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'Top Chef' is back with a new season and the new host won Season 10

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: OK, people, sharpen your knives.


KRISTEN KISH: "Top Chef" is back.

MARTÍNEZ: That's right. The competitive cooking show is now entering its third decade, and a new season starts tomorrow night on Bravo. Now there are a few changes to the show. Most notably, longtime host Padma Lakshmi is out. Kristen Kish is in.


KISH: Hi, chefs. Welcome to Wisconsin and Season 21 of "Top Chef." I could not be more thrilled to be here as the host of "Top Chef."


MARTÍNEZ: So I think a lot of people will be tuning in and they're going to say, who is that person? So Kristen Kish, who are you?

KISH: Well, in relation to "Top Chef," I've been around since Season 10. I won the 10th season of "Top Chef." I have a restaurant in Austin, Texas. I went to culinary school when I was 19. I am 40. And yeah, I am the new host of "Top Chef."

MARTÍNEZ: Kish joins returning judges Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio, and she told me that she got into creative cooking from an early age.

KISH: It really started with food television, and a kid at 5 years old, me being that kid, trying to find a little bit of calm to manage anxiety, to manage a lot of different feelings and to fill downtime after school. And so "Great Chefs Of The World" was this great program on Discovery, and it was really low budget. It was a camera, a chef and a voiceover, but it really was just bare bones, this is how you're cooking. And I was watching these chefs from across the world cook amazing food. So if I wasn't outside playing with my friends or, you know, little league and basketball camp and summer camp, I was watching this show after school.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now for the people that do tune in to "Top Chef" Season 21, how does being a former contestant help inform what you now have to do as a host?

KISH: You know, I think more than - yes, the contestant aspect is a huge part of it. I know what these chefs are going through. I know what it means to step away from your life for that period of time. I know what it's like in terms of, like, what happens after the show. And, you know, I think the biggest thing for me, and it's something that Tom reminded me of on the first day of filming where I was incredibly nervous, was he was like, this is pre-shift. This is you and your restaurant. This is you addressing your team. It is something I've been doing my entire life. This is my career. Food, chefs, feedback, conversation. So you add those two things together, and I feel like I have a really well-rounded point of view and something new to add to the discussion.

MARTÍNEZ: Tell us what that moment was like when you start. OK. This is it. The tape is rolling. I'm the host of "Top Chef." What was that like for you?

KISH: Oh, God. The - like, the saliva in my throat got real thick and I was...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah (laughter).

KISH: ...Like, oh, can I do this? Of course, I was wanting to do a good job for myself, but knowing how important it is to the chefs, how important it is to the franchise of this show and people that have made this a success, I didn't want to disappoint anyone, and you put that pressure on yourself. But the first moment the chefs came walking through that door, I think I picked up some of the - or revisited some of the nerves that I had walking into the "Top chef" kitchen for the very first time doing something completely new. And so I was probably, maybe even more nervous than them because I know what to expect.

MARTÍNEZ: So I want to play a clip from the upcoming season of "Top Chef." This is you giving the chefs some advice, and it comes after a bunch of them reveal that they were pretty decorated chefs already. They'd been James Beard Award nominees or worked in Michelin-starred restaurants. Let's hear that.


KISH: Season 10, I had on my resume three cook jobs, and I was a current sous chef. So as much as it is amazing that you guys have all come so far in your career, once you get into the "Top Chef" kitchen, really, it quite frankly, does not matter at all.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So Kristen, what is the great equalizer in the "Top Chef" kitchen. Why doesn't that experience matter?

KISH: Because the challenges are meant to be challenging. When you're in your restaurant, you have your team of people, you have practice, you have years of experience, you have a ton of people you are relying on to perform night after night after night. And it's almost repetition, right? You're cooking the same things. And on "Top Chef," each day is completely different, and it's not necessarily playing to your strengths. So it doesn't matter. If the "Top Chef" challenge was to run your own restaurant, we could go in there and I'm sure they'd...


KISH: ...All succeed wonderfully, but it's not.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And a pressure cooker, too. I mean, every season I've ever...

KISH: Also that.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Watched, oh, my gosh. It's just like - I mean, I'm almost sweating with the chefs as they're, like, trying to beat the clock or plate something or trying to figure out what to make. OK. So but here's the thing, though, "Top Chef" Season 21 has some new rules. And the biggest one is that there is no immunity from elimination for winning a quickfire challenge. So for maybe people that don't know the show, Kristen, what is a quickfire and why is this new rule change a game changer for "Top Chef?"

KISH: Sure. So a quickfire is the thing that opens the show. It's the very first challenge. It's, you know, a challenge that is 30 minutes or less. You make one dish and it's kind of judged on the spot. And those were opportunities to kind of, like, I don't know, the way I looked at them was to kind of just, like, work out some energy. It's very quick.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

KISH: Some people thrive in quickfires because you have no time to think, and some people don't do well in quickfires because they require a little bit more time to plan. But oftentimes, the quickfires came with maybe a little bit of cash if you won or maybe an advantage going into the elimination challenge. But moving the immunity to the elimination challenges for the next episode means that it's a little bit more pressure where you actually want to continue capturing that immunity for the next episode and the next episode and the next episode. So I think it's a great change. I think it adds a little bit more fire.

MARTÍNEZ: In "Top Chef," what do you think is the difference between cooking your best food and cooking to win?

KISH: You know, some would say that they are synonymous with one another. I think in some challenges it is, but I also think that there's some challenges where you have to fit the challenge. You can't just say this is one of the best dishes that I've had and I can make it work for this challenge. What's really impressive, and you can always pick out the dishes that - and we've said it several, several times a season, is you can see the dishes in which "Top Chef" made you cook this. You would not cook this anywhere else. And when you nail a dish like that, that is, like, the trifecta of storytelling technique and a great dish. It is just this magical thing that you can't really place your finger on. But you know when something was specifically made for the challenge.

MARTÍNEZ: That is the new host of "Top Chef," Kristen Kish. Kristen, thanks a lot.

KISH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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