bravo) /

The Top Chef All Stars looked to clear one last hurdle en route to the finale.

The penultimate episode of Top Chef season 17 felt a bit different to me, in a good way. Despite the high stakes, it seemed like I was watching a video postcard from Italy instead of a cooking competition. Again, this is not a negative, but instead, an interpretation, as I found the show to be as endearing as always.

Perhaps the lack of chef-driven drama–beyond who would advance to the finale–influenced the vibe I got, but the rewards were just as gratifying. Simply put, I continue to defy someone to show me a food competition that’s as on-point as Top Chef.

From all appearances, the cheftestants were just as enamored with the cultural elements of their journey to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy as they were focused on excelling in the kitchen. For me, that elevated things and resulted in an homage to their destination, Parma.

“Parma is the namesake of two very important ingredients, Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma”

And with that introduction by Gail Simmons, the chefs learned that their final Elimination Challenge would entail using the two culinary treasures as they prepared a Primi and Secondi, a first and second dish. Upon hearing that both items are protected by the Italian government and can only come from this region of Italy, Bryan enthused that “this is a dream come true for a chef”.

With Italy’s youngest Michelin-starred chef Lorenzo Cogo as their tour guide, Bryan, Stephanie, Kevin, and Melissa first visited Caseificio Gennari, where a family has been producing Parmigiano Reggiano for 67 years. I was just as awestruck by the process as the chefs, seeing how the Gennari family makes 80 wheels per day using just three ingredients-milk, animal rennet(an enzyme), and whey, with each wheel costing $1,000 or more in U.S. dollars depending on age.

Chef Cogo’s tour of Parma continued at Ruliano, where Prosciutto di Parma is the order of the day and where a 7kg portion of their specialty can cost $285. in U.S. dollars, again depending on age and weight. The chefs continued to be thrilled, with Stephanie commenting that “this is the actual ingredient at its purest and as it’s supposed to be made. It’s a lifetime opportunity!”

After shopping for their dishes in the shops of Parma, the chefs joined Chef Cogo at Antica Corte Pallavicina, where they enjoyed a special meal prepared by Chef/Owner Massimo Spigaroli in 700-year-old cellars that also housed Culatello di Zibello, Italy’s rare & prestigious cured ham.

Proving that the same environs can mean different things to different people, Melissa’s initial reaction to the cellars was that “it’s kind of dark and scary and I’m like, is this the part of the competition where we get ax-murdered?”, while she also observed that “Kevin is definitely in love right now. It’s like an out-of-body experience” for Chef Gillespie.

The Top Chef All Stars spent the night at Antica Corte Pallavicina’s Relais.

With the travelogue portion of their visit to Parma behind them, the chefs’ attention turned to their two dishes. Cooking for chefs with a combined 16 Michelin stars, the competitors definitely impressed, with  Guest Judge Evan Funke saying that “it was a difficult challenge and it was a beautiful experience.”

Top Chef All Stars
TOP CHEF — “Parma” Episode 1713 — Pictured: (l-r) Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Evan Funke, Padma Lakshmi — (Photo by: Ernesto Ruscio/Bravo) /


With Tom Colicchio acknowledging that the judging gets more difficult this late in the competition, Padma revealed that “there were two chefs who stood out, Melissa and Stephanie.” The latter’s reaction was priceless, as she blurted out “Me?! Holy s–t!”, before adding “to be here and see their cooking and to know that I earned my place is a really humbling and very proud feeling” in a nod to her fellow chefs.

Guest Judge Evan Funke told Stephanie that “you showed a very, very delicate hand. The dish was spectacular”, while Gail singled out Melissa’s anolini Primi preparation, saying that “you did it in such a respectful way and elegant way. I loved every slurp that I could take.” After being named the winner by Chef Funke, Melissa said “It’s been a goal of mine to get to the finale, and here I am. Mind blown!”

With only one more spot to fill in the finale, Bryan and Kevin awaited their fate. While they waited with Melissa and Stephanie, the judges began deliberating as Padma bemoaned that “this is the part I hate.” Unfortunately, both chefs missed the mark, especially in how they used the Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma, but it was Kevin whose run on Top Chef had come to an end.

I started this recap by mentioning the lack of chef-driven drama, so it’s only fitting to look ahead to the finale when our old friend Brian Malarkey returns to assist Stephanie, while Lee Anne works with Melissa, and the just-eliminated Kevin helping good friend Bryan. I think it’s safe to say that the finale should be an exciting and suspenseful way of bringing down the curtain on season 17.

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