New ‘Top Chef’ host Kristen Kish aims for empathy with ‘tough love’

You do not have to tell Kristen Kish, the new host of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” debuting Wednesday, March 20, that crowns can be heavy. She knowwwws, people. Picking up the mantle of hosting duties of the top-rated show from longtime fan favorite Padma Lakshmi isn’t as easy as reciting the show’s signature line: “Please pack your knives and go.”

But Kish, a former “Top Chef” winner who operates the acclaimed Arlo Gray restaurant in Austin, is finding her own way — by leaning into her strengths (hint for future competitors: she’s empathetic, but no pushover) and quirks, including her innate dorkiness (her words!).

Ahead of the show’s 21st-season premiere Wednesday, Kish talked to us about learning to stop worrying so much, whether she has a deal-breaker dish and about how Tom Colicchio helped her conquer her nerves. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

Q: Obviously you’re filling some big shoes, and people have expectations. How are you thinking about that?

A: The first thing was sheer panic, to be completely honest. It’s a show that has defined a lot of culinary competition shows, and it’s been around for a long time. I know what it can do for your career and how important this show has become. So knowing all that, of course, there’s pressure on your shoulders, and then knowing that you’re also taking the spot of someone that carved out that role and defined it.

All I can do is go in there with the knowledge that I have, with the empathy that I have, with — in some cases — the dorkiness that I have. All I can do is be me in the context of what “Top Chef” needs from me, and so when I think about it that way, it lessens the expectation I put on myself.

Q: How do you think having been a competitor informed you as the host?

A: There’s one side where I feel for them, like when it gets hard — I know what it feels like, when you feel stuck and you’re not clicking into it. The other side is that I also know when you can do more.

You know where someone can be better, where someone could try a little harder or dig a little deeper. But, at the end of the day, we’re all there to champion their process. When we think of judges’ table, we always say it’s more feedback than anything. It’s not placing judgment. It’s giving feedback in order to do better next time, even when you leave the show.

Q: I know there are some unwritten rules of “Top Chef,” like no one should make rice. Or that competitors were always nervous to serve Padma Indian food. Do you have things like that?

A: No, you’re just looking for technically sound dishes with creativity and a chef’s point of view.

There are foods that I don’t like to eat in my normal life. I’m not a smoked salmon person, but I’m going to eat it and I can judge it fairly. As long as it’s good, I’m cool. I love deep-fried food. It’s just my jam. But poorly done deep-fried food? I don’t want to eat that.

Q: What are the challenges of eating on camera?

A: Whether you’re on TV or not, we all know what it feels like to put a big bite of food in your mouth, and then someone starts talking to you and then everyone’s waiting for you to finish chewing. If that happens, it happens — it’s television, so they’re going to cut out the part where I’m chewing my food for five minutes.

Q: How did you get along with Tom Colicchio?

A: Oh my God. I had a phenomenal time. We hung out. Like, off camera and on camera. He’s dry and sarcastic in some ways, but he’s really sentimental at a lot of times, too. So you get to tap into Tom and all the different Tom-isms. We could laugh and joke about some things, and then he would give me a hard time about some things, and I can throw it right back at him.

Q: What do you think about cooking competition shows these days? “Top Chef” is one of the OGs, but some of them are kind of silly. Like, let’s throw a cannon of food at someone and then they have to taste it and say what it is.

A: The cooking competition space is vast. Some people don’t gravitate toward “Top Chef” because they think it’s a little too serious and too professional, and they want to watch the things with cannons being shot into people’s mouths. There’s something for everybody.

As long as it’s coming from a place where it celebrates our industry, and the skill and the people that work hard to make our restaurants something special that provide context and color to our neighborhoods — for me, those are the ones that I prefer to watch.

Q: Do you think viewers are learning anything about food? Or are they there just for the entertainment?

A: People learn about food all the time. I did a show called “Fast Foodies,” and it was a little cheesy and a little unhinged, but at the end of the day we were three chefs cooking great food. However it is disguised or wherever you pick up moments of learning about food or different flavor profiles, that’s great. And on the other side, if you never pick up a thing about food but you’re picking up something about somebody else, like how someone else learns or where they pull their inspiration from — if you’re connecting to them as a person and not as a chef? Also fine.

Q: Were you a fan of the show? When did you start watching?

A: I started watching season two. But I was also in school. I was working in kitchens, so I was always at work on the weekday nights that it was airing. And I was too cheap and too broke to pay for one of those recording TiVo things. So I did miss a lot of seasons, but I distinctly remember watching season six — that was the Voltaggio brothers’ season. And my friend goes, “Man, you should go on that show!” and I was like: “No way I’m going on that show. I can’t do that. Like that feels really intense.”

Q: In earlier seasons — when obviously reality TV overall was different — contestants were hooking up and there was more personal drama. Now it seems like everyone’s professional and more supportive of each other. How do you see its evolution, and where do you see it going?

A: I love to see the evolution. It was a product of its time back then. But where it’s gone is far more impressive to me. It is probably the reason where I even agreed to go on the show in the first place. It’s about chefs, it’s about cooking.

Of course, there are personalities that might not work together. So you’re going to get a little bit of friction in some places, and also it’s a competition. But I think what people started realizing is that if we come together we can make our industry bigger, greater, better, as opposed to an ego-driven space.

Q: What do you see as the big challenges in the industry right now?

A: I don’t know what every restaurant across this country looks like. But I imagine that there are some that are still being run with ego over community. Fear over connection. Head over heart.

Obviously there are some with a lack of diversity, but all I can say is that looking at my restaurant and what we’ve created is something that I’m very, very, very proud of. And when I go into my friends’ restaurants, I’m very, very, very proud of great chefs, great leaders making positive changes.

Q: How do you see the difference between your role on “Top Chef” and your role as a chef?

A: They’re more similar than anything. The first day on set before we started filming I was having a little freak out. Like, I start pacing, and the pressure that I was putting on myself was unreal. And Tom saw that I was this close to throwing up from nerves. And he goes “Kristen, come here,” and so I go into his dressing room. And he says: “You know when you’re doing your pre-shift talk, when you address your team? And you go over new menus and you talk about things that are going right and things that are going wrong?” And I said of course I know that. And he was like, “That’s all you’re doing here, too.”

And in that moment, I started to settle into the idea that I don't have to be the host of “Top Chef.” I am, with whatever it is and the feedback and the information that I want to share.

Q: Were there moments over the season where you just were like, “Oh, that was terrible,” like where you goofed on camera?

A: There are probably more blooper moments for me than there are shining, great moments. I also hope they will make it in because it’s a very real process. I have severe social anxiety that I’ve dealt with my entire life. I’ve gotten better, but new situations that put me in positions where I haven’t had a chance to figure out my flow scare me. So sitting down at the dining table with all of our guests and our judges — those were the moments where I stumbled on my words more times than not. It’s like I’m hosting a dinner party and I have to welcome people, but it’s all completely unscripted. I’m sure there’s a blooper from every single elimination challenge, where I’m like, “Welcome, everybody!” and then I just don’t know what to say.

Q: Is there anything in future seasons that you’re going to do differently?

A: My lesson learned is to go in there and know that nerves and anxieties are going to come. But I have to stop worrying about it. Worrying about doing your job is not going to make you do a better job. So I’ve got to let that go and remove that pressure off myself. Because at the end of the day, it’s not solely on my shoulders. It is a combination of a lot of people coming together working really hard making something very special.

Q: Are you hard on the “Top Chef” contestants?

A: I’m the same way that I am in my restaurant. You hold people accountable for the decisions that they make. You give feedback if things need to be better, and you want to encourage them to be the best that they can be. Sometimes that requires tough love, and sometimes you’re like, why are we making the mistake five times in a row?

I actually don’t think it’s tough at all. I think it’s encouraging, and I feel like when you hold someone accountable they want to do better for you — there’s this, like, “I don’t want to mess up again” kind of vibe.

Q: So we won’t see you Gordon Ramsay-ing anybody?

A: Oh, my voice never raises.

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