Top Chef Returns for Its 21st Season with Kristen Kish and a Midwest Backdrop

And the stakes are higher than ever.



“Chefs, are you ready? Your time starts now.”

With that, Kristen Kish fired up the first elimination cook-off of the new Top Chef, set in Wisconsin for its 21st season. The hit Bravo show returned tonight with a Midwest backdrop, new rules, and an assured new judge.

Kish joins judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, filling the role after Padma Lakshmi exited last year following the show’s 20th season in London. Kish brings a particularly insider perspective to the job, both as the show’s season 10 winner and former guest judge. And as a Midwesterner raised in Michigan, the setting gave her a boost.

“As soon as I heard it was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — I grew up right across the lake — it already felt familiar,” Kish tells Food & Wine. “And to have a nerve-wracking moment of stepping into my very first season, and to have it be somewhere familiar, very close to home — it was a really good thing to help me ease my way into it.”

Related: 'Top Chef' Is Back for Season 21 — Here's Your First Look at the Contestants

Kish says going into it with Colicchio and Simmons, who she’s known since season 10, also made the transition to her new role easier. “There’s so much support, so it was hard to stay nervous for too long,” she says.

Her fellow judges, for their part, were confident in Kish. “It was seamless,” Colicchio says.

Before filming the first episode, the Top Chef veteran gave a nervous Kish some encouragement. “She fell right into the role,” he says. “I think she realized that she's not trying to take Padma’s role, she has to be herself. And she figured that out right away. She was herself, and it was really great.”



In addition to a new judge, the show is also mixing up some of the rules this season. In the past, Quickfire Challenge winners got immunity from that week’s elimination challenge. Now, though, immunity isn’t on the table — but weekly cash prizes are. The cheftestant who wins the elimination challenge will get immunity for the following episode. The upshot? The stakes are high and cheftestants need to bring the heat every week. 

This season’s 15 contestants include James Beard nominees, chefs who’ve worked in Michelin-starred kitchens, and one Top Chef France finalist. The group is made up of culinary pros from San Francisco to Boston, including one Wisconsinite. Dan Jacobs, chef and co-owner of Milwaukee restaurants EsterEv and DanDan, is a six-time James Beard Best Chef Midwest Semi-Finalist. Early in the premiere, Jacobs flashed a little Midwest hospitality with a toast welcoming his fellow contestants to his home state.

Among the local luminaries tapped to be guest judges this season are Tory Miller, executive chef and co-owner of L’Etoile in Madison, as well as Joe and Shaina Papach, co-owners of Harvey House and Butterbird. Before moving to Madison to open Harvey House, an homage to Wisconsin’s legendary supper clubs, Joe Papach worked in kitchens in San Francisco, Napa, and New York City, including Quince, French Laundry, and Gramercy Tavern. 

“It was an honor to be asked to participate in Top Chef,” Papach tells Food & Wine. “It was a real full circle moment, as I worked for Tom at Gramercy Tavern, and Shaina and I met there. It was a lot of fun being judges, and even more fun watching the whole process.”

Besides hometown talent, episodes will spotlight some of the bounty and beloved institutions of America’s Dairyland. While many filming locations are still under wraps, a few — largely in Wisconsin’s two most populous cities: Milwaukee and Madison — have been teased so far, including Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium (home of the Famous Racing Sausages), chef Miller’s L’Etoile, and the Dane County farmers’ market

Related: Here's What the 'Top Chef' Judges Really Think of This Season's Location

The weekly Madison market, set on the square surrounding the Wisconsin State Capitol building from April to November, is said to be the largest producer-only market in the country, bringing together 150-plus vendors selling local vegetables, flowers, and small-batch provisions. Other signature Wisconsin staples making an appearance on the show: fish boils, cherries, and, of course, cheese.

On Wednesday night contestants, local restaurateurs, and judges gathered for the season premiere at a bash in Milwaukee, inside the city’s Discovery World, a science museum overlooking Lake Michigan. And for the first time in Top Chef’s 18-year history, all three judges were together to watch it. 



Bites like mini lobster rolls came care of Milwaukee chef and restaurateur Paul Bartolotta, who’s had several turns as a Top Chef guest judge over the last few years (including in this season’s premiere episode) and was a major supporter of bringing the show to his home state.

“I’ve worked on this for about four years to get it to come here,” he says. When the show’s producers started thinking about filming another season in the Midwest (the last was in Chicago in 2008), Bartolotta persuaded them to visit.

“I started my tour with a custard crawl,” he says, noting he never picks a favorite of the longstanding local spots specializing in the thicker-than-ice cream frozen treat. “I showed them the restaurants, I talked about the ingredients, and of course, we don’t need to talk about cheese and beer.”

For more Food & Wine news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on Food & Wine.