‘Top Chef’ Judges Talk Wisconsin, the Post-Padma Era and Diversity in Food: ‘I Don’t Care If It’s from Angola or Antarctica If Something’s Seasoned Correctly’

With 20 seasons under its belt, “Top Chef” has always evolved in order to maintain its position as TV’s most prestigious cooking competition show. But when heading into Season 21, the Bravo mainstay had to make its greatest gear shift yet: After an international season that gathered contestants from a slew of global spinoffs in London, longtime host Padma Lakshmi announced her exit from the role after more than 15 years as the series’ grounded center.

Fortunately, Lakshmi’s successor is already well-known to the franchise’s fans. After winning Season 10, in 2012, Kristen Kish has topped the shortlist of “Top Chef” alumni who burnish the show’s credibility with their subsequent success. In 2018, Kish opened her own restaurant, Arlo Grey, inside Austin’s The LINE hotel. She’s also developed experience as a presenter, co-hosting the Netflix reboot of “Iron Chef” with Alton Brown and traversing the globe for National Geographic’s “Restaurants at the End of the World.”

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Even with her track record on and off the show, Kish’s addition to the judging panel has been strikingly seamless. Alongside chef Tom Colicchio and food writer Gail Simmons, Kish has presided over a season that’s shaken up more than just the cast: Its setting, Wisconsin, caused some observers to raise an eyebrow — compared to past destinations like New Orleans or California, the Badger State isn’t as well known as a culinary mecca. The rules, too, have been scrambled. For the first half of the season, contestants could win immunity only from elimination challenges, not the short Quickfire that opens every episode; for the second half, Colicchio and Simmons have joined Kish in judging the Quickfire — and incorporating that judgment into elimination decisions.

All of these changes have helped keep “Top Chef” fresh. They’ve also given the judges a lot to discuss, often in the same strongly opinionated, yet always respectful, manner in which they weigh who will next have to pack their knives and go. Heading into the final stretch of episodes, which will trade the Midwest for a cruise in the Caribbean, Simmons, Kish and Colicchio met with Variety in the greenroom of Andy Cohen’s talk show “Watch What Happens Live” to discuss life after Lakshmi, what they learned in Wisconsin and how the show has adjusted — or in some cases, maintained — its approach to highlighting talent over time.

With filming in London and the World All Stars format, last season was such a huge production. Before that, there were a few years of COVID disruptions. How did it feel to come back to the States and a more standard “Top Chef” format? 

Gail Simmons: I think it was great. I think it felt like a reset for a lot of reasons. Obviously, World All Stars was so big. We went international. And London was extraordinary, but it was also a really challenging season to make. Less so for Tom and I, but our production really struggled with a lot of things being overseas. We’re a big crew; the Queen died in the middle. Lots of unforeseen circumstances. I think the result was incredible, and we were so happy to have done it.

Coming back to the States obviously streamlined the process a little more, but specifically going to Wisconsin. Because they were so — I’ve never seen anything like it. They were so excited to have us there, and they just made shooting so easy. So coming from that crazy, challenging season — because we were also then faced with the reset of Padma leaving and Kristen coming — it just made everything easier in itself.

Tom Colicchio: We went from being a small fish in a large pond to a large fish in a small pond.

Simmons: A lake! It was really a lake.

I did want to talk about the Wisconsin of it all. Compared to a lot of the show’s locations, it’s perhaps not as intuitive of a food destination. I’m curious what your guys’s preconceived notions of food in Wisconsin were like going into the season.

Kristen Kish: I mean, I grew up in Michigan, just right over Lake Michigan. Milwaukee is right over from Grand Rapids. So I will say the food was more similar than not. The deep history and traditions of specific locations were different.

But the Midwest generally, as a feeling, I was very accustomed to. Growing up on the lake, grilling out on the beach, certain white fishes and produce — all that stuff was familiar. Then obviously, through “Top Chef” and all the challenges, you learn a lot more about this exact region. But it felt like a homecoming in  a lot of ways.

Simmons: I think the fact that it isn’t intuitively a known, top-tier food city was sort of the point. Again, as a contrast to London, but also because the point of our show isn’t, the more we do it, to show you all the things that we all know. It’s to uncover this country and see it through the lens of food and discover all these places that you might not know, and do a deeper dig — not just show you the beer and cheese of it all. I loved that it was a place that people didn’t expect. We all had the same reaction that everyone else did! We were like, “Really? We’re going to Milwaukee?” But the reaction there has been so positive. And I think it gets people to think about how there’s good food everywhere.

Colicchio: What’s happened in the last 30 years or so is that chefs who have come to big cities to work have gone home. Maybe they’re having children, and they want to be near their families. It’s much more affordable to open a restaurant in Milwaukee than it is in New York. I think if you spoke to the average person who lives in Milwaukee, they would say that their food scene in the last 10 years has been amazing. There’s great restaurants there. One of the country’s best chefs, Paul Bartolotta, has restaurants in Milwaukee. There’s a history. Just because we don’t know about it doesn’t mean it’s not there. We ate really well there. In more upscale restaurants, in more neighborhood bistros, but also, I had some of the best ethnic foods.

Simmons: Serbian food, Laotian food. Learning the history of the immigration patterns in this country informs the best way to eat in each place. That’s kind of what we help to do on the show, and also in our downtime.

Were there any particularly pleasant surprises for you that you didn’t necessarily know about going in?

Colicchio: Serbian food I’d never had before. It’s absolutely delicious.

Kish: The fish boil was a whole new experience.

One of my best friends is from Milwaukee and I texted him like, “You do what with kerosene?” 

Simmons: It is bizarre.

Kish: You boil the living daylights out of it, but it’s so good!

Colicchio: When you see it, it makes perfect sense. Part of the reason is, if you boil fish and vegetables, there’s a scum that’s going to come on top, and you can’t get close enough to skim it. Normally if you’ve got a pot and you’re poaching fish, you’d skim that, right? You can’t get close enough. And so by throwing the kerosene at the end, it boils over. There’s reason behind it. I think [contestant] Dan [Jacobs] said it: “Who would boil fish?” But it’s really good.

TOP CHEF -- "Goodbye, Wisconsin" Episode 2112 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- "Goodbye, Wisconsin" Episode 2112 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

I did want to ask about the hosting transition. When Padma announced her intention to leave, Tom and Gail, were you guys at all part of the deliberative process for what was going to come next?

Simmons: We weren’t part of the process when she announced to leave. That was a surprise to us, too. But yes, we definitely talked at length with all of our executive producers. We’ve been a team for 18 years, and Padma was a humongous part of that team. So we didn’t take the choice lightly. Ultimately, it was not our choice, who came next.

Kish: You could’ve struck it, though!

Colicchio: There were only two names that came up, and Kristen was one of them.

Simmons: We almost knew the next day that there were very few choices that we felt were really the right person for the job.

And when Kristen’s name came up, what made you say, “Oh, my God, that makes so much sense”?

Simmons: I mean, of all the contestants that have been through the seasons, I keep in touch with a handful of them. Every season, one or two people, and we see each other at events. We all work in the industry, so we keep track of them. But of everyone, personally, Kristen was the person I was closest to of any contestant. I’ve watched her evolve from the year that she won to now. She’s done so much great television, but she still is cooking, and has an incredible restaurant. I felt like she had just kind of come into her own. It was instinctive. It was like, “Kristen Kish. Yes.”

Colicchio: Obviously, Kristen won her season. Fantastic chef. But she’s been a guest judge as well, so we knew that side. I said, “Great. I’d love to work with her. I think she’d be fantastic.” And it turned out to be true. I think the chefs also appreciate that, as much as we could sit there and critique them, Kristen’s been in their shoes. And I think they respect that.

You’ve said you opted not to ask Padma for advice going in, but were there any aspects of her hosting presence or performance that you really wanted to channel?

Kish: She is her and I am me. The job was not to go in and be Padma. That would be a horrible mistake on so many different levels, as it would be vice versa. Obviously, she left quite an impression. She connects with a lot of people. She is very, very smart. And what I took from all of that wrapped together is just her presence. I don’t need to copy her presence, but she has presence. And I feel like that is a really strong place to be, and one that I feel like I have to work and continue working at. Not shrinking to the room; standing up in the room and taking up space. So that is something that I admire greatly in her.

Simmons: As Padma liked to say, “Shoulders back, tits out.” In a joking way, not in an offensive way!

Kish: By nature, when I was cooking, I was like, [whispers] “What’d you guys think of the food?” I was very small. And you just need to take up room and feel comfortable doing that with my voice and just my presence.

Did the three of you have any collective conversations or planning before you started filming? 

Kish: There were all the texts and things leading up to it; there were calls with production. But a lot of it, and [Tom and Gail] can correct me if I’m wrong or have a different experience, it’s how you’re in this space together. You can’t really anticipate or prepare, “This is how it’s going to be.” Obviously, there’s a rapport and friendship amongst the three of us, but we had never been in that context truly together as the three people.

I tell this story all the time. Tom, he saw me pacing, almost throwing up and nearly crying my eyes out. I was so nervous. And he pulled me aside and reminded me that this is something that I already know how to do. It’s cooking. It’s pre-shift. It’s addressing your team. It’s giving feedback. It’s mentoring. And I feel like as soon as I was able to understand that it is real life, it’s not that I have to play a role of myself, I got comfortable.

Colicchio: It’s fair to look at it as real life that’s just being captured, as opposed to, “We’re on TV.” I don’t think any of us look at it as if we’re on TV. Yeah, we’re in makeup, and maybe there’s somebody dressing us. But we’re not performing. We’re just working with chefs, which we do often. We figured out a long time ago that the only way for the audience to understand the food and chefs is for us to have a good, honest conversation about food. And so that’s all we do. However they edit it, they edit it. But that’s our job.

Kish: I think there’s always an expectation — especially with me, being a viewer of the show for the majority of my life — you see it all pulled together in 45 minutes or 50 minutes of television. And then I had this idea that I have to fit in that 50 minutes. But it couldn’t be farther from the truth. It truly is just living.

Simmons: The conversations we have are hours-long sometimes. It’s up to [production] to then create the narrative from it. They don’t push us in that way. They understand that that’s when you get the real rapport with the chefs; that’s how we connect with our audience. So if they let us have those conversations, they’re gonna get what they need. And we can also tell the truth and be comfortable and not feel like we have to get that, you know, biting soundbite.

I think we’ve come a long way. And it took us a couple seasons at the beginning to figure that out. To not have to be the villain. If anything, the contestants will tell you after that our conversations are really constructive. And that’s what’s important, I think, for making it feel authentic to the audience.

TOP CHEF -- "Lay It All on the Table" Episode 2111 -- Pictured: (l-r) Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Danny Garcia, Kristen Kish, Curtis Duffy -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- "Lay It All on the Table" Episode 2111 -- Pictured: (l-r) Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Danny Garcia, Kristen Kish, Curtis Duffy -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

The season had some major rule changes. Some of them were more a matter for production, like shifting immunity to elimination challenges, but something that involved you as judges was incorporating your feedback into the Quickfire and Quickfire into eliminations. I was wondering how you felt about that change. 

Colicchio: It meant more work for us, so I wasn’t happy about it.

Simmons: Actually, both of the major changes to the gameplay that we made this season — the immunity now being in the elimination challenge, and Tom and I coming into the Quickfire — were the result of long conversations. Something that Padma struggled with was that she was the only one who tasted all of those dishes. And at the same time, it meant that the Quickfire had low stakes. Yes, there was a winner and loser or losers, and the winner got immunity, but the losers, the weakest dishes, there was no stakes there. So all you had to do was get through it, you’re never going to be eliminated, there’s never going to be a result of that. And so it gave them a chance to play it safe in the Quickfire a lot.

So now that Tom and I are there for the last half of the season, it allows us to then bring those dishes into our Judges Table at times when we need it, when we’re at a standstill. If there’s two dishes that we think are really the best we can decide, well, who did better in the Quickfire? If there’s two dishes or three dishes that are on the bottom, and we can’t decide, well, how did they do in the quickfire? And now that conversation for the very first time can be about the episode as a whole, when before it was always only about the dish in front of us. I think that makes everyone step up their game.

Colicchio: I’m kind of mixed on the whole thing. I’ll be honest. Workflow aside.

The way we judge, we judge the dishes in front of us. If you win three in a row, it doesn’t matter. You make the worst dish, you go home. We’ve changed that now. If you win, you can make the worst dish, but you’re staying. Which means that if you make the worst dish, instead of going home, somebody else is going to go home.

Simmons: If you made the worst dish, you’re still going home! We don’t even bring in the Quickfire. We only bring the Quickfire in when we need to.

Colicchio: I’m not talking about the Quickfire, I’m talking about immunity!  If you have immunity, you can make the worst dish and not go home.

Simmons: But that’s always been immunity! It changes the flow a little bit, for sure.

Colicchio: Personally, I’d get rid of immunity.

Kish: Ooooh!

I feel like I’m sitting in on a deliberation.

Simmons: Exactly. This is how we do it.

Colicchio: We sit down and we hash it out. Every change that we’ve made usually happens organically. And there’s usually a discussion about it. I mean, we had a very long discussion about [the Quickfire]. Do you bring it in every time? Do you bring it in only if it’s close?

Simmons: We’re trying it. The good thing is, we make the rules. We meaning our whole production team. So if we don’t like it, and it doesn’t play well, by the end of season, we can take it away next season.

Kish: Or do a no immunity season.

Simmons: I mean, that’s a big idea, Kristen Kish:

Kish: You heard it here first.

Simmons: Do not give it away! If we announce next season is an immunity-free season, you can break the news. You were in the room.

Kish: With the Quickfire this year, there’s always money attached to it. Which, I will say, when you step away from your life and your job, and oftentimes you don’t get paid. Like, I didn’t keep getting my salary. You hope to make a little bit of money.

Simmons: And I think almost everyone does. Like, almost every contestant walked away with at least five grand. Some of them walked away with like, 50 grand just from Quickfires.

Kish: I guess I can only speak for myself. My salaries [as a chef] were very, very low. You don’t make a lot of money. You work your ass off. I was a sous. When I went on Top Chef 10 years ago, at that point, I had never seen a $10,000 check. Like, that’s completely foreign to me, and to be able to walk away with more than that? Life changing!

Another change that I thought was really interesting was during Restaurant Wars when the judges were split into two camps. 

Simmons: So we’ve split up many times, and it’s always complicated.

Colicchio: We used to split up for finales, and it was terrible. If you go back to the [New Orleans] season with Nina [Compton] and Nick [Elmi], that was a big point of contention.

Simmons: We could have two totally different experiences.  What has happened in the past when we’ve split up is that a dish in the menu is terrible on the first round, they see that it was bad for the judges, so they fix it for the other judges. But now we have two people who had a great dish and two people who had a bad dish. So how do you judge when we had two totally different experiences? And we have to pick one winner, but mine was legitimately good. And his was legitimately not. And so it becomes really, really complicated matters.

Colicchio: I understand why, but it’s so hard to judge. But it’s always good to try different things. A lot of stuff happens organically. Going back to the Chicago season, they would always tell us after we’re done eating, “Don’t discuss it. Save it for Judges Table.” But we’re always mic’d up. So there was a point where we did a block party. After the block party, we were sitting on a stoop, and we were talking about food. Somebody came by and said, “Save it for Judges Table!” We said, “No, get a camera and shoot this.” And they did. That became the pre-deliberation that we have on location. It became a thing. And it’s good! What it did is, it was really fresh. It seemed more organic. Plus, it cut off having to do that at Judges Table.

TOP CHEF -- "Goodbye, Wisconsin" Episode 2112 -- Pictured: (l-r) Kristen Kish, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
TOP CHEF -- "Goodbye, Wisconsin" Episode 2112 -- Pictured: (l-r) Kristen Kish, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

It feels like over the years like “Top Chef,” the judging criteria have evolved along with the show.

Colicchio: Mmm, no.

Simmons: Well, what do you mean by that?

It feels like the show is more diverse in the kinds of food it showcases and honors. 

Simmons: Challenge-wise, yes, but not necessarily our criteria.

I think you’re right, big picture-wise. But I think that’s only reflective of the evolution of food over the last 20 years. It’s like a chicken and egg situation. Did we start it? Or is that just the way that the world, thank goodness, has — think of what’s happened in the world, just in the restaurant world, over the last 20 years, right? There was a lot of disruption, not just COVID, but the #MeToo situation. The kind of breaking of what was, in a lot of places, a very toxic culture in the restaurant industry. The idea of a focus on diversity. We always actually had pretty good diversity on the show. But we’ve pushed it and pushed it and pushed it, because I think that’s much more reflective of how kitchens have done the same. I think it’s very aligned to the industry, and the direction that the whole industry has gone. But I’m really glad.

In some ways, we have, I think, spearheaded those changes. For example, this is a small thing. But from Season 1, Episode 1, we had a 50% male-to-female ratio in the show. Let me assure you, that was never — still is not — the ratio reflective of the real world. But we always did it. We’ve pushed diversity; that’s always been on our agenda. Because I think we’ve realized, naturally, that the evolution, the narrative of these chefs — it’s only interesting when they’re cooking authentically, and when they’re cooking the food that they love, whatever that is. So I think that that has been a big point, but it’s also very reflective of how our nation wants to eat now.

Colicchio: Also, I think a lot of that has to do with the feedback we’ve given the chefs over the years. So for instance, Nina. A lot of her training was in Italian restaurants, under Scott Conant, and she cooked wonderful Italian food. But when she cooked Caribbean food, that’s what we responded to. Like, “Wow, this is fantastic.” She got that kind of feedback. She’s like, “OK, this gives me permission to do that.”

Simmons: Same with Shirley [Chung]. Gregory [Gourdet].

Colicchio: But we can’t assume that, because Kristen is Korean, she’s gonna cook Korean food. I’ve seen that happen.

Just look to the New York Times. When I was coming up, 40 years ago, the only restaurants that got reviewed were French restaurants. Maybe an Italian restaurant. That was it. Then you start seeing New American cuisine. Now, everything’s available. So yes, I think the chefs are cooking more diverse food now. They know that we’re going to judge it evenly. But our judging hasn’t changed. I’m still looking at, “Is something seasoned?” I don’t care if it’s from Angola or Antarctica if something’s seasoned correctly.

Simmons: Sometimes I’ve heard, “Well, you don’t know that food. So how can you judge it fairly when it’s new to you?” And that is true. We never claim to be experts in everything. That’s the beauty of food, that every single dish we eat, we’ve never eaten before. And there’s still a million dishes and ingredients and types of food out there to discover and understand and learn about personally. But the actual understanding of technique — there’s a subjective side to judging food and an objective side. The objective side is, “Are the knife cuts done well? Is the cooking of the meat proper?”

Colicchio: Curry goat, for instance. I’ve had curry goat from chefs who aren’t very good. The meat’s tough. It’s not seasoned well. But I’ve had it from someone who actually knows how to braise his meat and it’s wonderful. Have I ever made curry goat? No. But technically, I know how it’s supposed to be cooked. And just because someone’s making curry goat doesn’t mean it’s all the same. A better cook will make a better dish. That’s how I look at it. Is it seasoned? Is it cooked correctly? Creativity is the last thing I look at, because it’s a little too subjective.

“Top Chef” has such a strong connection to the restaurant world. It’s obviously not the easiest time in the industry. Two of you, Kristen and Tom, are restaurant owners. What are your thoughts on the state of the restaurant industry right now? Do you see any path forward that makes it more sustainable?

Kish: I have one restaurant. Tom has many.

Colicchio: I have four!

Kish: Well, more than one. So I had to find what worked for and what was sustainable for me, right? Not only my time, what I could give to it. And for me, the idea of a restaurant within a hotel works. I find it beneficial. It’s got a lot of different things in play that make it more sustainable. I particularly like it. There was once a time where you look and you’re like, “Ugh, you have a hotel restaurant now?” I have a restaurant inside of a hotel. And for me, there’s a lot of different players that I find really beneficial. Sustainably speaking, having that built-in infrastructure, team, people to help me create my vision.

Colicchio: It’s a funny word, sustainability. Craft’s been open for 23 years. Gramercy Tavern, 30 years. If you look at some groups like the Boka Group out of Chicago, they have 30 restaurants. All have been pretty successful. My restaurant in L.A. closed because my lease was up and I didn’t want to be there anymore. It’s always been the case in restaurants, the first year survival rate’s like 10%. It’s always been a tough business. And you’re not making a lot of money.

I caution chefs, especially chefs who go on “Top Chef”: “Your life’s gonna change. You’re gonna get pulled a million directions.” And if you don’t have the infrastructure to actually have a team, so you can go and do the festivals, your restaurant’s gonna hurt. It doesn’t function by itself.

Kish: Stay in your restaurant. Give people a place to come find you.

Colicchio: When you’ve been running a restaurant for 15 years and you have a team built up, you have multiple restaurants, then you can go and it’s OK. But if you’re not set up to do that, if the restaurant is going to miss you, if you’re not going to be there, then you probably shouldn’t leave.

Growth is another challenge. For anyone looking to grow, I tell them, “The first thing you do is check your ego at the door.” If you think you’re the only one who can do it, then you’re the only one who does it. There’s a lot of reasons why restaurants are closing. But if you look at it, there are plenty of restaurants that are sustainable businesses. As many restaurants close, I bet you next year as many restaurants open. I think that there are operators that can navigate through this and some that don’t. A lot of the younger chefs that don’t have an infrastructure are gonna find it hard.

Simmons: Just go to Milwaukee!

Actually, that’s sort of a good outcome. Separately, I’m investing — my first time ever, by the way. I always said I’ll never open a restaurant, but if there was someone I really believed in, I would put my money where my mouth is. I’m doing that with a bakery, which does not feel like a financially sane proposition. But all to say, she was in New York for years and years, this woman, and I always wanted to support her, but it’s impossible.

She’s moving to Honolulu, opening in Honolulu. It’s the best thing ever. Because you can do it. There’s more sustainable safeguards there for her. And it’s a much better quality of life and cost of living. She’s serving the local community. I just think the opportunity is going to be moving out of these hubs, and that will up the game around the country. You know, there’s a silver lining.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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