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Let Kristen Kish Ease You Into the New Era of ‘Top Chef’

Wednesday’s season 21 premiere of Top Chef is a hard reset in a number of ways, most obvious among them being the new host. For the first time in 19 seasons and just as many years, it isn’t Padma Lakshmi gently but decisively telling an unlucky hopeful to pack their knives and go. It’s Kristen Kish.

The season 10 winner, initially kicked off the competition before fighting back to the finale on spin-off Last Chance Kitchen, emerged as an early and clear favorite to fill Padma’s shoes when she announced her exit last summer. Kish has been a familiar face to the franchise since her 2012 win, expanding her TV horizons by hosting the Netflix update of Iron Chef and National Geographic’s Restaurants at the End of the World. But those who tune in to the start of Top Chef‘s Wisconsin-set cycle will notice that Kish isn’t the only change. Fellow judges Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio have been infused into the rest of the broadcast, offering narration alongside the contestants. And, come mid-season, they’ll even judge the first segment of each episode — the Quickfire challenge — alongside Kish.

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Change, however minor, can be hard to take. But Kish’s addition to this cooking competition turned culinary kingmaker does a lot to dull any post-Padma shock. Speaking over Zoom earlier in March, she previewed the coming season, shared the advice she got from Lakshmi and revealed the one restaurant trend she’d like to see put to rest.

One of the first things you say in your first episode as host is that you didn’t expect to ever be in this position. I’d argue that, when Padma announced her exit, you ID’d as presumed heir apparent on many a Top Chef text chain and podcast.

Well, I didn’t get that memo. (Laughs.) It all happened very quickly on my end. I saw Padma’s Instagram post along with everybody else, and it was just a couple weeks later that I was on a plane to LA to have a meeting with [producers] Magical Elves and Bravo.

When you get the offer, what was the biggest appeal to the job and what was your biggest hesitation about saying yes?

The hesitation, for sure, was, “Can I live up to millions of people’s expectations?” Living up to strangers’ expectations, that’s nearly unattainable. They already have this idea in their heads of what I’m supposed to be doing. That was terrifying — even though, intellectually, I know that no one can live up to everyone’s expectations. On the other side, I was completely honored. I wasn’t even expecting a phone call, let alone the offer. So I was living in two different worlds for a while: “Holy shit, this is awesome,” and, “Why would I ever turn down such a job?” And then it became, “Oh my God, can I do this?”

I’m under the impression that you’re a very private person. Obviously, you’re no stranger to TV, but this is a next-level job in terms of public awareness and public scrutiny. How much did you and your wife discuss the potential impact on your life?

Maybe I’m not looking at it in the same way other people are — at what could or will happen once we get rolling into this. Right now, our life continues the way it has. If I have my preferred Friday night, I’m at home. I love grocery shopping at 9:00 p.m. All the normal things that we do remain in place. As for the idea of putting myself out there, I am a very certain version of myself on Top Chef. I have a role. I have a job and I’m there to fulfill it. I’m also me, but that doesn’t mean all of a sudden I’m going to tell people everything about me. It’s Top Chef. It’s not about me.

Nine o’clock grocery shopping is a power move. Do you have a preferred chain market?

We have three that are equidistant from our house: Trader Joe’s, a normal big-box grocery store and  Whole Foods. For frozen, ready-to-eat things, Trader Joe’s — as one does. For perhaps some better produce, we’re going to Whole Foods. It also depends on where we feel like going. But at night, an hour before closing, my God, a grocery store is honestly one of the most calm public places.

You’re obviously no stranger to this franchise. You’ve won. You’ve guest judged. You’re very much part of that Top Chef Cinematic Universe. Did you learn anything new after approaching it from this different role?

Well, this is the first time that I’ve actually been able to experience the entire progression of all the chefs. I was gone for a chunk of Seattle! And I only guest judged maybe four episodes in a row. So I never got to see it from start to finish — or really be part of the other side. It’s a lot like watching it at home, really. You want this to be a great experience for the chefs, whether they’re the first one eliminated or the last one standing. So to be able to watch the chefs, week after week, that is a new experience. You don’t get to know a lot of the personalities except for when they’re in front of you —  picking up on their quirks and food styles.

This is obviously a turning point for the series. Were you involved with any of the conversations about how to use this opportunity to switch things up with the format? Because there are a few other changes this season — the Quickfires, the judges now narrating the experience alongside the chefs…

I wasn’t part of a lot of those conversations, and it’s probably a good thing. Tom, Gail and people who have been doing this since season one know far more than I do. But the very first conversation was like, “It’s not going to be the same.” It’s not meant to be the same as when Padma hosted, so that gave me a little bit more permission to just flow with it. Probably the most exciting part is that Tom and Gail, come mid-season, we’re all doing the Quickfires.

From that first promo, I half-thought you’d all be cooking the Quickfires — not judging them. 

Mid-season, all three of us are present and judging every Quickfire. The front half of the season, it’s me and a special guest. I think it works because now, towards the end, if something is really close, we can all revisit the Quickfire of that episode if we need to. It’s also just nice to have the company of the two of them.

Padma famously loved to talk about how she ate more than absolutely anyone else involved with this show. What was your consumption strategy?

I eat volume. I want to eat a lot. If I’m home on a Saturday afternoon, I love a homemade buffet situation because I like to try as much as I can without getting full too fast. Gail told me the very first few days before we started filming, “Kristen, eat breakfast. Just trust me. I know it sounds weird, because you’re about to eat a lot, but you also just put a base down.” And I was like, “But I want to be hungry going in.” No, no, no!  She said, “Eat breakfast because if you’re super hungry going in, you’re going to come out of the gate swinging and eating everything. You can’t be starving going into it.” So, every morning, I had hard-boiled eggs, strawberries and beef jerky sometimes — or just a handful of nuts, something to put a base down. So the goal is to remain just a little hungry but never get super full. And I don’t eat everything — unless it’s really good. Then I can’t help myself.

How’d you approach your version of “Pack your knives and go?” Were you practicing in the mirror before you filmed the season?

There have been two other people to ever say it! Katie [Lee Biegel] on the first season, then Padma for 19 after that. The way I hear it in my head, it’s Padma’s voice. I remember when she said it to me. (Laughs.) So I remember being nervous, but it’s part of the job, it’s part of the role. But it does not feel good — regardless if the person really deserved to go home. It sucks. So, in my head, I initially thought, “Well, maybe I should pad it with a compliment sandwich — compliment, bad news, compliment,” But, sadly, you can’t be like, “You were really great. Pack your knives and go. But we really loved you.”

I read that Padma sent you a note when you started filming. Did she give you any advice beyond, “Break a leg?”

We spoke at the beginning, and she said one of the more helpful things. It’s the same way that I look back to how my parents parented me, which was always for my own betterment. She said something like, “Know I’m in your corner. I’m rooting for you. I’m available. If you need me, I’m available. If you don’t, that’s OK.” She understands I’ve got to figure it out on my own.

Among the past Top Chef contestants, who’s in your inner circle or brain trust? 

Brooke [Williamson], ever since she and I were on season 10 together. Mei Lin, from season… I don’t remember.

I try to get her chicken sandwich every other month.

Isn’t it so good? Everything she does is just exceptional. Stephanie Cmar is obviously my very best friend. And Gregory [Gourdet]. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances in the Top Chef family. But, in terms of family, it’s those people.

There was a bit of skepticism in the fan base about filming this season in Wisconsin —  especially after a cycle spent in London in Paris. You’re a midwesterner. I’m a midwesterner. What do you think the biggest misconception about Midwestern food is and how did you all want to approach maybe clearing that up this season?

Top Chef fans are passionate. We could have said, “Oh, we’re going to go to North Dakota.” Anywhere. No matter where we go, there’s Top Chef fans in other places that wish you’d go where they are.  So I don’t think it was any shade against Wisconsin. I think it was just disappointment that we weren’t someplace else. As far as misconceptions, we’re not asking them to cook Wisconsin food. We’re not asking them to cook Midwestern food. Having to debunk the idea of casseroles and meatloaf and things out of a box — things that I grew up on — they don’t have to do that. We’re just pulling from real traditions, from history, from points of pride of Wisconsin food.  We’re asking them to take inspiration from the things from Wisconsin — cherries, fish boils, indigenous cuisine.

Before I let you go, what are your favorite things you’re seeing in restaurants these days — and what are the trends that you want to die? 

I love a chef who’s giving you a story. I need something personal. You can find a great meal in a lot of places. What makes it stand out memorable for me is the person cooking and how it connects. It’s this unexplainable thing why some food memories stick with me and some don’t. When you have a meal and can pinpoint exactly why you love it, that is a testament of a personal story being the driving force.

And I don’t know if this is a trend or a pet peeve, but there are a lot of restaurants — What’s the best way of saying it? — where you get flavor fucked. (Laughs.) Everything is high acid, high spice, high salt, high this on top of that on top of this on top of texture. If you’re eating an entire meal where that’s all happening, things get lost. Some places out there just do it for the sake of fanfare, I think?  But those dishes need to be revisited.

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