Why new ‘Top Chef’ host Kristen Kish didn’t call Padma Lakshmi for advice

A woman wearing a vest that reveals her tattooed arms poses for a portrait
Former “Top Chef” winner Kristen Kish is ready to make her debut as the new host of Bravo’s popular cooking competition.
(Stephanie Diani / Bravo)

Kristen Kish was going through airport security in Dubai when the call came in that provoked the sort of clock-ticking, accelerated-heart-rate feeling the former “Top Chef” winner was familiar with during all those Quickfire challenges.

Like most fans of Bravo’s cooking competition, Kish was stunned to learn last June that Padma Lakshmi was stepping down as host of Bravo’s “Top Chef” after 19 seasons. “I couldn’t believe it,” Kish said.

Not long after the announcement, while traveling back home to New York from a work trip in Thailand, Kish and her wife landed in Dubai. They were scurrying to catch their connecting flight when Kish powered up her phone and saw texts from her manager trickle in. She called her back, thinking something was wrong, only to find out that Bravo wanted to talk to Kish about hosting the show.


“I call her as I’m waiting in line for security to push my suitcases through,” Kish recalled on a recent video call. “She was like, ‘They would love for you to fly to L.A. on Tuesday’ — and it was a Sunday. I was like, ‘Sure.’ That was it.”

Kish takes over as host on Season 21 of “Top Chef,” set in Wisconsin, premiering Wednesday.

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The comeback to “Top Chef” is fitting for the 39-year-old chef. As a Season 10 contestant, Kish was the easygoing yet particular frontrunner before she was eliminated following the show’s signature Restaurant Wars challenge, after taking responsibility as team leader for the poor preparation timing and a gelatin fumble by a fellow teammate. But she earned a spot back in the finale after winning on the companion web series “Last Chance Kitchen,” and then, with the help of an impressive five-course meal that included chicken liver mousse, the overall competition.

In the time since, Kish co-wrote a cookbook, opened the restaurant Arlo Grey in Austin, Texas, and has become more comfortable in front of the camera by appearing on shows like “Fast Foodies” (truTV), “Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend” (Netflix) and “Restaurants at the End of the World” (National Geographic). Still, Kish is aware that she has big shoes to fill. After all, Lakshmi nurtured the role and elevated it over nearly two decades, earning four Emmy nominations as host. But Kish didn’t hesitate to accept the opportunity, even if she second-guessed herself.

Five men and women sitting at a long table, smiling and talking together
Adam Siegel, left, Paul Bartolotta, Kristen Kish, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons in the Season 21 premiere of “Top Chef.”
(David Moir / Bravo)

“You’re like, ‘Whoa, meee?’” Kish says. “It completely caught me off-guard. It’s not like I was, in my brain, preparing for it or even considering that I would even be considered. I don’t want to take away like the fact that I was honored and so excited.”


Kish spoke to The Times about the first day as host, the season’s callback to her “Top Chef” origin story and whether she reached out to Lakshmi while filming. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You’ve done your share of hosting and on-camera work in the time since you won “Top Chef.” But is it weird to go from being an ex-contestant of “Top Chef” to its host?

I’ve known the show to be Padma hosting, just like so many of us. And to be the new person in that mix is the most — I don’t even know if I have a word for it. I probably leaned on the fact that I have been on the show, and have won the show, as a comfort and a validation for myself that I deserve to be there. I think it was just the idea that everybody is probably gonna get used to having to see a new face in that role. As did I.

A man and a woman standing in a professional kitchen
Joel McHale, left, and Kristen Kish in the Season 2 finale of “Fast Foodies” on truTV.
(Anna Maria Lopez / truTV)

Is there preparation? Where did you begin?

No, no preparation. I knew from the moment I said yes and the job was offered to me, you just have to be you. I think, for me, it was more of a mental preparation of wrapping my brain around the idea that it is me doing it. Whenever you put yourself out there to be judged by the masses — by a lot of people you don’t know, and, quite frankly, don’t know you — it’s terrifying because the internet can be a scary place sometimes. People can be very cruel. What I will say is the feedback and the amount of support has far outweighed any troll here and there.

How was that first day on set as host? What do you remember about walking out there, delivering the first lines?

The beauty about television is that I can repeat a line over and over and over. And I had to because, here’s the thing, there’s no teleprompter. They tell you in your ear the details of the challenge so you don’t mess it up, right? Because you have to deliver it so everyone at home understands the rules. I don’t register information by hearing it.

I could never. That sounds terrifying to me.


I’m a visual person. On “Iron Chef,” when I had to deliver lines, I had a teleprompter and all I had to do was read. So, for me, having to hear it and then push it out took some time. There was one line — I was trying to introduce somebody and I just could not get it right for the life of me. I did it over and over and over. Gail [Simmons], on the first day, was like, “We can be here as long as you need; everyone’s going to need to do do-overs. And it’s OK.” I knew that stuff, but hearing permission from seasoned pros, “take your time, take what you need,” that was really supportive, and the support from the crew was wildly helpful.

I know Padma sent you flowers as you began this journey. But what advice did she share?

She didn’t really give me advice. I think that’s a really great compliment because she knows that I have to figure it out on my own. She can’t tell me how to do her job because she knew how to do her job in the way that worked for her. I have to do it in a way that it is me. What she did offer me was complete support — call, text, write, snail mail, whatever; if I need her, she will be available.

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Did you find yourself reaching for the phone?

No, I was too busy!

This season introduces new rules to the competition: Immunity from elimination is no longer linked as a Quickfire prize but granted to the winner of the main challenge. What did you think of that change?

I love an immunity just like from a pure contestant point of view. It gives you a minute to really focus. But to win immunity for Quickfire to go into that same challenge, like you’re not saying that you don’t try as hard. But it does relieve a little bit of pressure, right? When you have to do immunity to win the next immunity, it only fuels you to make the immunity again. I feel like it pushes you harder, as opposed to knowing that you can just chill for a second [with the Quickfire immunity], if that makes sense.

Veteran chef Emeril Lagasse with three contestant chefs on "Top Chef"
“Top Chef” contestants Kristen Kish, left, Jeffrey Jew and Joshua Valentine face judge Emeril Lagasse in a scene from Season 10.
(Isabella Vosmikova / NBCUniversal / Bravo via Getty Images)

Things kick off in a way that brings your journey full circle. The first challenge pays homage to how you scored your spot on “Top Chef” in Season 10. You had to make a soup for Emeril Lagasse, who viewed soup-making as a way to test whether a chef knew how to develop flavor.


We were having a conversation, during the preproduction time: If you could come up with a challenge that really showcases what a great chef needs to have, what would it be? There’s so many. All three [tasks] of what Tom [Colicchio], Gail and I chose certainly prove that. But I feel for me, it was the only natural place to want to go and be like, “Well, I had to do it on my spot, so now you have to do it to earn your spot.” It was a no-brainer when they first asked.

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Take me back to 20-something Kristen Kish. Where you were in your life when you auditioned for the show and got the call to be a contestant?

I was in a place where “Top Chef” wasn’t even on my radar. Never thought I could do it, I never wanted to be on TV. It was my boss at the time and she was like, “You got to do it, you can do it.” Oftentimes you need other people to see your ability and your greatness to help push you along. And that’s what happened, in combination with the fact that I was maybe a couple years into my job and it was [on] autopilot a little bit. It was still fun, but it was a little easy.

You were eliminated during “Restaurant Wars, but your comeback story was insane. Thanks to “Last Chance Kitchen, where eliminated contestants compete for a shot to return, you came back and faced off in the finale against Brooke. A truly epic showdown and you won. How do you remember that whirlwind of time?

I remember getting eliminated and I can still hear Padma’s voice: “Please pack your knives and go.” Sometimes there’s a hiatus between the main season before the finale, and there was for mine. I was home watching the season play out just like everyone else was, knowing that I still have “Last Chance Kitchen” to go. I didn’t know my fate. I was living in this “Top Chef” purgatory being like, “OK, well, I still have, what, two or three more ‘Last Chance Kitchens’ to do in order to get back on.” By the time I got to the finale, so much time had passed that I was at peace with whatever was going to happen. Luckily, it worked in my favor.

How was it for you delivering the first “Please pack your knives and go”?


In my head, I kept saying it over and over and over and over again, even before we started filming. “Please pack your knives and go“— where should I put the inflection? “Please pack your knives and go.” You kind of like play around with it.

Was there any thought of giving you a different phrase?

Well, “Top Chef” has always had that since Katie Lee’s season. I can’t remember what they said specifically about “Please pack your knives and go,” but in terms of, “Your time starts now,” they were like, “Play around with it; say what you want to say.” But sometimes there’s only one way to say it. It’s all in the tone.

Four "Top Chef" judges stand next to a table piled with cuts of beef
Tom Colicchio, left, Kristen Kish, Dawn Burrell and Padma Lakshmi in a Season 19 episode of “Top Chef.”
(David Moir / Bravo)

What can you tease about the season? Were there any moments from the season that surprised?

I don’t know if it’s a tease, but I think it’s a really interesting twist. You’ve already talked about the immunity, and I love the challenge that that puts in place. I was very excited about, on the back half of the season, having Tom and Gail be part of Quickfires [typically it’s the host and a guest judge]. I like hanging out with them. To be able to have the three of us, tasting the food together, means that if we need — and it’s not every time or, quite frankly, it’s just simply in the moments — if something is so close, and you need to revert back to a Quickfire, you can. I feel like that was a nice thing to have in place.

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Padma has hosted the show for 19 seasons. If if you had your way, how long do you see yourself in this role?


As long as they’ll have me. I feel like the beauty of “Top Chef” is not who hosts it or who judges it or what guest judges or celebrities you have on. It is a show for the chefs; it is a show of an opportunity for chefs who are really good at what they do to come on and showcase that and be celebrated for it and to ultimately walk away ... with a pocket of opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise had before. I know there’s a lot of like, “Oh, Kristen is the new host” right now. But ... without the chefs, you have no show.

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