The COVID-19 Pandemic has been some of the most challenging months of my life. Many people have lost their jobs, and many have also lost their lives. It has challenged us as a nation, and it has challenged me as a person. In March, I began looking for anything that would distract me and give me hope.
Thankfully, I discovered Top Chef. Top Chef is an intense culinary competition, in which around 15 chefs are invited to compete for the title of Top Chef. The winner wins at least $125,000 along with other prizes and perks. Each episode consists of a quickfire challenge, where someone wins a prize or immunity for the next elimination challenge and an elimination challenge where one of the chefs is eliminated each week. The cycle continues until there is one chef remaining, who then becomes Top Chef.
The most recent season of Top Chef, Top Chef All-Stars: LA, featured former competitors from previous seasons and the biggest prize in the show’s history. While there were many great competitors and storylines from this season, none impacted me more than Stephanie Cmar. Stephanie became one of the best storylines of the show, as her struggle with mental health and cinderella run to the finale gave me hope in a time of little hope.
Outside of her Cinderella run to the finale, her struggle with mental health was what really made her stand out to me, and how it paralleled her performance on the show this season
In previous seasons, Stephanie struggled. In season 10, Stephanie was invited to the Season 10 Top Chef tryout. She watched her best friend Kristen Kish move on while she was left to watch at home. Kristen would go on to win that season. In Season 11, Stephanie got an opportunity to compete. Despite doing well early, she was eliminated because one of her teammates had immunity. She had two chances to become Top Chef and both of them had failed. Now, in the All-Stars season, she was given another chance.
At first, during this All-Stars season, Stephanie again struggled. She second-guessed herself and found herself barely getting through multiple rounds. She was on the bottom three times in the first five episodes and it seemed like she was going home at any moment.
Then, slowly, she began to turn it on. She picked up a huge quickfire challenge win in the episode before restaurant wars, which gave her immunity for the next elimination challenge. In restaurant wars, the epic battle each season where teams start their own restaurants in two days, she helped guide team Gregory to victory with her calm demeanor and her salt patties. For the last episode in Los Angeles, she executed a near-perfect dessert (a lemon panna cotta inside a lemon shell) to send her to Italy. She ended up making it to the top 3 while cooking some of the best food in her life. She also has been a wonderful narrator for the show, sporting Gregory’s jacket at one point and coining “Champagne Padma.”
Outside of her Cinderella run to the finale, her struggle with mental health was what really made her stand out to me, and how it paralleled her performance on the show this season. Before the show started, she admitted that she was afraid to go back because of the crippling depression she had been experiencing. She lost her brother a year and a half before taping began. I cannot even imagine the pain she dealt with. In the face of a traumatic experience, we all second guess ourselves. Am I doing something wrong? Why not me? So much runs through your head it can be hard to put together anything that resembled your life before.
Eventually, though, she found her groove and learned to move on through food. When she arrived in Italy, she finally let her joy come through. The more she returned to this happiness, the better she became. In the penultimate episode, she explained just how much fun she was having in Italy and went onto explain that “when you cook happy your food tastes better.” That same episode, she cooked a pasta that was so good one Italian judge described her pasta as seeing a repainting of the Sistine Chapel.
She gave me hope when the world seemed to be permanently destroyed. There were points in this quarantine where it was hard to motivate and hard to move forward. Stephanie Cmar helped me learn how to move forward. Stephanie Cmar helped me believe again.
That would have been the highlight of anyone’s cooking career, but that was not her best moment in Italy. In the first course of her final meal, she made kataifi-wrapped shrimp as a tribute to her brother, who loved coconut shrimp. When asked about what the moment meant to her, she broke down into tears:
“I am just so glad I got the chance to cook this meal for you. I was really struggling when I first arrived in LA. I did a lot of damage to people who loved me because I was so sad, and I didn’t know how to say I am okay. This is kind of my way of saying I’m okay.”
I have hurt people this exact same way, and sometimes when you get into a rut it can be hard to get out. Getting out of a debilitating depression is one of the most rewarding things you can do. For Stephanie, her evolution throughout her competition was watching her grow out of the depression and returning to what makes her happy. Cooking and bringing people together.
Stephanie may not be Top Chef, but her story this season was a joy to watch. It has helped me realize where I have gone wrong in life and where I can be better. She gave me hope when the world seemed to be permanently destroyed. There were points in this quarantine where it was hard to motivate and hard to move forward. Stephanie Cmar helped me learn how to move forward. Stephanie Cmar helped me believe again.