From Palatine to ‘Top Chef’: How Fremd graduate ended up on new season of Bravo show

A two-time James Beard award-nominated chef with suburban roots will compete on Bravo’s “Top Chef” this season, and she says the intensity portrayed on the competition cooking show is very real.

Alisha Elenz, who was raised in Palatine and currently lives in Chicago, will be one of 15 talented “cheftestants” to appear on the 21st season of the Bravo Network show, which premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 20.

Episodes, which will be 75 minutes long this season, will be available to stream on Peacock the following day.

Chef Alisha Elenz, left, competes on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” Courtesy of Bravo

Elenz, who has appeared on other cooking shows like Food Network’s “Chopped,” said she was reluctant to apply after being approached by the show’s producers.

“After the last one, I literally said ‘I’ll never do this again,’” she said. “Just the anxiety and the stress and the preparing. And I thought, ‘I’m just not really a competition chef. I don’t think TV is really for me.’”

The timing of the request also wasn’t great for Elenz, who not long before had decided to leave restaurants and start her own private chef and events company called Whisk the Night Away.

After coming up with a number of excuses not to do it and being sure she wouldn’t get chosen to be on the show, her mom gave her some sage advice.

“She told me to suck it up and just do the application,” Elenz said. “So I did, and here we are.”

She said in the world of chefs, “Top Chef” is the most respected of the cooking competition shows.

“If anything, it’s more intense than you even realize,” she said. “I think that’s the reason why ‘Top Chef’ has so much respect and why it’s been around so long, is it is very authentic and there’s nothing really fake about it. It’s very real.”

At just 30 years old and with only on-the-job training, the Fremd graduate has had an amazing rise through the ranks.

Elenz, who thinks she might have been the youngest female executive chef ever in Chicago at 23, got her start at 18 working as a cashier at her uncle’s pizza restaurant in Rogers Park.

After starting as a prep cook at mfk. in Chicago about 10 years ago, she quickly advanced to sous chef before being named executive chef at age 23, helping the restaurant attain the Michelin Bib Gourmand status they’ve held since 2014. At 24 she was nominated for her first James Beard award.

She got laid off from mfk. during the pandemic, but she never stopped working. She thinks her success at such a young age was actually a detriment, and that people in the industry were more interested in hiring her because of the buzz around her name after the James Beard nominations and winning the Jean Banchet Rising Chef award in 2019 than what she could do.

“I love the kitchen and I miss working on the line. What I don’t miss is the toxicity of it,” she said. “I got tired of people using my name for their benefit.

“I felt like I kept getting hired because of that and not because of what I could actually bring to the table, and it kept backfiring on me,” she said. “I was so young when I got promoted and I didn’t feel like I had a lot of time to be mentored and learn certain things. Then people stopped giving me that chance to go backward.”

She said her new endeavor offers a chance for variety you can’t get working in a restaurant.

  Palatine native Alisha Elenz is participating in the upcoming season of Bravo’s “Top Chef.” The two-time James Beard award nominee is currently a private chef. Rick West/

“What I love is that I get to curate an experience for somebody based off of what they want,” she said. “Every event that I’ve done has been so different, and it’s really rewarding. And I get to do what I love.”

Elenz said her approach on the show was to try to find a balance between not playing it too safe but not taking so many risks that time became a factor and she couldn’t finish a challenge.

“But then you’re thinking, this is my shot. I made it here. I went through all this to get here, so I have to do something cool,” she said. “In the end, I definitely stayed true to my food. I did the best that I could in the circumstances I was in.”

This season takes place in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin, before embarking on a special finale on a Holland America Line cruise ship.

“Every chef that was out there is so talented,” she said. “That was the most surreal moment when you’re sitting down talking to everybody and hearing their background and what they’ve done. It’s intimidating, but by the second day it was like we’re all family.”

Chef Kristen Kish takes over hosting duties this season from Padma Lakshmi. Kish joins longtime head judge Tom Colicchio and perennial judge Gail Simmons.

“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career so far,” Elenz said. “I’m so grateful I did it. It taught me so much about myself.”

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