The Most Famous Top Chef Contestants Who Never Won The Show

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It can be difficult to keep track of all the food world superstars who have gotten their start on "Top Chef." Over the years, hundreds of contestants have put their extraordinary culinary skills to the test on the iconic Bravo series. But since this is, of course, a cooking competition show, the vast majority of the competitors are ultimately instructed by Padma Lakshmi to pack their knives and go.

The math is simple: 18 seasons equates to a mere 18 "Top Chef" champions (we're just talking about the mothership here and putting aside the show's numerous spinoffs). That means there are a number of familiar faces, including James Beard award winners, uber-restaurateurs, and big-time food television personalities, who vied for the title (in some cases, multiple times) but never actually sealed the deal. Below are some of the most notable chefs who could never quite make it to the top ... but still did pretty well for themselves in the long run. 

Carla Hall

Perhaps no one in the history of the show has had a more robust post-"Top Chef" career than Carla Hall. She opened Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen in Brooklyn, wrote the cookbook "Cooking with Love: Comfort Food that Hugs You," started a catering company, and even puts her always positive thinking to use as a motivational speaker. Then there are Hall's lengthy IMDb credentials which cover everything from co-host of "The Chew" to popping up on "Antiques Roadshow" to have her grandmother's purses appraised and showcasing her acting talents on "General Hospital" and the recent "Gossip Girl" reboot.

While Hall's deft cooking talents and big time enthusiasm (who can forget her boisterous shouts of "hootie hoo"?) made her an instant star on the show, she was never quite able to pull off the victory coming in as runner-up both on "Top Chef: New York" and coming in fifth upon a return to the show on the All-Star eighth season.

Still, winning Fan Favorite and the unofficial title for the show's best catchphrase is a decent consolation.

Bryan Voltaggio

There have been plenty of tough losses in the history of "Top Chef" but taking the "L" competing against your younger brother in the finale is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Such was the case in the epic Voltaggio vs. Voltaggio showdown of Season 6, with Bryan ultimately falling short to Michael. Over a decade later, big bro gave it another go on "Top Chef: All-Star LA." Despite a valiant effort, he fell just short yet again, losing to Melissa King in the finals.

Essentially, Voltaggio is the Charles Barkley of the show, an all-timer who came close but could never quite fulfill his destiny. The silver lining is also like Sir Chuck, he's thriving since hanging up his "Top Chef" apron, running multiple successful restaurants including Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse with dream crusher Michael. And the fact that Bryan is the only contestant to compete on "Top Chef" and "Top Chef Masters" (he was a runner-up on Season 5 — notice a theme here?) is a testament to his place in the show's pantheon.

Nina Compton

Was Nina Compton robbed? Plenty of viewers thought so after the "Top Chef: New Orleans" finale when the Fan Favorite chef lost to Nicholas Elmi in a nail-biter. In fact, there was so much outrage at the conclusion of the Season 11 that in an unprecedented move, judge Tom Colicchio posted the scores from the final cook-off on Twitter in an effort to validate the results.

While the Saint Lucian-born chef may not be a "Top Chef" winner, she's earned plenty of accolades since competing on the show. Compton ended up sticking around New Orleans, opening Compère Lapin in 2015. Fusing French, Italian, and Caribbean flavors, the inventive, cross-cultural hot spot garnered plenty of praise including a spot on Eater's list of America's 38 Essential Restaurants. Food & Wine anointed Compton as Best New Chef and in 2018 she took home the James Beard award for Best Chef: South. As far as consolation prizes go, that ain't too shabby.

Gregory Gourdet

It wasn't just his cooking that made Gregory Gourdet a "Top Chef" standout when he competed on Season 12 of the show. The Portland-based chef-inspired numerous fans with his optimism and resilience after coping with drug and alcohol addiction for several years.

Gourdet managed to cook his way to the finale and despite ending on a high note with a four-course feast that included a stunning short rib with red mole, he didn't have the firepower to best winner Mei Lin (via Runner's World).

Last year, Gourdet made his triumphant return to the show on the Los Angeles All-Stars season but came up short again, finishing as a finalist. All things considered, it was an impressive showing considering the high caliber of competition he was up against which included fellow "Top Chef: Boston" alum Melissa King who ended up taking home the title. Gourdet appeared on the show the following season which was filmed in his hometown of Portland, but this time around he took on the role of guest judge.

Beyond "Top Chef," Gourdet recently released his debut cookbook "Everyone's Table: Global Recipes for Modern Health." After a successful pop-up run, he is in the process of creating a permanent home for Kann, a high-end restaurant concept that highlights his Haitian roots.

Kevin Gillespie

You may find it hard to believe that Kevin Gillespie and his signature red beard ended up on this list considering his incredible cooking competition prowess. And yet, he somehow wasn't able to pull off a "Top Chef" win. The amiable Atlanta-based chef first debuted on Season 6 in Las Vegas but unfortunately for him he was slotted against not one, but two Voltaggios. Gillespie ended up with the bronze and the honor of being tapped as Fan Favorite.

Many thought that Gillespie would find redemption when he returned to the show for "Top Chef: All-Stars LA." But alas, it was not meant to be. After a devastating loss as team captain during Restaurant Wars, Gillespie was able to return to the competition via Last Chance Kitchen. Though he made it through to the second phase of the season which brought the contestants over to Italy, an overcooked pork coppa prevented him from moving on to the finale.

While it may have been a disappointing finish, the achievement will go down as one of the most impressive in "Top Chef" history considering only two years prior, Gillespie was diagnosed with cancer. Prior to "All-Stars," Gillespie told Forbes, "I really don't care if I win. I have always been way too driven by money and success and I just don't care anymore. It is my goal to make it to the finals and be on enough episodes to tell my story." That makes him a winner in our book.

Isaac Toups

Meat maestro Isaac Toups is yet another Fan Favorite competitor to sport a killer beard. With his Cajun twang and butchery bravado, Toups began to heat up on "Top Chef: California" midway through the season with impressive back-to-back victories beginning with a win during Restaurant Wars. The following week Toups proved he was "2 legit 2 quit," wowing guest judge MC Hammer with a winning Quickfire dish: scallops with bbq sauce and grits. His run extended all the way to the final four in Las Vegas, but sadly he crapped out when the quadruple fennel puree beneath his "chicken fried" dry-aged ribeye missed the mark.

A gamble that did pay off, however, for the Louisiana chef is Toups Meatery, his New Orleans restaurant which is still going strong after nearly a decade. Recently, Toups returned to his old stomping grounds, tackling sous chef and judging duties on the inaugural season of "Top Chef Amateurs."

Antonia Lofaso

Now a food television fixture, Antonia Lofaso made her small screen breakout on the stacked Season 4 of "Top Chef." It was clear Lofaso was bound to be a star, showcasing a winning combo of high caliber Italian cooking and charisma. But as far as winning "Top Chef," that wasn't meant to be. Though she made it to the final phase of the competition in Puerto Rico, she had to make do with a fourth-place finish. In her defense, she was up against eventual Iron Chef Stephanie Izard (who would go on to win the season) and future "Top Chef" champ Richard Blais.

Lofaso's comeback tour on the first "Top Chef: All-Stars" also ended in position number three. But her trophy case isn't completely empty. She earned victories on "Top Chef Duels" squaring off against distant cousin Mike Isabella and on the judges' battle of Food Network's "Cutthroat Kitchen." She's also the only "Top Chef" alum to appear on "The Bachelorette" — lending some hometown support to contestant and family friend Ben Smith.

When she's not on TV, Lofaso is busy running several Los Angeles restaurants including DAMA, Black Market Liquor Bar, and Scopa: Italian Roots.

Fabio Viviani

Italian-native Fabio Viviani made such a big impression on "Top Chef: New York," he managed to snag Fan Favorite (over Carla Hall!), even despite his Euro bromance with show villain Stefan Richter. His enthusiasm rarely waned though one of those exceptions produced Viviani's iconic line, "This is 'Top Chef,' it's not 'Top Scallops'," after he became fed up with fellow competitor Jamie Lauren's continued reliance on the fancy mollusk.

The Italian stallion put up a good fight, ultimately suffering a late round knockout and ending up in fourth place. Viviani's return to the show on "Top Chef: All-Stars" was sadly only memorable for his spat with judge Anthony Bourdain. (He ultimately ended up finishing in a disappointing eighth.)

Of course, it was inevitable that Viviani's television presence would continue after "Top Chef" and he has since appeared on a number of shows including "Rachel Ray" and "Cutthroat Kitchen." He also hosts an online cooking show, "Fabio's Kitchen," runs multiple restaurants across the country, has his own hospitality consulting group, and is the author of The New York Times bestseller "Fabio's Italian Kitchen."

Brian Malarkey

Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Brian Malarkey is one of the biggest names to ever appear on "Top Chef." The outspoken, hat-donning chef was one of the early stars of the show, appearing on Season 3 in Miami. He made it all the way to the first phase of the finale which took place in Aspen but an over-complicated whiskey-braised elk shank sent him packing with a fourth-place finish.It would be another 13 years before he would make his way back to the "Top Chef" kitchen, returning for "All-Stars: LA." Perhaps Malarkey was a bit rusty this time around, settling for sixth place in the competition.

Between "Top Chef" appearances, Malarkey stuck around television, appearing on several shows most notably as a mentor on ABC's "The Taste" alongside Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre, and the late great Anthony Bourdain. But it's Malarkey's multi-million dollar restaurant empire that is far and away his most impressive post-Miami feat. In fact, on an episode of "Watch What Happens Live," Tom Colicchio opined, "Brian Malarkey has probably done better than any chef ever on the show in terms of business."

Kwame Onwuachi

In the history of "Top Chef," few chefs have been more celebrated than Kwame Onwuachi. The two-time contestant earned universal praise for his Washington D.C. Afro-Caribbean restaurant Kith and Kin which he opened in 2017. (Onwuachi parted ways with Kith and Kin last year.) Beyond receiving a James Beard award for Rising Star Chef of the Year, he was named a best new chef by Food & Wine where he currently works as an executive producer.

Looking back, it's a bit shocking to recall that Onwuachi was bounced relatively early on "Top Chef: California." The remarkably skilled chef was relegated to sixth place after making the baffling decision to use frozen waffles during a fast casual meal challenge.

Even crazier, Onwuachi didn't even make it into the main competition when he signed up for "Top Chef: Colorado," losing out to Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins and fellow all-star Lee Anne Wong in a Last Chance Kitchen challenge.

Nyesha Arrington

Nyesha Arrington has had so much success after appearing on "Top Chef: Austin" that it tends to obscure the fact that her time competing on the show was way too brief. The Los Angeles chef only managed to come in 11th place when she competed, sharing the loss with Dakota Weiss in a double-elimination challenge after the duo had too many issues tackling venison. Three years later, she sought redemption on "Top Chef Duels" (featuring special guests Andy Samberg and the cast of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine") but got edged out by Jennifer Carroll.

The losses clearly didn't deter Arrington whose star continues to rise. She's done everything from opening the sadly short-lived Santa Monica restaurant Native which featured a menu that bridged Arrington's African-American and Korean heritage to starting her own catering company, and taking the time to teach Selena Gomez how to cook branzino on an episode of "Selena + Chef."

She's also brought her expertise to the judges' table on shows such as "Guy's Grocery Games" and "MasterChef." For her next project, she'll be reuniting with Gordon Ramsay on his latest FOX competition series "Next Level Chef" (think MasterChef but with the opportunity for up-and-coming culinary professionals to participate).

Dale Talde

While Dale Talde is now one of the most beloved alums in the show's history, that wasn't always the case. His debut appearance on "Top Chef: Chicago" was a mixed-bag with Talde's temper earning him more attention than his cooking. He flashed moments of brilliance like his tandoori marinated baby back ribs he grilled up during the tailgating elimination challenge, but got the boot during Restaurant Wars for his ill-advised butterscotch miso scallops which judge Anthony Bourdain deemed "jaw-droppingly bad." Two years later, Talde returned to compete on "Top Chef: All-Stars" but ended with another sixth-place finish.

Like his time on "Top Chef," Talde's post-show career has been marked by lows and highs. His flagship Brooklyn restaurant Talde opened to acclaim in 2012. Two other branches in Miami and Jersey City would follow but all three have since closed. That didn't deter Talde's whose Food Crush Hospitality, a co-venture with his wife Agnes, is behind multiple ventures including the Chinese-inspired Goosefeather in Tarrytown, New York which received a shout out on Esquire's 2020 Best New Restaurants in America list.

Shota Nakajima

In hindsight, there is no doubt that Shota Nakajima should be the reigning "Top Chef" champion in light of the sexual misconduct allegations directed at Season 18 winner Gabe Erales. Nakajima continually wowed the judges with his restrained yet sophisticated Japanese cooking and, incredibly, his dishes were lauded in nine of the 13 elimination challenges earning him several wins throughout the season. But when it mattered the most, Nakajima couldn't deliver a victory in the finale though the exceedingly humble and extraordinarily talented chef did walk away with Fan Favorite honors.

Nakajima, who is based in Seattle, is keeping busy running Taku. The fast-casual concept specializes in buckets of karaage, aka Japanese-style fried chicken. Though his multi-course kaiseki restaurant Adana closed last year as a result of the pandemic, it seems inevitable that Nakajima will make a return to fine dining in the near future. Hopefully, the show's producers will grant  Nakajima's wish for another shot at "Top Chef" glory. He certainly deserves the opportunity.