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A New ‘Top Chef’ Is Here to Make Everything in Life Better

Bravo
Bravo

Christmas; the only day where it’s actually spring weather in New York City; being asked out on a date: There are certain things that happen once a year that I look forward to. None of them compares, however, to my excitement over the return of my beloved Top Chef.

Season 21 of Bravo’s cooking competition premiered this week and, like many of us when we reach that milestone age, is going through some changes. Emmy-nominated host Padma Lakshmi’s decision to leave the series after its best-ever outing last year—a globe-trotting season featuring all-stars from franchises airing all around the world—was earth-shattering for me. Kevin Fallon’s pop culture history of terrible events goes: Spice Girls breaking up, Josh Charles leaving The Good Wife, and Padma Lakshmi ending her tenure as Top Chef host.

While I’ve dabbled in a passionate obsession with other reality series—So You Think You Can Dance, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and whatever Real Housewives franchise is actually good at the moment—Top Chef has always been the big one for me. Especially in recent years, where gimmicks, garish bombast, and “celebrities” dressed as rapping teddy bears have poisoned the genre, Top Chef has maintained its perfect flavor balance of entertainment and class. So much of that was owed to Lakshmi’s hosting style.

I was pleased, then, that the show’s new host is Kristen Kish, a former Top Chef winner whose hosting in last year’s National Geographic series Restaurants at the End of the World hinted at the same curiosity, humor, empathy, and seriousness that Lakshmi exhibited in spades. This week’s season premiere, which introduced Kish and this new era of Top Chef, comforted that the show’s new host and new vibes would still feel every bit like the show we’ve loved for 20 seasons.

Photo still of Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish, and Gail Simmons in Top Chef

Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish, and Gail Simmons

Bravo

The tradition of setting the series is a new city or state each season, and having that local food culture be a backdrop to the weekly challenges, continues. This time, the show headed to Wisconsin, with a premiere set in Milwaukee. Considering that last season had the cast traveling internationally, it’s an invigorating change of pace to be based in an area of the country steeped in Americana and whose food scene is largely unexplored nationally. (That is, besides the first thought of: CHEESE!)

Kish was able to connect to the contestants and the challenges from the perspective of someone who has been through it all before, building a compassionate rapport with the chefs while also telegraphing a “no excuses” warning—she knows what it’s like to go through this culinary gauntlet. Returning judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons seemed amused by this new dynamic. Change can be exciting.

Photo still of Kaleena Bliss, Valentine Howell Jr, and Charly Pierre in Top Chef

Kaleena Bliss, Valentine Howell Jr, and Charly Pierre

Bravo

Much of the episode was the Top Chef at its familiar best. There’s an intensity and a simplicity to the series. Huge emotions swirl because of the stakes and the pressure, but it all boils down to the no-frills question of who made the best dish. I’m not sure how much of it is intentional or how much is owed to it now being such a memorable part of pop culture these last two years, but I noticed a little bit of The Bear’s influence in the shooting style. This first episode crammed all the contestants in a small open kitchen—an instant pressure cooker—and there was something about the scrappier tracking shots and close ups that reminded me more of The Bear than Top Chef’s typical cinematic style.

I already have a crush (hi, Manny), pegged a fan favorite who I want to be my best friend (Michelle, obviously), and nearly cried twice. That’s to say that, even with changes, everything is back to normal when it comes to my experience watching the show.

I’ve never been a foodie or able to even remotely cook, but that’s never impacted my appreciation of the series or my understanding of the skill behind the dishes being put together. I watched this premiere while fighting for my life against a bout of norovirus, pressing play in between episodes in the fetal position on the floor of my bathroom wailing, “Why is this happening to me?” And yet I was never turned off by this show about food. That’s a real mark of great TV right there.

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