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Kristen Kish Pulls Back The Curtain On Top Chef Season 21

The contestant-turned-host shares backstage details about the Bravo show.

Top Chef 2024 host Kristen Kish talks to Bustle about Season 21.
Bravo / 'Top Chef' / Kristen Kish

More than a decade after first appearing on Top Chef as a 28-year-old contestant, Kristen Kish returned to the Bravo reality TV show earlier this year as its Season 21 host.

Back in 2012, she’d been running a restaurant kitchen in Boston, Massachusetts, when she was scouted for Season 10. After presenting judges with dishes like her quickfire almond sponge cake and semolina orecchiette, the Korean-born chef emerged victorious, becoming the second female winner in the show’s 18-year history.

One decade, one cookbook, and one Texas restaurant later, she’s back — albeit, in a different capacity. “I might not be cooking as host, but I’m still talking about food in the way that I love to talk about it,” says Kish, who recently teamed up with Nutella Biscuits for its #BiscuitsnBesties campaign. “I’d be having conversations about dishes and performance whether I’m on the show or at my restaurant.”

With the Season 21 finale fast approaching, Kish has experienced the culinary contest from every perspective. Below, she explains how the Top Chef sauce is made, from the casting process to filming-day schedules.

Top Chef Season 21.Bravo/NBCUniversal/Getty Images
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Looking back to Season 10, talk me through what the casting process was like.

I didn’t really apply. My boss at the time was asked by the show’s producers if she knew any chefs, and she recommended my name without telling me. I never thought they’d choose me. I’d seen the show and thought, “I can’t do what they’re doing.” But I sent in some videos, menu samples, and food pictures at their request. All of a sudden, I was offered one of the spots.

How do you prepare?

I first made arrangements with work, family, and at home. If you’re going to be away for a while, you need to make sure someone has a key to your apartment, you know? Otherwise, I didn’t prepare much. I didn’t go back and watch every season, and was already working in a 10-seat restaurant, with new menus every night and executing everything myself. I was peeling my first potato and washing my last pot and pan. I think that prepared me a lot.

What did a typical day of filming look like?

The day starts with getting all of the TV stuff out of the way, like getting a microphone put on you. On [Season 10], the contestants were all living in the same house, so we’d be driven to wherever we needed to be, whether that be food shopping or the Top Chef kitchen set.

Once the timer starts on set during filming, it is on. There is no stopping. It’s one of the realest processes I’ve gone through. The process fans see on television is the same during filming — it’s just much longer in real life. It takes about a day-and-a-half to two days to film one episode.

Kish as a Season 10 contestant. Bravo/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

And as the host?

The experience is very different. I usually wake up two-and-a-half hours before I have to be anywhere to meditate. I’m an incredible introvert, so I require a recharge. From there, I go to set, get my hair and makeup done, and then filming commences. I have way more alone time filming as the host — the cameras aren’t following my every move.

Do contestants and judges interact in ways viewers don’t see?

You only interact with them when you’re competing. It’s not a personality contest, so if a contestant were to hang out with the judges too much during filming, it might skew their judgment. They’re only with competitors in the moments you see on TV.

We were even separated by producers backstage. If you tried to walk down the hallway at the same time as the judges, you’d be moved somewhere else so you didn’t cross paths. It’s all by design to ensure the ultimate fairness.

What is the most challenging part of filming?

Not knowing what’s in store for you in the competition was the most difficult part. If you’re someone who likes to plan ahead, that can be very challenging, which is by design. The actual cooking isn’t anything out of the normal chef repertoire. Most of the contestants have worked in restaurants, and it’s something we love to do.

What’s the best part of filming that fans don’t get to see?

It’s fun. You get to know the crew and contestants well, and as much as it’s stressful at times, you realize how much of a special opportunity it is just to be there — especially during your first experience on the show, because the filming aspect is all brand new. Every person at one point is laughing, smiling, or having a nice time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.