If it were up to Stephanie Izard, the first female winner of Top Chef, she says, she’d stop talking about the fact that she’s a woman and focus instead on her food: “Why don’t we just talk about me being a chef?” she asks during this week’s duel.
While I’m sure she’s deservedly sick of hearing about her gender, the fact is that she is not “just” a chef; she is a female chef. And, of course, in a business that has traditionally had problems with women in the kitchen, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating that.
So for the duel pitting Stephanie against Kristen Kish—the show’s only other female champion—it was fitting that Top Chef would emphasize the significance of the face-off (rather than ask any questions about why the number is only two, considering there have been 11 standard Top Chef, one All-Stars, two Just Desserts, and five Masters seasons altogether). Two out of 19: When you put it that way, you might as well emphasize this twosome. They’re all you’ve got.
But that aside, Stephanie and Kristen couldn’t be a better pair of female faces for the show, and they’re interesting adversaries because their paths to the title were so remarkably different. Stephanie cooks big, bold, rustic food, delivering densely packed and layered flavors. It’s aggressive and unapologetic, and since going toe-to-toe with a crumbling Richard Blais in the season 4 finale, she’s collected plenty of other silverware, including Food & Wine‘s Best New Chef award and a James Beard award.
I’m going to have to admit a little bias here—Kristen is one of my favorite competitors in the history of Top Chef. Her Italian/French stylized wonders are the some of the most intellectual plates the show has ever seen, and while the tweezers can be a bit much sometimes, when she talks about her food, you can hear how its constituent parts come together to execute her vision. What’s more is when you look at these plates—complex and beautiful, even if at times heavy-handed—you can see why they won week after week. That hands-on approach (and Chef Josie!) prompted her dismissal during Restaurant Wars, but a successful run through Last Chance Kitchen let her claim the title that she deserved all along.
Six years did pass between Stephanie’s and Kristen’s victories, and the idea of Stephanie influencing a young Kristen isn’t all that far-fetched. Combine that with Kristen’s training—with the esteemed Barbara Lynch—and the presence of Michelle Bernstein at the judges’ table, and you’ve got the makings of a solid celebration of women and their influence within the culinary community. And some serious cooking.
NEXT: Challenging quickfires