Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi

At first glance, the green room on the New York City set of Top Chef looks more like Romper Room. Judge Tom Colicchio, sporting casual jeans and a baseball cap, strolls in with his 1-year-old son, Luka. They're on hand to watch the taping of a Quickfire Challenge featuring cookies and a uniquely fuzzy panel of judges — Elmo, Telly and, of course, Cookie Monster.

"Normally on my day off, you can't drag me on the set," Colicchio laughs. "But this is special."

"Special" sums up the moment for Top Chef, the addictive cooking contest that nabbed its first Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Program this summer and is now poised to launch its red-hot eighth season, Top Chef All-Stars (premiering Wednesday, December 1 at 10/9c on Bravo). "This is going to be our best season yet," says host Padma Lakshmi. It certainly has all the ingredients, with a cast of 18 memorable ex-cheftestants.

"We put together our fantasy list of who would be in the cast," says exec producer Andy Cohen. "This is 95 percent of that original list."

These ex-contenders had plenty of incentive to return, as none emerged victorious in their original seasons. "These people are looking for retribution," Cohen says. "Everybody has a compelling reason for being there."

"On the one hand, the dynamic is a lot looser because we know these people," Lakshmi says. "At the same time, when they're cooking, it's even more serious. These chefs have something to prove."

With the first episode, the chefs face their demons: In a deliciously cruel twist, each must create a dish using the ingredients that sent them packing. "Unlike any other season, they hit the ground running," Cohen promises, adding fans will be hooked instantly. "It's like, 'Oh, my God, I have a vested interest in all of these people!'"

For the head judge, that interest made it a lot tougher to be, well, tough. "Usually during a season, we don't see all the behind-the-scenes stuff — quite frankly, we don't care," Colicchio says. "But after we shoot, those barriers are more relaxed and we get to spend time with them. They almost become like peers, and it's very hard to criticize your peers."

Particularly when some top contenders falter prematurely. "In a regular season, I have no preconceived notions about what people are capable of, but in this one, I was very surprised some of them were cut early," Colicchio says. "But it's the worst dish. That's who goes."

Lakshmi says that mentality is part of Top Chef's recipe for success: "It's never personal, and that's why our show has lasted. It's a serious, highbrow show about food that just happens to be, thankfully for us, very entertaining."

Colicchio concurs: "This is a real meritocracy. We respect these chefs, so it's not about how we can humiliate them or how they can humiliate themselves. There's an honesty to the show, and I think it comes through."

For more Top Chef: All Stars scoop, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, December 2!

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