Kristen Kish On Becoming the New Host of ‘Top Chef’

"It’s not that I never wanted to be on TV," says the former 'Top Chef' winner and new series host of her journey. "The thing holding me back was my own doubt that I could do that.”

Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish, and Gail Simmons on Top Chef. David Moir/Bravo

There’s an episode of 30 Rock in which comedy writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) decides to play hardball when negotiating a talk show development deal with her mentor, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). Jack fires back by threatening to launch the show with Padma Lakshmi instead, to which Liz replies, enraged: “THEN WHO’S GONNA HOST TOP CHEF?!”

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This voice was ringing in my head last June, when Lakshmi announced that she would be stepping down after 19 seasons as the host of the cooking competition. Though Lakshmi was not Top Chef’s original host (that would be Katie Lee), she’s been the face of the show for longer than most fans have been watching, along with regular judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons. It was hard to imagine the show going on without her. And yet, it barely took 20 minutes of the new season to put my inner Liz Lemon at ease. Season 21 picks up without missing a beat as Season 10 winner and frequent guest judge Kristen Kish steps into Padma’s role with a veteran’s confidence.

This would’ve come as quite a surprise to the 28-year-old Kristen Kish who debuted on the show in 2012.

Guest judge Paul Bartolotta and Kristen Kish on Top Chef. David Moir/Bravo

“I never wanted to go on Top Chef,” Kish told Observer last week. “Not because I didn’t respect the show or didn’t think of all the great things that could come from it, but it’s because I thought ‘There’s no way I can do that. There’s absolutely no way I can compete in that arena.’” That sentiment is common amongst chefs she’s spoken to, including those who end up competing on the show. “It’s the idea that you’re going to step outside of your comfort zone, to step outside of your kitchen with your team and do this thing that millions of people are going to watch. For me, it was ‘What if I embarrass my friends and my mentors?’ But if you get eliminated, on the first day or second to last, it’s not going to mean that you’re a bad chef. It means that someone out-cooked you.”

Kish is one of very few chefs to have experienced both the sting of defeat and the glory of victory on Top Chef. After being eliminated for losing her season’s Restaurant Wars competition, Kish survived four rounds in Last Chance Kitchen and won the right to rejoin the competition for the finale. Kish became the first chef to win her season after being eliminated, a feat that’s been repeated only twice in the subsequent decade.

After becoming the tenth Top Chef, Kish returned to the kitchen as planned, becoming the new chef de cuisine at Menton in Boston and eventually opening her own restaurant, Arlo Grey, in Austin in 2018. All the while, Kish was presented with a variety of new opportunities, including offers to come back to television.

“People see something in you that maybe you don’t see in yourself,” says Kish. “Opportunities show you that you can actually be good at something you didn’t think you could be good at. And for me, that was the case. It’s not that I never wanted to be on TV. I’m sure if I dared to dream of it, it could sound interesting, but the thing holding me back was my own doubt that I could do that.”

Kish eventually dipped her toe back into the world of cooking shows, serving as a guest judge on Top Chef and Chopped, hosting Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend and the more light-hearted Fast Foodies, and launching Restaurants at the End of the World, her own food travelog for Disney+. Kish says that the key to building her confidence on screen has been choosing projects that allow her to be herself.

Tom Colicchio, Stefan Richter, and Kristen Kish in Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen in 2013. Bravo

“If you’re asking me to be a version of myself or to highlight one version and to mute the rest, I can’t,” she says. “I’m fully me—and if you give me the opportunity, TV or not, to just be me, then I will be okay.”

In 2023, while flying home from a job in Thailand, Kish received a phone call from one of her managers saying, simply, “Bravo wants to talk to you.” This was only days after Lakshmi announced her departure from Top Chef, and Kish knew exactly what this call was about.

“You know, when I first heard that Padma Lakshmi was leaving, I could’ve thought of a million people to do it, like, outside of the Top Chef world. You look at Padma who did it successfully for 19 years. She wasn’t a competitor on Season 1, she was just someone who knew and loved a lot about food and travel and experiences and people.”

Nevertheless, Kish has proven a natural fit for the role, not only because of her presence and expertise, but because of the way her familiarity to the judges, competitors, and viewers allows for minimal disruption of Top Chef’s established rhythm. The premiere of Season 21 places Kish front and center and begins with a challenge derived from her own experience on the show, but it’s not a far departure from the sort of challenge that a guest judge would bring to the table on an average episode. Kish, Collichio, and Simmons have a rapport on Day 1, and as a permanent panelist, Kish can now provide a competitor’s perspective on a weekly basis.

Now that she’s sitting on the other side of the judge’s table, Kish believes more than ever that chefs who are intimidated by the prospect of competing on Top Chef, as she was a decade ago, have nothing to fear from throwing their toques in the ring.

“You’re already doing this every day. You are testing recipes every day. You might just do it with a little bit of extra pressure and against a few other people, but if you focus on the task at hand, you’re cooking. We cook on the fly, and spontaneously, all the time. When you put it in perspective like that, I hope that more great chefs of the world will think ‘Yeah, I could do that.’”

Season 21 of Top Chef debuts on March 21st. 

Kristen Kish On Becoming the New Host of ‘Top Chef’